In everyday speech, this quote is more commonly utilized as “discretion is the better part of valor.” Today, it is seen as a positive. It is thought to mean that it’s important to be cautious before rushing into something. But, it is entirely different within Shakespeare’s original context. It is used to help reveal the dishonor of one of his most popular characters.
Explore Discretion Is The Better Part Of Valor
Important Vocabulary to Known
- Discretion: showing discernment and good judgment. In the case of this quote, Falstaff shows discretion by not acting honorably.
- Valor: to show courage in the face of danger. Falstaff decides to not show courage in an effort to survive the battle in Henry IV Part 1.
“Discretion Is The Better Part Of Valor” Meaning
“Discretion Is The Better Part Of Valor” means that the best thing one can do is to show discernment in their courage. In the play, Falstaff decides to play dead rather than face up to the raging battle around him. He continues to act in regard to this quotation when he pretends to kill Hotspur (who is already dead) in order to win the praise of Prince Hal and his father, the king of England.
Where Does Shakespeare Use “The better part of valor is discretion?”
This quote can be found in William Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV Part 1. It appears in Act V, Scene 4, and is spoken by Sir John Falstaff, one of the most popular comedic characters in all of the Bard’s works (he appears in four separate plays). Here is the quote in context:
Emboweled? If thou embowel me today, I’ll
give you leave to powder me and eat me too
tomorrow. ’Sblood, ’twas time to counterfeit, or
that hot termagant Scot had paid me scot and lot
too. Counterfeit? I lie. I am no counterfeit. To die is
to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a
man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit
dying when a man thereby liveth is to be no
counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life
indeed. The better part of valor is discretion, in the
which better part I have saved my life. Zounds, I am
afraid of this gunpowder Percy, though he be dead.
How if he should counterfeit too, and rise? By my
faith, I am afraid he would prove the better counterfeit.
Therefore I’ll make him sure, yea, and I’ll swear
I killed him. Why may not he rise as well as I?
Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me.
Therefore, sirrah, stabbing him with a new wound
in your thigh, come you along with me.
Falstaff speaks these words towards the end of the play, after pretending to be dead. In a battle against the rebel leader, Hotspur, the future Henry V (known in this play as Prince Hal), sees his friend Falstaff fall to the ground. Hal kills the rebel leader and makes a speech that is on its own comedic and somewhat dismissive of his friend’s honor. But, when Hal walks away, Falstaff gets up.
Falstaff helps to represent the most important theme in this play – honor. He displays what a lack of honor would look like. In this case, he believes he saved his own life by pretending to be dead, a strikingly dishonorable act.
After, Hal places Hotspur’s body next to Falstaff’s (who is still playing dead). He gets up, once Hal has left and stabbed the rebel leader multiple times. Then, Falstaff carries the body back to the troops and brags about killing the man. Falstaff and Hal argue about how Hotspur died, with Falstaff claiming that Hal didn’t finish the job. Here are Hal’s lines after seeing that Falstaff (who Lancaster calls “this fat man”) isn’t dead:
I did; I saw him dead, Breathless and bleeding on the ground.—Art thou
Or is it fantasy that plays upon our eyesight?
I prithee, speak. We will not trust our eyes
Without our ears. Thou art not what thou seem’st.
Falstaff replies: “if I be not Jack Falstaff, then am I a jack. There / is Percy. If your father will do me any honor, so; if / not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be / either earl or duke, I can assure you.” Falstaff declares that he has killed Percy, or Hotspur, and wants something from Hal’s father, the current king of England. Hal replies, “Why, Percy I killed myself, and saw thee dead.”
Falstaff continues to argue with the prince, telling him that he was “down and out of / breath” when he saw him and that they both rose (he and Hotspur) and fought a “long hour by Shrewsbury clock.”
Why Did Shakespeare use “The better part of valor is discretion?”
Shakespeare used this well-known quote within a monologue spoken by one of his most popular comedic characters, Falstaff. The quote suggests that it is foolish to act heroically if it’s going to end up harming you in the end.
Before speaking this line, he pretends to be dead in order to avoid actually being harmed in a battle. After everyone has left, accepting Falstaff’s death on the battlefield, he gets up, pretends to kill the rebel leader Hotspur (who was truly defeated by Prince Hal), and then brings his body back to camp.
Falstaff uses the word “valor” again in the following lines:
[…] If I
may be believed, so; if not, let them that should
reward valor bear the sin upon their own heads. I’ll
take it upon my death, I gave him this wound in
the thigh. If the man were alive and would deny
it, zounds. I would make him eat a piece of my
He suggests that the Prince, and the King, would be acting dishonorably themselves if they did not reward him for his defeat of Hotspur. This comedic scene is telling of Falstaff’s regard for honor and honesty.
This quote originated and William Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV Part 1. It originally appeared as “the better part of valor is discretion” but is usually rearranged to fit more smoothly with everyday speech.
William Shakespeare used a variation of this line in one of his history plays. It is spoken by Falstaff, one of his most popular comedic characters (who appears in four different plays), when he is acting very dishonorably.
Discretion means to show good judgment or discernment. If one shows discretion, they are making good decisions, acting cautiously or thoughtfully about what to do next.
- Read: Henry IV Part 1 by William Shakespeare
- Watch: Henry IV Analysis
- Listen: William Shakespeare Henry IV, Part 1 – Full AudioBook