The better part of valor is discretion
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.