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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: King Henry IV, Part 1 (The Idea of Honor)

There are probably very few men more unfit for war than Sir John Falstaff. He’s too old, too fat, and drinks too much. He’s also a coward, but he’s not stupid. Falstaff is in fact a very clever man. And that’s one of the primary reasons he’s unfit to be a soldier. He thinks too much. He thinks too much in the wrong kind of way. And the wrong kind of thinking can get you and your buddies killed in battle.

In King Henry IV, Part 1 we come to the scene of a looming battle. Falstaff confesses to Prince Hal that he’s afraid to fight: I would 'twere bed-time, Hal, and all well. Falstaff wishes the battle was already over and he was back home in bed all safe and sound. But Prince Hal is ready to fight. And Hal says something Falstaff doesn’t really want to hear: Why, thou owest God a death. Everybody has to die sometime Falstaff. Today’s as good as any, if that’s what lies in store for us. So let’s get on with it. But Falstaff is always quick-witted and responds as Prince Hal strides away to the battle: 'Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. The way Falstaff sees things it’s not his time to go. And besides, Falstaff never pays back loans before they’re due. A lot of times he doesn’t pay them back at all.

It’s at this point that Falstaff stops a moment to contemplate the concept of honor. What exactly is honor anyway? The motto of the United States Military Academy is “Duty, Honor, Country” but what does that mean? Falstaff stumbles onto this question when he asks What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? This is a question many soldiers must ask themselves before going into battle: why am I fighting these guys? What have they ever done to me? Then he answers his own question: Well, 'tis no matter; honour pricks me on. In other words, I’ll fight because my honor is at stake. Honor is the only thing worth fighting for. But all of a sudden Falstaff stops dead in his tracks and asks another question: Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? What if I’m out there fighting and honor deserts me? Then what?

Falstaff reasons with himself along these lines: Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. This is a real battle fixing to take place, with real swords. Men will bleed real blood and die real deaths. Can honor help with any of those things? The answer is no. It doesn’t take a philosopher to figure that out. But Falstaff does go on to philosophize in his own kind of way: What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o' Wednesday. Honor to Falstaff is just a word. And words are just thin air, nothing more, nothing less. Besides, defending that word “honor” can get you killed. And to the soldier who’s dead, what good is honor then? Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. 'Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead.

So like the lazy philosopher that he is, Falstaff does what he usually does; he comes to a conclusion that’s good for Falstaff: I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism. If honor’s just a word and can get me killed, then forget it. Honor is just a “scutcheon” (a coat of arms). A coat of arms means nothing if I’ve got a busted head or a deep cut or, worst of all, I’m dead. So Falstaff does not distinguish himself in battle, or anywhere else. No big surprise. And here’s a lesson from Shakespeare: If you want to have a good time, hang out with guys like Falstaff. But if you want to live an honorable life, stay away from them.


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