Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Selfish Compassion: Freedom in Henry IV

To be free or not to be free, that is the question posed in Shakespeare's play Henry IV. In this iconic history, two types of freedoms are presented. The characters must choose between freedom and pay the consequences, or be in bondage and continue the life they were living. Every character yearned to be free from something, yet each freedom came with a price. What were the character's in Henry IV willing to pay to gain their freedom and control over themselves?

Though uneasy to see, Falstaff was a nobleman. Most noblemen at that time period had responsibilities and duties to carry out for the royal court, yet Falstaff didn't and almost refused to do so. Instead he was a drunk, thief, a liar, and any other type of person a nobleman should not be. He wanted to escape from his responsibilities and the pressures society had on him. Prince Hal describes Falstaff's nature by saying "thou art fat-witted with drinking of old sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst know." (Shakespeare 13) Hal accuses Falstaff as being a lazy, fat, drunk that cannot take enough initiative or time to actually achieve what he wants. Falstaff however, responds with an uncaring attitude, portraying that he has already achieved his freedom from his responsibilities. He payed the price, which was to act as a lowlife, thief, who had no substance, which incidentally worked out for Falstaff in the long run. His heedless attention to responsibilities turned out for the better for him in the end. He did not have the same pressures to gain honor or die for the men around him. He says, "the better part of valor is discretion, in which better part I have saved my life," (219). Through this line, he illustrates his almost selfish view of valor, in which one who cares only for himself, also has valor. He chose not to give his life to something that he knew would kill him, which he argues is having honor. This brings up the question that in order to be completely free from outside control, does one have to remain entirely invested upon themselves? Falstaff's lack of compassion and need to help or even die for anyone else, led to his ability to be free from his responsibilities and the pressure honor has on a nobleman.

Unlike Falstaff, Hotspur was unable to gain complete freedom from the standard honor set for him, or even the authoritative power that beset him. He died for his people, though he didn't have to. He feels it was his duty to lead these people and even die for them so they may have a better life. He says of death "If we die, brave death, when princes die with us... Let each man do his best," (202-3). He is so blinded by the glory and honor that war could bring him. Hotspur is trying to free himself and his people from the "tyrannical" rule of King Henry, yet he couldn't see what he really needed to achieve freedom from; himself. He could not free himself from the expectations he had of himself, and the honor he expected to attain. He was trapped by honor until the moment he died. He states "I better brook the loss of brittle life, than those proud titles thou hast won of me," (215). Even in his last breaths of life, he brings up the honors and titles Prince Henry will achieve because he killed Hotspur. He is so obsessed with honor and making his people proud that he cannot free himself from the shackles that bind him to an imminent death. Though Hotspur is fighting for the freedom from King Henry IV's rule, who Hotspur thinks is tyrannical and corrupt, he is leading himself more into the grasps of the consequences of his own obsession of honor, that leads to his ultimate fall. Hotspur was willing to pay the ultimate price to gain his independence from the King, his life, yet he couldn't pay the price for honor; pure humility.

These two contrasting characters only serve as examples for the price the other characters had to pay to be free. When looking at the nature of the two characters, Falstaff is the one who no one thought would win. His traits led to the audience belief that he would fall. Yet his selfish desires led him to being the only character that was truly free of the ailments all around him. Hostpur was the strongwilled, brave warrior that was in everyone's bets. Yet his obsession with honor led to the downfall of himself, and ultimately the people and cause he was fighting for. Through the characters of Falstaff, who was free, and Hotspur, who couldn't free himself, Shakespeare is trying to portray that in order for a character to be free, there has to be an innate selfish desire that drives that character like Falstaff, yet a balance of compassion for the people around him, like Hotspur.