Henry IV, Part 1

by: William Shakespeare

Important Quotations Explained

5
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.
         (V.i.129–139)

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.