In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I when Prince Hal finds the cowardly Falstaff pretending to be dead on the battlefield, the prince assumes he has been killed. After the prince leaves the stage, Falstaff rationalizes “The better part of Valour, is Discretion; in the which better part, I haue saued my life” (spelling and punctuation from the First Folio, Act 5, Scene 3, lines 3085–3086).
Falstaff is saying that the best part of courage is caution, which we are to take as a joke. Truly courageous people may be cautious, but caution is not the most important characteristic of courage.
This passage is loosely alluded to in the saying “discretion is the better part of valor,” which is usually taken to mean that caution is better than rash courage or that discretion is the best kind of courage. Only Shakespeare scholars are likely to be annoyed by this usage.
However, those who take “discretion” in this context to mean the quality of being discreet—cautiously quiet—are more likely to annoy their readers.
Much more of a problem are misspellings like “descretion,” “disgression,” “digression,” and “desecration.” Unless you are deliberately punning, stick with “discretion.”
- Common Error
Falstaff:Henry The Fourth, Part 1 Act 5, scene 4, 115–121
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 sav'd my life.
Almost invariably quoted today as "Discretion is the better part of valor," Falstaff's phrase elegantly redeems a cowardly act. The bragging, bulbous knight has just risen from his feigned death; he had played the corpse in order to escape real death at the hands of a Scotsman hostile to Henry IV. Claiming that abstractions like "honor" and "valor" will get you nothing once you're dead, Falstaff excuses his counterfeiting as the kind of "discretion" that keeps a man from foolishly running into swords in order to cultivate a reputation for heroism. If counterfeiting keeps you alive, well then, it's not counterfeiting, but an authentic "image of life." Falstaff confuses "image" with "reality," but we forgive him; as far as he's concerned, "valor" is an image too, and you've got to stay alive in order to find more opportunities to cultivate that image.
Themes: honor and honesty
This eText is now on Owl Eyes. Clicking this link will open a new window.