Death in Beowulf, Henry IV, and Paradise Lost
Length: 652 words (1.9 double-spaced pages)
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Characters in Death view their lives in retrospect and, very often, for these characters hindsight is twenty twenty. This statement holds true for any incidence of retrospect, however. When an event has passed you take yourself out of that situation emotionally and therefore lose the emotion-controlling factor which can cloud one's perspective. Assuming an after-life does exist, one may argue that the perspective you get on your life is clear because you are no longer concerned with your human emotions. This also assumes that personal enlightenment is the issue, and no divine enlightenment intervenes. Chaucer's Palinode to Troilus and Criseyde does depict Troilus as being instilled with divine enlightenment, however, and one wonders if Troilus's epiphany manifests due to divine intervention, or merely because he is now emotionally separated from his situation.
In Beowulf, the protagonist represents the perfect hero. Beowulf does everything in his power to uphold this image. He fights the three monsters for his own gratification. He traveled to another land because he was considered the only man on the planet capable of killing Grendel and he wanted to prove it. Beowulf managed himself in this manner past his prime and even then wanted to prove himself in a fight against a dragon. Although he defeats the dragon, he also meets his own demise. His death is the first time that he met defeat in any form, even though he did defeat the dragon. This defeat is the first incident that would prompt Beowulf to reconsider the importance of upholding his image. At this point any change that he may consider is much too late, proving that death is a very cruel disciplinarian.
Shakespeare firmly believes that death is the great equalizer. In most of his plays at least one character realizes that after death he will become "food for worms." King and peasant, prince and pauper--no matter what your social status is you will eventually come to the same fate. Henry IV is no exception. Shakespeare's characters always reach the same conclusion about death, usually in a very sobering way. This allows his aristocratic characters to undergo a change of perspective and therefore detach themselves from the situation that they are considering.
In Milton's Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve experience a similar perspective change after The Fall. When the serpent leads Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, she is both tempted and curious as to what she is missing.
Adam experiences these same emotions when Eve presents him with the apple. They both know full well that it is forbidden and they realize that there will be consequences to their actions. Prior to The Fall, none of the repercussions have any effect on their behavior because all they can relate to are the strong feelings of curiosity and temptation. Adam and Eve do indulge themselves, and consequentially bring on the downfall of man. This in a way is the "death" of the perfect man. It is at this point that our two progenitors get a new perspective on their emotions. They are no longer tempted nor are they curious and they can more easily distinguish what they should have done. This change is initiated by their change of emotions, not because God instilled this knowledge in them.`
Death provides a perspective that we cannot attain on Earth. It dismisses all earthly reasons for our actions and detaches us emotionally from the situation that we are considering. This emotional detachment is what allows us to get a clearer picture of the situation, not because the Creator imbues us with a type of divine reasoning which allows us to cast aside our human reasoning. This type of reasoning is used on Earth as an "after the fact" form of clarifying a situation. One can only make these clear observations over his or her life span in death: after the fact.