Student Question

Which Shakespeare play features the quote "give the devil his due"?

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This phrase is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.

Henry IV, Part 1 is part of a series of history plays tracing the career of Prince Henry, also known as Prince Hal, who would eventually become England’s King Henry V.

The phrase “give the devil his due” comes up in a conversation between Prince Henry and his friend Poins. 


Sir John stands to his word, the devil shall have
his bargain; for he was never yet a breaker of
proverbs: he will give the devil his due.


Then art thou damned for keeping thy word with the devil.


Else he had been damned for cozening the devil. (Act 1, Scene 2) 

Basically, this phrase means that when you owe the devil, you should pay up.  Poins tells Henry that he shouldn’t keep his word with the devil, but Henry replies that you will be in more trouble for trying to trick the devil.  The joke actually begins with Poins’s comment that Henry sold his soul to the devil.

Even though things are fairly serious in England, Prince Hal does not appear to be taking anything seriously.  He is hanging out in a pub joking with his friends, not seeming interested in inheriting the troubles of his father, the king.  

In this scene he is planning practical jokes with his friends, but at the end of the scene he tells the audience in a soliloquy that he will not continue this way forever.  Soon the diversion will end, and he will reform. 

So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes …  (Act 1, Scene 2)

Despite how it might seem, Hal actually has potential as a king.  His men love him and he can certainly rouse the troupes.  Even a king’s son needs to let off steam once in awhile, but when the chips are down Henry plans to surprise them all.

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