Give Me Life

Dressed in his plumed hat and fine clothes while he brandishes a shield on his left arm and a sword in his right hand, Falstaff is worthy of his title as Sir John Falstaff in the 18th century English painter Robert Smirke’s “Falstaff and the Dead Body of Hotspur”. Beneath his left foot lies the body of Hotspur while the Battle of Shrewsbury rages on in the background. Situated in the middle of the painting while his bright suite of clothes and flushed cheeks stand in contrast to both the dark background and Hotspur’s muted red and black clothes, there is no doubt that Falstaff is the hero of this painting. The glaring discrepancy between this image and the actual unheroic scene between Falstaff and Hotspur’s dead body in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth, Part I is no accident – it serves as a critique of Falstaff’s self-serving nature and indicates the tension between Falstaff and Hotspur’s attitudes on honor.
Following the prank at Gadshill, where the disguised Hal and Poins rob their companions in order to see what ludicrous stories of bravery Falstaff will invent after the event, it is established early in the play that Falstaff has little need or taste for bravery. In the midst of battle at Shrewsbury, Falstaff’s selfish inclination is only reconfirmed when after the death of Sir Walter Blunt in the name of King Henry, Falstaff declares that he himself would always choose life over glory in death: “I like not/such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath. Give me life, which if I can save, so; if not, honour comes unlooked for, and there’s an end” (Shakespeare 5.3.58-61).
To this end, Falstaff unchivalrously fakes death on the battlefield in order to save himself from Douglas. After Prince Hal kills Hotspur, Falstaff is left lying by Hotspur. At that moment, there is no greater contrast between the two men and what they stood for. While Falstaff will eventually “arise” from the dead, Hotspur will still remain there after valiantly fighting Prince Hal. From the beginning of the play, Hotspur is bathed in honor and glory due to his military prowess, to the extent that the King himself wishes the young warrior is his son. However, Hotspur’s great sense of honor comes at an even greater costs as it causes him to rush underprepared into battle with King Henry. As a result, even as he is dying, Hotspur mourns more for his glory than for his life: “I better brook the loss of brittle life / Than those proud titles thou hast won of me” (Shakespeare 5.4.77–78).
Despite the fact that Prince Hal was the one who dealt Hotspur a noble death, Falstaff pretends to have killed Hotspur in order to be rewarded with an earldom or dukeship. To claim reward based on the ground that he himself inflicted the wound, Falstaff stabs Hotspur’s corpse in the thigh before carrying it from the battlefield as his precious prize and promises to stop drinking and live decently should he be rewarded with a high title of nobility for his “courage.” However, this ignoble deed is not portrayed in Smirke’s painting because in Falstaff’s mind, he has committed no wrong doing. In his memorable soliloquy on lying, Falstaff rationalizes lying, cheating, and saving his life. Before the body of Hotspur, he declares: “I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit…but to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth is to be…the true and perfect image of life indeed” (Shakespeare 5.4.114-118).
In the tension between the romantic ideal and harsh reality, Falstaff exemplifies the latter and Hotspur characterizes the former. The two men explain the clash between the realistic demands of life and the chivalric ideal that led to romantic and adventurous choices to the detriment of considerations of warfare and tactics. While Falstaff’s superior pose over the corpse of Hotspur indicates the triumph of self-blandishment and practicality over unrestrained chivalry, the numerous critiques on Falstaff’s morality throughout the play indicate that Shakespeare has more to say on the nature of honor and that Falstaff might not always come out ahead.
Painting:
Smirke, Robert. Falstaff and the Dead Body of Hotspur. N.d. Oil painting. Royal Shakespeare Company Collection, London, UK. BBC. British Broadcast Company. Web. 21 July 2015.