Free Henry IV Essays: The Character of Falstaff

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The Character of Falstaff in Henry IV  

 

The character of Falstaff, in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV Part One, serves as an emblem of frivolity and carelessness within a world filled with social and political significance. Falstaff scorns the world of politics and moral decisions in favor of existing from moment to moment. Though he dislikes this "other world", Falstaff realizes he must sometimes come in contact with it. Falstaff’s famous speech in lines 127-139 of Act V shows us how he regards the Prince’s world of honor and duty. Through this speech, Falstaff places himself firmly out of any moral world concerned with justice or honor, instead living for no other reason than life itself.

Falstaff’s speech comes after the King and Prince Hal decide to war against the army of Hotspur. Though they wait on word from Worcester, the probability of conflict seems high. Falstaff knows that when the battle comes, he is going to be in the middle of it. Shortly before his speech on the nature of honor, Falstaff shows fear that he might be hurt. In lines 121-2 Falstaff asks Hal to protect him if he should fall during battle. The Prince’s rejection of the request shows his scorn for Falstaff’s desire to passively preserve only his own life. Throughout the last half of the play, as the Prince drifts away from Falstaff, Falstaff’s role in the action of the play as a whole diminishes. The importance placed upon the idea of honor allows Hal to assume his rightful position beside the King, while Falstaff dims into the background.

Falstaff’s idea of honor is directly linked to his sense of time itself. In the opening lines of his speech, Falstaff says,"‘Tis not due yet: I would be loath to pay him before his day." (L. 127-8) In this example, God is being related by Falstaff to someone who has set a schedule determining the time and place of everyone’s death. For Falstaff, one’s role in life is not to stray from the path created by that higher Power. The notion of honor, as he later describes in this speech, is a belief through which one can transgress that natural order. He says,"Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on?" (L. 130) In order for one to gain honor, one must risk one’s life. This type of gambling is not for Falstaff, as he decides that his own life is more important than,"A word.

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" (L. 133)

Falstaff’s desire to save his own life places him firmly within the physical world. His speech deals with the ways a timelessly ephemeral notion such as honor can affect the physical world. Falstaff says,"Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief from a wound? No." (L. 131-2) At the same time as Hal is placing himself within the world of timeless history through his valiant deeds, Falstaff contemplates the physical harm which could befall him. His line of thought addresses Hal as someone who seeks rewards which are unattainable. To Falstaff, the desire for honor, which has started countless wars and caused innumerable deaths, is no more than a fairy tale. Falstaff is connected to the tangible world of eating, merriment, and physicality to such an extent as to devalue the quest for timeless justice through honorable actions. By fearing physical harm, Falstaff bars his own access into the realm of personal strength and heroically timeless deeds.

 


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