[H]onour pricks me on . . . Therefore I’ll none of it.
Honour is a mere scutcheon.
In their camp at Shrewsbury, Henry and Harry watch the sun rise, red and dim, on the morning of the all-important battle. Worcester and Vernon arrive as messengers from the rebel camp, and Henry addresses Worcester, asking if he is willing to avoid the conflict, which will inevitably be destructive, and make peace. Worcester says that he would have avoided the conflict if he could have but that Henry’s behavior has made doing so impossible. He takes up Hotspur’s accusations to Blunt in Act IV, scene iii, reminding Henry that the Percy family gave him assistance when Henry was still the underdog and that, without their help, Henry never could have overthrown Richard II. He says that Henry has become so forgetful of his debts and so hostile toward the Percys lately that the family feels that it has no choice but to flee from court and raise an army to bring about justice.
Henry dismisses these charges as mere excuses, declaring that those who are discontented for small and petty reasons and who are driven by the lust for power can always find some reason to try to overthrow those currently in power. Harry then offers a solution: he bids Worcester tell Hotspur that, since the whole world knows what a valiant knight Hotspur is, Harry himself will meet Hotspur in single combat to decide the conflict. This way, he proposes, the many men who would die in a full-fledged battle will be spared.
Worcester departs, and Harry and Henry agree that the rebels probably will not accept the offer—Hotspur and the Douglas are both too confident of their chances in pitched battle. Henry departs to prepare his troops, and Harry and Falstaff say their last goodbyes before the fight. After Harry leaves, Falstaff muses about the worthlessness of honor, suggesting that only dead men can keep it—although they get no benefit from it—while the living are forced to suffer on honor’s behalf.
In the rebel camp in Shrewsbury, Worcester has decided not to tell Hotspur about Henry’s respectful offer of amnesty or Harry’s challenge to single combat. Worcester is afraid that Hotspur would accept the offer of peace, which he does not want: Worcester is sure that if a truce were made and the Percys returned to living under Henry’s rule, he and Northumberland would never be left in peace. Even if Henry forgave Hotspur because of his youth, Worcester reasons, he and Northumberland would always be watched, and no matter what they did, they would eventually be accused of treachery. Worcester thus selfishly decides to keep the recent offers secret.
Worcester lies to Hotspur, telling him that Henry insulted the Percys and mocked their grievances. The rash Hotspur immediately sends off a challenge via a messenger, demanding that Henry meet the Percys on the battlefield. Only then does Worcester tell him about Harry’s offer to meet him in single combat, and Hotspur declares that he will seek Harry out on the battlefield and engage him one on one. A messenger arrives with urgent letters for Hotspur, but Hotspur, impetuous as ever, decides that he does not have time to read them. He and the other leaders withdraw to prepare their troops for battle.
The confrontation between Worcester and King Henry in Act V, scene i almost duplicates the one in Act IV, scene iii, in which Hotspur accuses Blunt in similar terms. Worcester’s speech and Henry’s reply help to remind us of the ambiguity that surrounds all the political motivations in the play: Worcester offers a formidable list of justifications for the Percys’ rising against Henry, citing the king’s “unkind usage, dangerous countenance, / And violation of all faith and troth” (V.i.69–70). In a rebuke loaded with disdainful sarcasm, Henry points out that “never yet did insurrection want / Such water-colours to impaint his cause”—that is, insurrections always find a way to color their cause as the righteous one (V.i.79–80). It remains ambiguous whether Henry is right, or if the Percys are justified in their complaints. As usual, Shakespeare refuses to offer us a simple answer.
In Act V, scene i, Harry appears onstage manifesting his kingly nature for the first time since his memorable vow of redemption in Act III, scene ii. In both acknowledging his former follies—“I may speak it to my shame, / I have a truant been to chivalry”—and in offering, in highly respectful terms, to meet Hotspur in single combat, Harry demonstrates that he has indeed matured into a man fit to lead (V.i.93–94). It is clear that the “noble deeds” and fine qualities that Harry praises in Hotspur are those that he himself aims to attain (V.i.92).
Falstaff’s monologue on honor at the end of Act V, scene i offers key insight into his character. Falstaff seems to be trying to undermine the very standards that the noble contenders hold so dear: in this famous speech, he weighs the emptiness of the proud word “honor” against the losses its pursuit can bring. He says that “honour pricks me on,” parroting the party line; but he then discredits it, complaining, “[y]ea, but how if honour prick me off [kills me] when I come on? How then?” (V.i.129–130). Honor, he muses, cannot replace or heal a lost or wounded limb. It is of no use to the living, and the dead cannot use it either. He concludes that “Honor is a mere scutcheon”—a heraldic device used at funerals, nothing more than a flimsy decoration for the coffins of the dead (V.i.138). Falstaff’s worldly and philosophical logic throws a harsh light on the values that drive the nobility into a battle certain to leave thousands dead.
In Act V, scene ii, Worcester reveals himself to be quite a -manipulator. His decision to conceal Harry’s and Henry’s offers-from Hotspur in order to protect his own future welfare comes as a -surprise. His reference to his nephew as “hare-brained Hotspur, govern’d by a spleen [a hot temper]” also reveals Worcester’s awareness of Hotspur’s dispositional and intellectual limitations (V.ii.19). He has read Hotspur perfectly, for Hotspur sends a challenge to Henry the moment he hears about the alleged slurs against his family. With his usual haste, Hotspur is taken in by Worcester’s words and, fulfilling the king’s prediction in Act V, scene i, commits his army to a bloody war for which it may not be ready.