“WHAT IS HONOUR? A WORD”

Eduard Von Grutzner Falstaff 1896

The affections lead us on says Wordsworth. So does language. This is what Falstaff is resisting in connection with the word “honour” . He has landed himself in a battle but, no soldier, he does not want to fight:

..honour pricks me on. Yea but what 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? Air-a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a 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.

William Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1 1597

(NB “scutcheon” painted shield with coat of arms identifying a dead nobleman. (“Henry iv P1 Signet Classics 1963) )

For Falstaff what comes first is self-preservation. The language of honour, of military and heroic ambition means nothing. Honour is mere air. A word. The speech is a marvellous piece of deflation. In the play we have a character who lives by honour. Hotspur is genuinely heroic, he believes in honour; but he drives himself impetuously on the word to the point of madness. He is made use of by others who encourage him into a risky rebellion. Behind “honour” we still need reason. Falstaff uses reason in this speech to safeguard self; Hotspur in holding to the inspiration of the word avoids thinking.

Nevertheless we do despite Falstaff and notwithstanding Hotspur live on the inspiration of words. They are not mere air. Or if they are air they are the air that stirs us into life. “Honour” is still a great word involving our essential self-respect. So is the closely connected word “troth”.

“And thereto I give thee my troth” are the words of commitment in Cranmer’s great marriage service.

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