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A man can die but once

“A man can die but once” appears in William Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV Part 2. It is used in Act III, Scene 2.

The quote is spoken by Francis Feeble, a countryman who is drafted into the King’s army. Unlike many of the best-known Shakespearean quotes, this one requires little interpretation. The speaker means what he says. He states that a human being can only die once, but, as the following lines add, each person owes a death to God. No one can escape their fate.

Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2 was written sometime between 1596 and 1599. It is considered to be part of a tetralogy of history plays which include Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1. It is followed by Henry V. The play begins where its predecessor, Henry IV Part 1, left off. That is, focusing on Prince Hal’s progression towards his future role as King of England and his growing split with Falstaff (one of the most popular characters in Shakespeare’s history plays). The two characters only share two moments together, something that sets the play apart from Henry IV Part 1. 

"A man can die but once" meaning


“A man can die but once” Meaning

The quote “a man can die but once” is a direct and simple reference to the nature of fate and a single person’s life. The speaker says that man can only die once and that each person owes a death to God. There is no way to escape this fate. So, the speaker declares, he is going to accept his death whether it comes today or tomorrow, or years into the future. It’s for these reasons that he does not bribe his way out of serving in the army. 

Interestingly, the speaker is a common countryman, Francis Feeble. Despite his “feeble” physical appearance, he shows more moral backbone than the majority of characters within the Henry IV plays.

Where Did Shakespeare Use “A man can die but once?” 

William Shakespeare uses the quote “a man can die but once” in his history play Henry IV Part 2. It appears in Act III, Scene 2, and is spoken by Francis Feeble. He is a simple countryman who is drafted into the army. Throughout his small part in the play, he proves himself to be honest and loyal. He’s willing to go to battle, despite the fact that (through immoral means) he might get out of it. Here is the line in context

By my troth, I care not. A man can die but 

once. We owe God a death. I’ll ne’er bear a base 

mind. An ’t be my destiny, so; an ’t be not, so. No

man’s too good to serve ’s prince, and let it go 

which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for 

the next.

Here, Feeble is saying that it’s only possible to die once and that every person on earth owes God their death. He adds that he is not going to do anything immoral to escape his fate. If it’s his destiny to die, so he will. If not, he won’t. No man, including himself and the characters he is speaking to (Bardolph, Mouldy, and Bulchalf), are too good to serve their King and country. The lines follow these spoken by Mouldy (who is bribing his way out of service):

And, good Master Corporal Captain, for my 

old dame’s sake, stand my friend. She has nobody to 

do anything about her when I am gone, and she is 

old and cannot help herself. You shall have forty, 

sir.

After this exchange, Falstaff agrees to the bribes and Justice Shallow confronts him about his choice of men, seeing that the ones who are going to war do not seem physically suited for battle. 

Why Did Shakespeare Use “A man can die but once?” 

William Shakespeare used this quote as a way of proving that not all of the characters are willing to succumb to immoral means to preserve their own lives. Within this scene, several country recruits, including Bullcalf and Mouldy, bribe Bardolph to get out of service to their country. Falstaff, who is helping to choose the men who are to serve the King’s army, agrees to this proposition and lets them go. 

Francis Feeble is one of the most seemingly moral and righteous figures in this scene. He refuses to bribe his way out of service, despite the dangers of being a part of the army. Rather, he says that all men have to die and if it’s his fate to die in battle, so be it. He isn’t going to try to escape his destiny

FAQs

Who says, “A man can die but once?”

William Shakespeare wrote this quote to include in Francis Feeble’s short speech in Act III, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part 2, one of his several history plays. The character was inspired to use this line and those that follow when discussing how he’s willing to confront his destiny no matter what it is.

Where does Shakespeare use “A man can die but once?”

William Shakespeare uses this quote in Henry IV Part 2. It appears in Act III, Scene 2 and is spoken by a simple countryman who is conscripted into the army. It is the only quote of importance that is used by this character.

What does “a man can die but once” mean?

This quote means what it directly implies–human beings can only die one time. It is part of a larger quote that speaks on the nature of destiny and fate. The speaker uses this line to begin a short passage about how he’s not going to try to avoid either.


Other Quotes from the Henry IV Plays

  • Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” – a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part 2. It is spoken by King Henry IV himself as he contemplates his responsibilities to his country and people. 
  • Discretion is the better part of valor”  – a well-known quote from William Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV Part 1. It is spoken by Falstaff and suggests that the best thing one can do is to show discernment in their courage.


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