Yea, there thou mak’st me sad and mak’st me sin
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son—
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,
Amongst a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride—
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him
See riot and dishonor stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
These lines, which King Henry speaks in the first scene of the play, set the stage for the conflict between Prince Harry and Hotspur. Henry describes the fame and fortune of young Hotspur (the son of “my Lord Northumberland”), calling him “the theme of honour’s tongue”; in comparison, he says, Prince Harry (“my young Harry”) has been sullied by “riot and dishonour.” He then refers to an old English folk superstition—one of the many references to folk culture and magic in the play—about fairies who switched young children at birth. Henry wishes that a fairy had switched Harry and Hotspur at birth, so that Hotspur were really his son and Harry the son of Northumberland. This quote is important for a number of reasons. It foreshadows the rivalry of Harry and Hotspur, and it helps establish Henry’s careworn, worried condition. Furthermore, it lets the audience know that Harry is generally considered a disappointment, and, by presenting both Harry and Hotspur as potential son figures for Henry, it inaugurates the motif of doubles in the play.
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Prince Harry addresses this monologue to Falstaff and his friends, even though they have just left the room, leaving Harry all alone. It is in this speech that Harry first reveals his deception. His idling with the Boar’s Head company is all an act, and when the need arises, he will cast off the act and reveal his true noble nature. Harry tells the departed Falstaff that he “will a while uphold / The unyoked humour of your idleness,” but that, just as the sun permits itself to be covered by clouds so that the people who miss its light will be all the happier when it reappears, he too will eventually emerge from the cloud cover of his lower-class friends. Harry says that people quickly grow used to and tire of anything that is familiar: if every day were a holiday, he says, then holidays would seem as tiresome as work, because “nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.”
Therefore, Harry concludes that by earning the people’s disapproval with his current behavior, he sets himself up to appear all the more glorious when he finally decides to earn their approval, since they will not take his high merit for granted. This quote is extremely important to the play, because it establishes the dramatic irony of Harry’s character, known to no one but the audience and the prince himself. It also exposes the complexities and ambiguities of Harry’s mind, showing an apparently virtuous young man who can manipulate and lie to others to achieve his somewhat selfish, albeit important, goals.
When I was dry with rage and extreme toil,
. . .
Came there a certain lord, neat and trimly dressed,
Fresh as a bridegroom, and his chin, new-reaped
Showed like a stubble-land at harvest-home.
He was perfumèd like a milliner,
. . .
With many holiday and lady terms
He questioned me; amongst the rest demanded
My prisoners in your majesty’s behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold —
To be so pestered with a popinjay! —
Out of my grief and my impatience
Answered neglectingly, I know not what —
He should, or should not — for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk, and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting gentlewoman
. . .
So cowardly, and but for these vile guns
He would himself have been a soldier.
Hotspur gives this speech to Henry to explain why he did not release a group of prisoners when ordered to do so by Henry’s messenger. (The conflict over this group of prisoners is what precipitates the Percys’ break from Henry in Act I.) Hotspur says that this messenger confronted him immediately after a pitched battle and that the man was so simpering and effeminate that it disgusted him. The speech is important because of the early insight it offers into Hotspur’s character. He is a soldier through and through and has no patience for weakness, fashion, cowardice, manners, or the niceties of courtly behavior. It is highly ironic that Hotspur’s speech about the messenger is so long and elaborate, because Hotspur takes such pains to portray himself as a man of action rather than words. Hotspur’s description of his encounter with this man, on the other hand, is remarkably vivid and eloquent. Shakespeare achieves much through Hotspur’s detailed account of the “neat and trimly dressed” courtier, who talks in “holiday and lady terms” and reminds Hotspur of a “popinjay” and a “waiting gentlewoman.” Hotspur’s disgust reaches its height when the courtier says that he too would have become a soldier “but for these vile guns.” Thus, Shakespeare creates an amusing and believable character, the courtier, who never appears onstage, and also firmly establishes Hotspur’s aggressive, masculine nature.
Falstaff: But to say I know more harm in him than in myself were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it. But that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff,
Banish not him thy Harry’s company,
Banish not him thy Harry’s company.
Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
Prince: I do; I will.
This exchange occurs during Harry and Falstaff’s game of role--playing, as Falstaff pretends to be Harry so that Harry can prepare for his upcoming meeting with his father. Falstaff uses his time in the role of King Henry mainly to praise himself, urging Harry to keep Falstaff near him—something that the real king would never do, but certainly in keeping with Falstaff’s character. Playing Harry, Falstaff lists his own faults, and then excuses each of them—“If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and merry be a sin, then many and old host that I know is damned”—and then, improbably, begins to list his own supposed virtues, calling himself “sweet,” “kind,” “true,” and “valiant.” Falstaff is not sweet, kind, true, or valiant, but his constant claims to be these things are part of what makes him endearing. In any case, this speech is important because it lets us in on some of the complexities of Harry and Falstaff’s relationship. Falstaff understands that he is undesirable company for Harry and worries that Harry will one day break his ties with him. So, in the role of King Henry, Falstaff urges Harry not to do so. Harry’s icy reply, “I do; I will,” foreshadows the moment of the actual break in the next play, 2 Henry IV.
Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.
Falstaff delivers this diatribe against honor during the battle at Shrewsbury, just before the climax of the play. Linking honor to violence, Falstaff, who is about to go into battle, says that honor “pricks him on” to fight, meaning that honor motivates him; he then asks what he will do if honor “pricks him off,” that is, kills or injures him. He says that honor is useless when one is wounded: it cannot set an arm or a leg, or take away the “grief of a wound,” and it has “no skill in surgery.” In fact, being merely a word, honor is nothing but thin air—that is, the breath that one exhales in saying a word. He says that the only people who have honor are the dead, and it does them no good, for they cannot feel or hear it. Furthermore, honor doesn’t “live with the living” because honor is gained through death. Falstaff therefore concludes that honor is worthless, “a mere scutcheon,” and that he wants nothing to do with it. In a play obsessed with the idea of honor, this speech comes out of nowhere to call into question the entire set of moral values on which most of the characters base their lives. It is one of the remarkable aspects of Falstaff’s character that he is able to live so far outside the normal mores and expectations of his society; this speech epitomizes Falstaff’s independent streak.
I think it should have been called Sir Jack, First Part, as Falstaff towers over everybody else in King Henry IV, Part 1. See my blog on the play:
Most Shakespeare plays have a jester, who is able to perceive certain things better than the "noble" person. There are other elements that make Falstaff more interesting, such as the juxtaposition of "fortune," class, or perhaps simply initiative.