Discretion is the better part of valour
What's the meaning of the phrase 'Discretion is the better part of valour'?
What's the origin of the phrase 'Discretion is the better part of valour'?
Shakespeare wrote this line for Sir John Falstaff, in Henry IV, Part One, 1596:
Falstaff: 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 valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.
As you can see, Shakespeare wrote the line as 'the better part of valor is discretion', the reverse form to the expression as we now use it, but the meaning is the same.
What Falstaff is saying is, essentially, it's better to run away than to die a noble death. It's significant that this expression was given to Falstaff - and this is choice connects to the name Falstaff itself.
Why call him Falstaff?
Shakespeare used the name Sir John Oldcastle for Falstaff's character in the first version of Henry IV, Part 1. He changed the name to Sir John Falstaff in later versions, possibly because influential descendants of the real-life Oldcastle protested. Falstaff appears to be a variant of the name Sir John Fastolf, who was a knight in Henry VI, Part 1. Again, there was a real Sir John Fastolf - a soldier with a reputation as a coward.
In the section of the play that contains 'discretion is the better part of valour' Falstaff is at pains to make it clear that he is not counterfeit, which a Tudor audience would have understood to mean not deceitful or sham. Of course, that's just what Falstaff is and Shakespeare emphasizes that point by making him 'protest too much'.
Shakespeare used Falstaff in four plays and is an archetype of the old English yeoman. He portrayed Falstaff as having both noble and degenerate parts to his nature, suggesting the parallel with the character of the England as a nation. The first half of the name, Sir John, portrays the staunch English nobleman. The second half, False-staff, is the false, that is, counterfeit, soldier.
See other - phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.
See also: the List of Proverbs.