What Does Discretion Is the Better Part of Valor Mean?

It’s time to talk about William Shakespeare again! As you know from previous posts here at The Word Counter, although the playwright lived and wrote back in the 14th and 15th centuries, many of the common phrases we use today are actually quotes from his plays. That’s the case with the idiom and proverb discretion is the better part of valor. Read on to find out which of Shakespeare’s plays contains the expression—well, a version of it—and exactly what it means.

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What Does Discretion Is the Better Part of Valor Mean?

To understand the meaning of this saying, it’s vital to know the definitions of the words discretion and valor. In this case, these terms mean:

Discretion (noun): showing good or wise judgement

Valor (noun): strength of mind or spirit; personal bravery

Now knowing the definitions of these nouns, we can understand the meaning of the full phrase. Discretion is the better part of valor is used to say that it is better to be careful and cautious (to be discreet) than it is to act rashly and do something dangerous (in efforts to be brave). Of course, being cautious and being brave are both good qualities. And, not all acts of valor are inherently dangerous. But the phrase suggests that it’s generally best to be careful and not put yourself in situations that are hazardous or troubling, especially when they’re unnecessary and could be avoided by exercising discretion. Simply put: Air on the side of caution; don’t take needless risks. Or, to use another common phrase that is considered a synonym of discretion is the better part of valor, look before you leap.

Here are some example sentences using the idiomatic and proverbial expression discretion is the better part of valor:

  • I know you want to keep pushing yourself with your figure skating routine, Kim, and trying harder and harder jumps. But remember that discretion is the better part of valor. You’ve already accomplished so much, and I don’t want to see you get hurt. 
  • It’s so wonderful that you want to help your parents during this pandemic by going grocery shopping for them. But you also have underlying health risks, Harry. Let them get their items delivered, won’t you? As they say, discretion is the better part of valor. 
  • Discretion is the better part of valor, Mary. Sky diving may be fun, but it’s not something you have to do, and it’s dangerous. Please reconsider going with your friends.
  • When a coworker said something insulting to me today, I wanted to say something mean back, but I reminded myself that discretion is the better part of valor and kept quiet. After all, responding could have started a big argument or fight and gotten me in trouble with my boss.

The Origin of the Expression

This phrase comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, specifically from a line in Act V, Scene 4, which is spoken by Falstaff, the corrupt knight. Falstaff fakes his own death on the battlefield in order to survive an attack. But he doesn’t fake his death just to save his own life. He does so to falsely claim victory over the rebel leader Hotspur (who was actually killed by Prince Hal) and thus be bestowed with undeserved fame and glory by King Henry IV. After revealing he’s alive, Falstaff says:

“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 saved my life.”

Earlier versions of the text, of course, included less contemporary spellings. For example: “The better part of valour is discretion, in the which better part I haue saued my life.” 

As you can see, the order of words has changed a bit in today’s idiom. As you can also see, the dishonorable Falstaff didn’t exactly behave bravely. The scene is meant comically, though today, the idiom and proverb is used as a serious warning to not let courage outweigh good, sound judgement.

Understanding Idioms and Proverbs

Discretion is the better part of valor is considered both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is a figurative expression with an intended meaning that, at least typically, can’t be fully understood just by looking at the definitions of the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Discretion is the better part of valor is a bit different than other idioms, in that if you know the definitions of the words contained within the phrase, you can get the gist of its intended meaning. You may not, however, arrive at exactly how, and all of the ways in which, it is used today. Again, the expression is usually taken to mean that caution is better than rash bravery, and even that being careful is the best kind of courage, in a way.

This well-known expression is also thought of as a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Don’t judge a book by its cover. 

Learn the meanings of many more idioms and proverbs here.

Other Shakespearean Sayings

Shakespeare is also known for his plays Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, among many others. Countless common expressions used in modern English today come from the mind and work of Shakespeare, although you may not be aware that they do. Here are just a few other popular phrases to his credit:

Summary

Discretion is the better part of valor means that it is better to avoid a dangerous situation than to take it on or confront it. It advises being careful and cautious rather than trying to be brave and courageous in a potentially dangerous situation. It encourages avoiding unnecessary risks by asking the question, “Does the potential consequence or outcome outweigh the risk?” The proverb and idiom comes from a line in William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part 1.