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The Many Faces of Honor
by Grace Thompson © 2005


Shakespeare depicts honor as the main theme in his plays King Henry IV, Part I and Hamlet. Different symbols of honor are portrayed through the characters Prince Harry, Hotspur, Hamlet, and Laertes. Various conflicting situations arise in the constant struggle to obtain power and control, rather than true leadership and loyalty. Family loyalty is the primary source of madness and betrayal that evolves into battle. These major characters become obsessed with honor, but each individual views the concept of honor differently; therefore, the true meaning of honor is yet to be discovered. A deeper analysis shows that man's struggle to prove his honor is the greatest journey to self-discovery and includes viewing opposing sides of human nature. Shakespeare reveals the many faces of honor through these four characters.

Shakespeare delivers a clever sense of honor in the character, Harry, Prince of Wales, who remains the protagonist in the play. Harry battles with his own identity after his father, King Henry IV, confronts him about the foolish lifestyle he leads. Harry has become accustomed to hanging out with drunks and criminals. He seeks his goals by manipulating and tricking his friends. He has the public believing he is a certain way, but he really isn’t like that at all. Harry proclaims,

“And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
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 glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes...
Redeeming time when men think least I will....” (I. ii. 9).

He enjoys maintaining power over them and is rather comical and light-hearted in nature. He wants to catch everyone off guard, so they will be highly impressed with his ability to step up and be a noble king. He disguises his true feelings about honor through deceptive practices and lies to everyone, including his father. He takes pleasure in manipulating situations at hand and he milks his friends for all they are worth. He comes off as very deceiving towards his friends, yet seeks education in their ways. He knows someday this knowledge of criminals will be an asset when he becomes king.

On the other hand, Harry takes his father’s words to heart and vows to prove his loyalty and transform into a noble leader. Harry associates honor with noble behavior, but doesn’t portray this quality until he feels the time is right. He is actually very intelligent in his ability to switch his character to high and low through proper language when he is around the King, then converting his language to slang around his pals. His father, King Henry IV, does not realize how intelligent his son really is; he finds Harry’s ways unsuitable for kingship. King Henry favors Hotspur, a member of the powerful Percy family of the North, as king, due to his swift actions and decision making qualities. Harry is aware of Hotspur’s strong leadership qualities and strives to surpass him and redeem his father’s affections. He proclaims, “And God forgive them that so much have sway's / Your majesty’s good thoughts away from me! / I will redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son;” (III. ii. 53). Harry can not stand the comparison to Hotspur; therefore, he comes clean about his past, accepts responsibility for his actions and commits to reform his ways. Hotspur remains the antagonist in the play, and forces Harry to compete for the glory he feels he deserves. Harry declares, “ The long-grown wounds of my intemperance: / If not, the end of life cancels all bands; / And I will die a hundred thousand deaths / Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow...” (III. ii. 53). Harry realizes that the time for battle has come and he is desperate to maintain his dignity. Harry wants the world to know how magnificent he is but does not manage to portray his nobility honestly. Shakespeare portrays Harry as deceitful yet heroic in his final combat with his archrival Hotspur. The two different lifestyles of Harry show how determined one can be when one’s honor is at stake. Harry becomes a dynamic character that is true to his word.

In contrast to Harry, Hotspur views honor as action. He believes honor is victory in battle--put up or shut up. Hotspur helped bring King Henry IV to power and he feels the King owes him; therefore, bitter feelings arise between the Percy family and King Henry’s family. His real name is Henry Percy, but he has been labeled Hotspur due to his tooth and nail battles and swift deeds. His hot-headedness and impatience gets the better of him, and clouds his ability to rationalize the situation. Hotspur declares, “The powers of us may serve so great a day. / Come, let us take a muster speedily: / Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily. (IV. ii. 64). This impulsive behavior proves how immature Hotspur really is. He does not think about the consequences of his actions; therefore, the price of honor is his life. His need for glory on the battlefield surpasses the true meaning of honor; however, he feels he has to save face and protect the family name. Caught between loyalty and honor, there is no contest, he wants bloodshed! Ironically, Hotspur’s best trait, his fearlessness and quick temper, is his greatest weakness, which keeps him from surviving to become king.

On the contrary, Harry’s calculated sense of control thickens the plot and adds to his complex character, thus leading him to become a phenomenal leader of his time. The irresponsible behavior that Harry portrays seems to be an escape from the responsibilities he will face when he is king one day. His unique way of separating himself from reality gives him the insight he needs to rebuild what he feels was never lost--honor. Harry proves he is not a coward, and shows his father he is true to his word when he defends him against Douglas, a rival who sides with the Percy family. King Henry IV proclaims, “Thou hast redeem’d thy lost opinion, / And show’d thou makest some tender of my life, / In this fair rescue thou hast brought to me” (V. IV. 81). Harry realizes his emotional struggle with honor is over, and he wants to reveal to everyone that he has transformed into a noble leader. Harry’s apprehension guides him in his search for justice. Throughout this family crusade, Shakespeare sets the stage for Harry to discover his true identity in his quest for honor; however, Hotspur leaves one wondering what true leadership is made of.

In view of opposing sides of human nature, Hamlet also struggles with his inner self. He is grief-stricken by his father’s death and when he is faced with the truth; this tragic fate unleashes many unresolved feelings of madness. His friends see a ghostly figure throughout the beginning of the play, and notice how it resembles Hamlet’s dead father. Hamlet finally sees the ghost and speaks to him. He discovers the ghost is his father who seeks justice. His father enlightens Hamlet of the unlawful murder that his uncle, Claudius, who is now king, committed against him, and he wants vengeance. Hamlet is infuriated by the truth, and sets out to honor his father’s wishes. He despises his mother and uncle for their incestuous relationship. Hamlet confesses, “ O most pernicious woman! / O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! / My tables-meet it is I set it down / That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. / At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.”(I. v. 105-9). Family loyalty is also at stake here, and Hamlet manipulates those around him to reveal the truth. This mad behavior makes Claudius and his people spy on Hamlet; however, Hamlet is competent in his goal, and tortures Claudius slowly by provoking him in subtle ways.

In comparison to Harry, he ponders on his thoughts, and is confident he will honor his father’s wishes and expose Claudius for the villain he really is. Confused and uneasy about the ghost, he second guesses who the ghost really represents, but deep down Hamlet knows there was foul play, he confesses “My father’s spirit-in arms? All is not well. / I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come! / Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes....”(I. ii. 255-258). Hamlet has to face his insecurities and defend his father’s honor. Though Hamlet makes plans to kill the king he is very indecisive in his acts. He procrastinates because he fears death. He sees death as judgment day: heaven or hell. He has a conscience, which operates on reason and keeps him from acting on impulse. He is very critical of himself and refers to himself as a coward. He searches the depths of his soul to find his identity:

"To be, or not to be-that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
Or take arms against a sea of troubles...
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." (III. i. 56-83)

Hamlet dallies in his purposes until the occasion is lost, then goes back into thoughtlessness again. His pathological grief devours his ability to maintain leadership. Shakespeare depicts a tragic hero who desires honor and loyalty, but can not take vengeance into his own hands. His Christian teachings interfere with his loyalty and ultimately lead to his death. It isn’t until the end that Hamlet finally discovers his love, Ophelia, has died. This loss strikes a tinge of honor and Hamlet finally steps up to battle. He pulls himself together quickly in battle and dies with dignity for the sake of family honor and love.

In contrast, Laertes resembles Hotspur, due to his impulsive nature and regard for family loyalty. Laertes is enraged by news of the deaths of his father Polonius and his sister Ophelia. In his state of rage he wants to kill Hamlet. Laertes is confused between his loyalty to the king and his own conscience. This constant hunger for family honor only degrades the real meaning of honor. The irony of the play is that Hamlet and Laertes are both fighting for family justice, yet remain confused by the political aspects surrounding them. Laertes is rather hasty in his actions, similar to Hotspur. Hamlet, similar to Harry, is more conscientious in his thought process, which dramatically leads him to his death, but he dies with honor in the end. They are all ambitious in their fight towards honor versus loyalty. Laertes admits “Whose motive in this case should stir me most / To my revenge. But in my terms of honor / I stand aloof and will no reconcilement / Till by some elder master of known honor / I have a voice and precedent of peace / To keep my name ungored...” (V.ii. 234-239). Laertes and Hamlet do not understand each other’s motives and Cornelius relies on their relentless will to avenge their families.

Laertes is the model of vengeance that acts promptly and pays no mind to the consequences of his actions:

"Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
Let come what comes; only I’ll be reveng’d
Most throughly for my father." (132-136)

Laertes and King Claudius conspire to kill Hamlet. Laertes wants to battle Hamlet at any price; however, this rebellious state of mind darkens his ability to view the mastermind behind the scene--Claudius. Laertes and Hamlet speak before their dual and Hamlet begs for pardon in his wrongful doings. Laertes says he holds no grudges on a personal level, but his reputation is at stake. It appears that Laerte’s ego is larger than his honor. The unwholesome acts that proceed the King’s plot against Hamlet, not only result in Hamlet‘s death, but backfire into his own death and that of his loved ones. The truth explodes and Laertes is finally affected by his own conscience and is able to salvage himself through his confession to Hamlet prior to his death. Shakespeare leads the journey towards self-discovery in each character’s perception of honor.

All the characters display honesty, deception, and passion toward their journey to finding themselves, even when faced with death. Shakespeare leaves the audience questioning the true meaning of honor. Each character has a dream of how loyalty should be won. It isn’t until the end that each one realizes his place in life. This deep obsession leads to many deaths. In the end honor is really bigger than the characters. Honor is the root of all evil because it is merely a substitute of one’s personality and morality. On a deeper analysis, man’s fight for truth, honor, and power is ultimately the greatest source of individuality. The abolition of evil is won, and the re-establishment of sovereignty prevails. Shakespeare reveals the true faces of loyalty to one’s family, but the real face of honor lies within.

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