Henry IV, Part 1

William Shakespeare

Act V, scenes iii–v

Summary Act V, scenes iii–v

News arrives that the Douglas has been captured. Harry, asking his father for permission to handle the case, commands that the Douglas be set free in recognition of his valor and integrity. Henry, realizing that there are still powerful rebels left alive, makes plans to deal with them: he will send John and Westmoreland to York to deal with Northumberland and the archbishop, who he knows are up in arms against him. Meanwhile, Prince Harry, he says, will come with him to Wales to deal with Mortimer and Owain Glyndwr.

Read a translation of Act V, scene v →

Analysis: Act V, scenes iii–v

These very short, very busy scenes, which show us the progress of the battle at Shrewsbury, represent the main climax toward which the earlier portions of the play have been building. Nearly all the factions have finally been brought together in a single compressed, action-packed battle—marked by frenetically paced entrances and exits and clashes in single combat.

Falstaff’s battlefield interpretation of honor in this final section of the play provides both amusement and food for thought. When he stumbles across the body of Sir Walter Blunt (slain, ironically, because he is thought to be King Henry), his immediate comment is: “Sir Walter Blunt. There’s honour for you. Here’s no vanity” (V.iii.32–33). His jab about “vanity” is ironic. Falstaff seems to be commenting sarcastically on the extreme vanity, or folly, of Blunt’s death—if “honor” is what has led to his lying cold on the ground, then “honor” seems utterly useless.

Falstaff’s thoughtful linking of honor with death and his preference for life are vividly illustrated in the next scene, when Falstaff seems to die and then return to life. In some respect, Falstaff enacts a bizarre and playful mockery of war and death: in addition to -carrying around a bottle of wine where his gun should be, he pretends to be killed honorably in battle, receives a eulogy from Harry, and then rises up, pretending that he has conquered a nobleman. Not even the danger of the field can stop him from punning. With his inimitable Falstaffian logic, he defends his own honor in these actions: “The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life” (V.iv.117–118). Falstaff’s views on honor, though they are unlike those of the noblemen fighting and dying on the battlefield, are oddly convincing—perhaps especially so because, unlike so many of the noblemen, Falstaff ends up alive.

Harry resolves two of his own important conflicts during this battle. First, he finally resolves the tension between himself and his father. When he rescues Henry from the attack of the Douglas, Henry’s response is complex but wholly approving. Not only is he proud of his warlike son, but he also seems to have been genuinely concerned that his son did not care about him (“Thou hast redeemed thy lost opinion, / And showed thou mak’st some tender of my life” [V.iv.47–48]). Harry responds in equally heartfelt terms—“O God, they did me too much injury / That ever said I hearkened for your death”—that further distinguish him from Hotspur; for while Hotspur seeks to overthrow Henry, Harry seeks to preserve him (V.iv.50–51).

Second, Harry finally confronts Hotspur, and the two engage in their long-anticipated duel. Harry’s commanding announcement when he faces Hotspur that “[t]wo stars keep not their motion in one sphere” shows his perception of them as rivals who cannot coexist (V.iv.64). While both men idealize valor, in the end, they seem to have somewhat different approaches to the question that Falstaff raises earlier about the relationship between honor and death. Even as he is dying, Hotspur mourns more for his glory than for his life: “I better brook the loss of brittle life / Than those proud titles thou hast won of me” (V.iv.77–78). But Harry, contemplating Hotspur’s corpse, brings forth a famous contemplation on the humility enforced by death: