What is the meaning of Falstaff's motto "the better part of valor is discretion"?

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enotes | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In the penultimate scene of the play (V, v.) Falstaff utters famous dictum that "The better part of valor is discretion." In its immediate context, the phrase is plainly comical, intended as a self-serving rationale for Falstaff's cowardice in the face of danger. On another level, however, there is an ironic but serious truth to his phrase. In Hotspur we have a stellar example of valor unaccompanied by discretion. Indeed, it is a lack of discretion that causes Hotspur to rebel against his king, take the field of battle against insurmountable odds, and die at the hands of Hal, an emergent king who combines courage with patience.