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Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy by George H. Boker (1850)

May 4, 2013

Religion and romance were the dominant factors in nineteenth-century plays about Anne Boleyn, but this one eschews those two things in favour of an all-pervasive and often horrifying emphasis on politics. Here is a court in which different factions are constantly vying for dominance, stabbing each other in the back, manufacturing evidence of crimes and then crying out in virtuous shock over them, and those who don’t surrender to the corruption are killed by it. It’s … a little too realistic, actually.

The curtain rises on an impromptu meeting between the Dukes of Norfolk, Suffolk and Richmond (Henry’s son), the Marquis of Exeter and the Earl of Arundel, who are there to discuss the intolerable fact that Anne Boleyn is the king’s chief political advisor instead of themselves.

….Some years ago,
From the mere dregs and offscourings of your house
We saw this girl emerge, and step by step
Crawl slowly upward to the top of power –
Why she was queen before her crown was on –
Till now she threatens us from such a throne
Of downright rule as queen ne’er held before.
Nay, pucker not your brows, good duke of Richmond
While conscience echoes what I bluntly speak:
Your royal father, more than any here,
Has felt her deadly witchcraft.

Richmond is puckering his brows because he apparently ended up in this confab by accident and is shocked to hear this calumny against a queen whose sole crime “is too much beauty.” Furthermore, he informs them, Anne isn’t even that powerful anymore; she’s been virtually usurped by “a nimble wight,” name unspecified, though we can guess it. Not good enough, says Norfolk. Anne:

Usurps the state entire;
Makes and breaks treaties; changes faiths and priests;
Empties the treasury, and fills it up,
By loans and taxes, such as she may will
… Counting us peers as toys.

Richmond, disgusted, sweeps out after promising not to tell anyone about the meeting, and Norfolk advises the others to follow up on the lead about the King’s new love and see if they can’t do … something … about the situation. After all, Suffolk responds, “We have not pulled the crafty Wolsey down / To whimper tamely at a woman’s heels!”

At that moment, the person whimpering tamely at a woman’s heels is Henry, who enters in full pursuit of Jane Seymour. Jane is less than pleased about his advances, giving him discouraging replies about loving him “in all duty” and reminding him about her loyalty to the queen. “Hell blast the Queen!” is Henry’s chivalrous response, saying that he thinks he may have been tricked by Lucifer into marrying her. After a long, tiresome session in which he plays Nymphs And Shepherds with Jane as “Hal, the shepherd”, she finally agrees that if he can offer “an unmortgaged hand” she’ll accept it. And no sooner has she fled than Norfolk enters, courteous and oily, saying that he’s come about the Queen. Once again Henry curses out the queen, and then tells the much cheered Norfolk about a terrible dream he had last night:

The gentlest gust of air howled like the damned;
And when a noise, which in the joyous day
Would scarce make damsels wink, fell on mine ear,
Up from my restless bed, like one possessed,
I bounded, with wide-stretched and glaring eyes,
And half-cried – Treason!

“Sire, I am amazed. Shall I go seek your majesty’s physicians?” snarks Norfolk, but Henry tells him somberly that “’tis a grief their physic cannot touch.” It turns out that his conscience is troubled – a familiar malady to experienced courtiers. “Certes, within a month, another queen,” says Norfolk in an aside, at which awkward moment Anne chooses to rush in to beg Henry’s help for “Our faithful Protestants in Germany,” telling him that they’ll erect altars to his memory one day if he helps them now. This is, as it turns out, the wrong tack to take with a man who both detested Lutherans and had innumerable shrines torn down in England, and after Norfolk talks down to her about how she shouldn’t trouble her pretty head with politics, and Henry joins in by telling her to “blow these noxious vapors from your mind,” they both stalk off and Anne is left alone for the first of many, many monologues which she’ll deliver throughout the play.

I have seen the time – ay, not a month ago –
When in the fury of his lion mood,
He’d brained the scoffer with his royal hand.
But times have changed – ah! Have they changed indeed?
Has my life passed the zenith of its glory?
Must I make ready for the gathering clouds
That dog the pathway of a setting sun?

She resolves that if so, the “blaze of my decline” will outshine every smaller light at court. After a brief interlude in which Thomas Wyatt stops in to tell her that the sturdy Protestant yeomen love her (she’s horrified that they’re calling her “Saint Anne”, but otherwise approves) she’s feeling a bit better about Henry’s late hostility. After all, it’s happened many times before.

Anon he will return, and cap in hand,
Cry “Pardon, Anne!” But I’ll pout and swell,
Tossing my head, and tapping thus my foot;
Then all my pride at one great, eager gulp
I’ll seem to swallow, as I bound to him;
And then I’ll pat his cheeks, and call him “Bear,”
… So from this egg, of seeming noxious wrath,
Shall spring a new-born love of double power.
Tomorrow sees a messenger dispatched
To threaten Germany with fiery war,
If wrong befall our faithful Lutherans.

Sadly, there’s a spoke in the wheel which wasn’t there during their previous quarrels and reconciliations, and that’s Jane Seymour, who’s been thinking about just what life would be like as queen and becoming more reconciled to the prospect. And after all, she might not need to be as loyal to Anne as all that – “What mercy showed she to poor Katharine?” Henry arrives, and she duly sits on his knee, where he proceeds to whisper sweet nothings about … politics. Yes, she’s sitting there while he rambles on about how he knows Norfolk is in the tank for the Pope but might be useful in getting him out of his marriage. It was actually weirdly convincing; Henry rambling on while Jane obediently pretends to be fascinated. Anyway, the idyll is shortly interrupted by an infuriated Anne, who rounds on Jane with some top of the line invective, calling her a “base minion, a treble traitoress” and then:

Have you no shame? Wear you that brazen front
When I hold up a mirror to your crime?
Is not your Gorgon nature turned to stone,
At the bare glimpse of your own ugliness?

Henry, offended on Jane’s behalf, demands “Have you not learned whose presence you are in?” and makes it clear that Anne can forget about any conjugal visits in the near future:

She is pure, I say:
And, by Heaven, as pure shall you remain
From touch of mine, till malice gnaw you up! –
This is forever. Come, sweet mistress Jane.

They leave, and Anne proceeds to have a monologue in which she melts down completely, begging the absent Jane to intercede for her and finally calling down a curse on her and all of her offspring.

Now we switch to a series of scenes in which a popinjay Mark Smeaton accidentally meets up with a childhood friend of his named Ralph Loney (delightfully described in the cast list as “a creature of Suffolk’s”) and proceeds to embody Cavendish’s description of him by sneering at Loney, describing himself as the Queen’s “most familiar groom” and pretending not to remember his less-than-glorious childhood occupation of apprentice to a blacksmith. Off Loney runs to Suffolk: “Mark Smeaton’s vanity, a seeming trifle / May in his grace’s hands work great results,” thinks Loney, and he’s not wrong; Suffolk promptly deputizes him to round up a few freelance “Informers” and invite Smeaton to the local tavern for a drink so he can boast about life at court and, with luck and sufficient alcohol, come out with something really juicy and incriminating. Meanwhile, the other nobles are arguing about what tack they’re going to take against Anne, exactly. “Come come, we must destroy her, by fair means or foul,” says Suffolk, pointing out that adultery could get her killed. Exeter is belatedly shocked to realize that he might be assisting at judicial murder rather than divorce, but not shocked enough to actually withdraw. “England’s weal outweighs a woman’s life,” he concludes.

Meanwhile, Smeaton is fully justifying Suffolk’s confidence by getting completely hammered and yelling at Loney & Co. about how he’s going up in the world, and the idiocy of everyone else in the tavern for not recognizing him as the Queen’s groom. “Where have you lived, you scum of filthy earth / Not to know me?” and tells Loney that at least he’s comforted by the knowledge that “Some fair day a goodly son of mine / May mount the throne, and chop off all their heads.” “Mark that,” says Loney to the informers, like they needed telling, and off they scuttle to Suffolk before Smeaton sobers up.

Smeaton’s statements are “merely grounded on his vanity,” Norfolk proceeds to inform Henry, but they’ll be enough. Henry vacillates; he wanted something “sufficient for divorce, but not for death,” but then thinks that perhaps the latter would be more efficient. Wouldn’t treason be the best charge? He briefly considers charging her with secretly corresponding with the French (“‘Tis a pity I cannot rack the French Ambassador”) and informs Norfolk that whatever solution is found, “Let there be proof enough / To force conviction to the very core / Of mine own conscience.” The unfortunate Norfolk manages to scrounge up Lady Rochford, described by Henry as viler than the vilest soul in Hell, to make her accusation of adultery, including naming Thomas Wyatt and describing incest with George – the last of which angers Henry, as it’s so over-the-top that “It throws a discredit on the whole device.” He dismisses Lady Rochford, and decides that he’ll at least make sure not to kill Wyatt – there was a such a fuss when Thomas More was killed that killing literary men may not be worth it.

Interspersed with these scenes we’ve been seeing Thomas Wyatt, and George Boleyn becoming increasingly worried about Anne, who according to Mary Wyatt is swinging between periods of resolving to go down fighting (“Arise, my drowsing soul! / Gird on thy blazing arms of intellect!”) and then curling up in a corner and screaming hysterically. George dismisses any suggestion that she’s mad – it can’t be true, as Anne is

no mere producer of a royal brood
But by the force of her own intellect
To all effects, an equal with the king.

He goes to see her and tells her of a dream he had of sinister import, prophesying both of their downfalls. Anne refuses to crack, however. Yes, she informs him, “The King looks coldly on me,” but it’s happened often enough before “when I have crossed him in my fiery moods.” She dismisses Jane Seymour as nothing to worry about: “The first is hers, the nobler prize is mine.” When George, much relieved, departs, Anne wilts once more from the effort of putting on the queenly attitude for him, but finally gets up again, resolving to have Henry “in the throat of death!”

Close to the throat of death himself is Mark Smeaton, now in custody and being threatened with sundry horrors if he doesn’t verify his drunken statements. Poor Smeaton, considerably chastened, tries to laugh it off as the drunken boast it was – “I am a villain if I uttered it.” At first he tries to defend Anne – “She is my maker, she created me / From my vile dust, to be whate’er I am / As well might I blaspheme as stain her honour!” Not too shockingly, this heroism doesn’t survive his first good look at the rack. “Look there, Sir Constancy,” says the Earl of Arundel, and shoves a confession into Smeaton’s hands to sign.

While all this merriment is going on, Anne manages to break through the blockade that Henry has set up around himself, and manages to get an audience with him. And it actually works! After accusing herself of being arrogant and forgetting proper wifely qualities, Henry tells her of the adultery accusations but says he doesn’t believe them – and he doesn’t just then, he’s actually with her and this Henry (aptly described as “like the shifting sands” by one of the nobles earlier on) has no problem changing his reality to be the reality of the person who’s in favour at the moment. “This base report / Is the light mintage of some idle tongue / In want of true metal,” Henry reassures her, and the indulge in “softening memories of our early love.” They embrace and Anne leaves to let him finish his work, all well once more. And so it would be, if Jane Seymour didn’t come along a short while later and sulk and cajole Henry to her side again. But the previous scene means it’s a genuine shock to Anne on May Day when she accidentally drops her token to Henry Norris, and the King rashly accuses her openly of adultery. Arrests for all follow in short order – not because Henry actually believes in any of it, you understand, but because since making the accusation public, he now needs to save face.

Too late, too late! I charged her openly
The issue now lies between her and me,
And not between her innocence and guilt.
I am a villain, or the queen is false,
Since I became accuser of the truth.

“We owe it to our people” Henry concludes, that Anne be guilty, since otherwise their confidence in him would be shaken and of course, that would be very bad. Besides, it’s the jury that will bring her in guilty, not him. Norfolk is summoned to “discover” proof double quick, Anne is arrested – “Oh God! Oh God! I am weary of the day!” and Jane Seymour completes her transition from attempting to be morally upright to true believer in Henrician Realpolitik; even though she knows perfectly well that the charge is false, she’s convinced herself that if Henry wants it to be true, it must be. And if there’s no proof, well “A mind so subtle in committing sins / Must be adept as masking stratagems.” Norfolk arrives with the proof, expecting at least a thank-you, but what he gets is a self-righteous bellow from Henry about his sorrow at Anne’s sins staining “the dear honour of my father’s throne.” Norfolk himself (who piously wondered at Anne’s “monstrous perjury” when she swore innocence at her arrest) is less than impressed at Jane Seymour’s maidenly faintness when she hears of Smeaton having been racked. “Damn hypocrisy!” he says, and sneers sotto voce at the king’s “pursuit of phantom happiness.”

Anne, in prison, is experiencing severe mood swings but is still hardheaded enough to tell the visiting Thomas Wyatt not to reminisce about their childhood affection for each other – “My maids observe us – would you ruin me?” Still, though, she thinks, Henry must have his reasons – he would not “afflict me with deliberate wrong” for nothing.
While this is going on, Jane Seymour is dropping hints to Henry the Suggestible about Elizabeth’s paternity (“Right, by my soul! I’ll disinherit her” he says obligingly, conveniently remembering that “‘Twas rumoured at her birth / That Bess was not my own”) and also reminding him that if Anne is merely divorced instead of killed, she’d be able to stir up trouble like Catherine did once upon a time.

Anne’s trial is not seen directly, but we get to see a few commoners hanging around the entrance to the great hall, all of them thoroughly on her side, “but what avails an angel’s purity / Where devils judge?” The devils shortly emerge, including the Duke of Richmond (remember him? He was in the first scene) who is full of gloomy guilt. Suffolk, more exultant, marvels that Anne never criticized the King, for “she loves him yet.”

This is, in fact, true. After the five men are executed, Anne curses “Men with God’s raiment on their placid limbs” who half-promised her that George at least would live if Anne didn’t fight her pre-execution divorce. (I’m not sure if one of those men is supposed to be Cranmer). But she never criticizes Henry, and when Mary Wyatt comes in to tell her that Thomas Wyatt is planning to raise a rebellion against Henry, Anne says, astonishingly

I am yet so much queen
As to protect my realm from traitor’s arts.
How dare you plot these treasonable deeds
Against the safety of his majesty?
Name it again, and, as I live, the king
Shall know your thoughts.

Mary pleads that he’s doing it out of love for her, but “How! Love for me, and plotting ‘gainst the King,” says Anne. The two things do not compute in her mind. Afterwards she reels off the oft-heard line about going from marchioness to queen to martyr, apologizes to the absent Princess Mary, and is finally and mercifully summoned by Kingston to her last walk on Tower Green. The play ends with a cannon shot announcing her death.

SEX OR POLITICS? Politics, to an unusual and breathtakingly cynical degree. Virtually every member of the court, Henry included, is ready to erase old loyalties and declare that they have always been at war with Eastasia on the basis of evidence which they openly despise. Henry is very solicitous of his conscience but also of the fact that as king, he gets to decide what the truth is – and afterwards, he’ll truly believe in it. Moments after telling Norfolk that he doesn’t believe Anne guilty of adultery but that if divorce can’t be legally done, death would unfortunately have to suffice, Henry is telling him:

Clear out this woman by what means you can!
But mind you, sir, let there be proof enough
To force conviction to the very core
Of mine own conscience.

Henry sneers at Lady Rochford’s malice and her obvious lies, but is happy to take them up and use them to doom men he knows perfectly well are innocent – except for Wyatt. “We have had enough of executing scholars. / Who ever heard such hubbub through the world / As when Sir Thomas More was put to death?” Jane Seymour’s character arc shows her evolving from a shocked and rather prim girl into Henry’s shadowy twin soul in this regard – she ends by expressing high-minded outrage at adulteries for whose invention she was actually present.

WHEN BORN? Not stated, although both her enemies and Anne herself describe her as “a girl,” so I doubt she’s over thirty.

THE EARLY LOVE: Wyatt, or rather, she’s his early love – Anne never seems to have had more than sisterly feelings for him. Wyatt takes on the guise of gallant protector and is given news by his sister; it’s for this reason that he’s able to warn George that Anne is in low spirits (to put it mildly) and their place at court might be in danger. He also comes to the May Day joust to warn Norris and George to flee, but they never get to make the attempt since the gendarmes arrive about five seconds later. At the end, after Anne rejects his idea of rebelling against the king, Wyatt attends Anne’s execution and vows to make her immortal in his poems:

I’ll hide thy name
Under the coverture of even lines,
I’ll hint it darkly in familiar songs,
I’ll mix each melancholy thought of thee
Through all my numbers: so that heedless men
Shall hold my love for thee within their hearts
Not knowing of the treasure.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Mary Wyatt plays her usual role of the sensible best friend, mostly trying to get Anne onto an even keel and letting her brother know that although Anne is keeping things together in public, when she’s in private she’s curling up on the floor and having sobbing fits; also that Henry is returning her letters unopened. Jane Seymour and Lady Rochford are also maids of honour, but we never see them in this capacity – Lady Rochford only gets one scene where she’s trotted on to disgust Henry with her overtly malicious accusation of George, and then trotted off again, having been useful if not agreeable.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Mark Smeaton, sort of. He’s the embodiment of a small name with a big ego, but at the same time he is genuinely appalled at what he said about Anne and tries to defend her until he breaks down at the sight of the rack.

THE PROPHECY: After discovering Jane Seymour on Henry’s knee, Anne curses her in her fury:

Hear me, writhing souls,
That minister around sin’s ebon throne!
If to these murderers of my heart’s dear peace
A child be born, may she, in that sweet time
When infant babble opes all heaven to her,
Feel the cold hand of death draw day by day
The clinging spirit from her! May her child
Live in the vexings of a troubled time,
And issueless die young! May he – O God,
I cannot bid a curse light on the head
Of him my child calls father! Bless him, Heaven!
Give him the peace which he has stolen from me!

George Boleyn also has a prophetic dream, which he relates to Anne; he dreams that he and she are climbing an endless ladder, but that suddenly the rungs began to fall off.

Woeful, woeful sight!
Each stick in falling to a ghastly head
Was metamorphosed. Here, Queen Katharine’s fell;
There Wolsey’s; More’s and Fisher’s, spouting blood;
And many one whose face I could not catch.
These, as they passed me, whispered in mine ears
A horrid curse, and grinned, and winked their eyes.

He looks up only to see that the ladder was being shaken by Henry. Anne keeps up her queenly persona and laughs the dream off, although after George leaves she has another meltdown and confesses that she’s terrified.

IT’S A GIRL! Elizabeth is mentioned a few times, but the only discussion of her birth is when Henry says it was rumoured at the time that she wasn’t his. Given that Henry is shown as being both willful and extremely suggestible, it seems likely that this isn’t true, and it’s simply a post-hoc invented memory which he comes up with after Jane Seymour hints at the possibility that Elizabeth isn’t his.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Never mentioned – in fact, Anne’s extreme beauty is mentioned several times, without qualifiers (or details) of any sort.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: George is the only one we see; he’s the usual sort – staunchly Protestant, intelligent, loyal, and too good for this sinful court. Disappointingly, we never see him interacting with or even discussing his wife. (In fact, Lady Rochford’s accusation is never given any sort of motivation).

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, a fact openly acknowledged at some point by everyone, and just as openly ignored.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Enough of the workmanlike but competent verse is in the summary, too much perhaps. There are some nice light moments which I’d like to mention, though, particularly in the beginning when Richmond is aghast at the conspirators and mocks them by speculating on their punishment for conspiracy, painting a word-picture of “meek-faced Suffolk … about to say / “Good people, I confess I suffer justly” and imagining a “Doleful Ballad Of Lord Arundel.” There was also a nice, subtle nod to Anne’s French years when Anne says at one point “Par Dieu, now this is marvellous.”

ERRATA: Well, the biggest error is one of omission: while the noblemen named were certainly happy to see Anne go and likely assisted in the process, the major architect of her demise – Cromwell – is once again completely absent, and his job has fallen on the shoulders of Norfolk. Henry VIII refers, early on, to papal infallibility – of course, that hadn’t been established in the sixteenth century; it wasn’t even established when this play was written, however, there was an intense public debate about whether to adopt it or not. Henry never gave any indication of doubting Elizabeth’s paternity. Anne states that she and Henry have been married less than two years, though in fact they were married for almost three and a half. And while diplomatic relations with various German principalities were certainly a good weapon to use against Charles V, Henry hated Luther to the end of his life and would certainly have not been a booster of the German Lutherans. Thomas Wyatt never engineered a rebellion – that was his son, Thomas Wyatt the Younger, who was executed for it.

WORTH A READ? There’s a lot of about this play that’s off-kilter or underdeveloped – the Duke of Richmond’s appearances at the beginning and very end are interesting but also irritating; what was he doing in between times, and why didn’t he even try to tell his father what was going on? (Though considering how the system works in this universe, he may well have decided that such a warning would only get him into trouble himself if Henry decided that marrying Jane was more important than getting revenge on Norfolk). Lady Rochford is underdeveloped, even for her, and there are far, far too many monologues for everyone – it could be extremely frustrating when all the good stuff was emerging in the monologues let loose after other characters had left the stage.

But on the balance, I think there was more to like. First of all, this is one of the comparatively few plays to take a stab at showing just how uncertain the whole series of events was, and how many motivations and cross-motivations were involved. The noblemen plotting to bring Anne down all have clear reasons for disliking her – she interferes with their political goals, and they want her out of the way. This desire happens to intersect with Henry’s desire to get her out of the way so he can marry Jane, but it’s made clear that these people are by no means all on the same side and that fulfilling Henry’s wishes today doesn’t mean you won’t be his next victim if the wind changes a bit. Henry himself makes it clear several times that he mistrusts all of these people but will deal with them as long as they’re useful. Furthermore, the confusion about what exactly is going to happen – divorce? Death? Wait, what’s the king acting like today, maybe he wants a divorce after all? – seemed more convincing than the straight-for-the-scaffold approach that many plays’ villains take. Anne’s downfall was, after all, a ludicrously unlikely event. It’s not hard to imagine that even the chief architects of it weren’t quite sure what would happen from one day to the next, or never had to shift suddenly to accommodate a royal change of mood. This up-and-down quality is echoed in the depiction of Anne – she’s described, admiringly, as an intellectual woman and the equal of the king; she also is inclined to terrible bouts of anger (and they really are something here, not just the tepid, totally justified outbursts that many other productions cobble together) and it’s clear that her weakness for fights has been driving a wedge between the two of them for a while. She also is clearly in love with him. Even when she’s angry with him, she never blames him directly – it’s Jane’s fault, or the noblemen’s, or somebody else’s, but not his. It’s easy for her to believe this, seeing as those individuals really do wish her ill, but Anne’s excusing of Henry’s misdoings as being the fault of the other people is, alas, quite believable. Her loyalty to the crown lasting even past her condemnation was shocking, but in many ways more convincing than the usual romantic scenario in which Anne realizes the truth and poetically denounces Henry, throwing in a prophecy of Elizabeth’s greatness for good measure. Loyalty to the crown was all she had known her whole life; it was the ultimate good. She may well have kept it to the end.

Henry – and eventually Jane, whom he’s moulding in his own way – is terrifying. He genuinely believes that he can square his conscience with whatever he needs to happen, and that by needing something to be true he can somehow magic it into being so. Coupled with the struggle between different factions to control him, and his suggestibility, these things made him an over-the-top but still very effective antagonist.

Ultimately, I think this play might have been better served as a straight novel; there’s a lot of internal exposition that needs to be worked out in monologues, which is awkward, and the continual confusion of king and courtiers as to what exactly they’re setting in motion could come across as muddled on the stage but be done more subtly in a novel. Still, it’s much better than not hearing these ideas at all.

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