Henry VIII by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher (1613)
I had planned on finishing this overview a few weeks ago, but was hampered by a number of factors, among them the feeling that even attempting to treat Shakespeare with my usual methods was bordering on heretical. What could I possibly say about this play that hundreds of much more expert critics haven’t said already? Very little, probably, but that won’t keep me from trying.
Henry VIII, if not Shakespeare’s very last play, was among his last, and recent scholarship which I am in no position to critique has determined that he very likely co-wrote it with the young John Fletcher. During its first run in 1613, it brought the house down – literally – when a cannon was misfired and the Globe went up in flames as a result. Somehow the play managed to avoid acquiring a Macbeth-like reputation as a result, and although it’s not currently very popular with Shakespeare companies, it was a big draw in earlier times, especially during the nineteenth century, when a number of famous actresses did turns in the starring female role. This is not, as it happens, the role of Anne Boleyn – in this rendition of the story, Anne is strictly second fiddle to Catherine of Aragon and has so little relevant dialogue that she’s almost voiceless.
The play opens just after the Field Of Cloth Of Gold has concluded. The Duke of Buckingham missed the event – “an untimely ague / Stayed me a prisoner in my chamber” he tells Norfolk and Abergavenny; an unfortunate word choice, as the future will prove. Norfolk and Abergavenny regale him (and the audience) with descriptions of the splendour of the occasion, which was tainted only by the fact that the person who was responsible for it was the Cardinal of York – Wolsey. “The devil speed him! No man’s pie is freed / From his ambitious finger,” splutters Buckingham, although Norfolk warns him that he’s better off keeping his resentment to himself – the Cardinal is known to be malicious and capable of vengeance, but Buckingham is too wound up in his grievance against “this butcher’s cur” to pay attention – he’s sure that Wolsey is already planning to double-cross their new allies.
True or not, he’ll never get a chance to find out, as he’s promptly arrested by Charles Brandon and hauled off for trial. “It will help me nothing / To plead mine innocence” Buckingham tells the others before leaving, and while he’s right, he’ll nonetheless get some truly magnificent speeches in before the end. But first, we have to meet Henry, as well as his wife. Henry enters “leaning on Wolsey”, and is promptly and gently taken to task by Catherine, who tells him that she’s been petitioned to relieve that tax burden on the peasantry – “which compels from each / the sixth part of his substance to be levied” in order to pay for the wars in France. Henry is astonished and displeased – he had no idea the tax was as much as that, and scolds the backtracking Wolsey into revoking it. (Wolsey manages to save something from the situation by telling his clerk to make sure the commoners know that he, Wolsey, was the one to secure this repeal, not Catherine). Then it’s on to Buckingham’s trial, much to Catherine’s displeasure; she is “much grieved” at his arrest and dubious about the veracity of the witnesses called against him – Buckingham has apparently been dropping indiscreet remarks about his own aptitude for ruling, or so various interested parties say.
Before Buckingham’s end, however, a beginning. Henry attends the magnificent feast put on by Wolsey at York Place and there encounters “Sir Thomas Boleyn’s daughter”.
The fairest hand I ever touched. O beauty,
Till now I never knew thee.
They dance, and he kisses her (he would be “unmannerly” otherwise) and exeunt. Anne says very little at the beginning of the scene and absolutely nothing after the king enters.
Buckingham, though, says a good deal. As we learn from two “gentlemen”, Buckingham has been testified against by a crooked employee and the mentally unstabled Nicholas Hopkins (who “fed him prophecies”) and has been condemned to death. “Certainly / The Cardinal is at the end of this,” one of them tells the other. But when Buckingham enters to make his farewell speech, he does it in the approved (and realistic) style which avoids specific recrimination.
The law I bear no malice for my death.
‘T has done, upon the premises, but justice.
But those that sought it I could wish more Christians.
Be what they will, I heartily forgive ’em ….
Yet you that hear me,
This from a dying man receive as certain:
Where you are liberal of your loves and counsels,
Be sure you not loose; for those you make friends
And give your hearts to, when they once perceive
The least rub in your fortunes, fall away
Like water from ye, never found again
But where they mean to sink ye. All good people
Pray for me. I must now forsake ye.
Once he’s left, the horrified gentlemen (“O, this is full of pity, sir!”) exchange news of yet another unfortunate event – there is “A buzzing of separation / Between the King and Katherine,” which they’re sure is due to Cardinal Wolsey’s dislike of the Queen’s nephew, but “We are too open here to argue this / Let’s think in private more,” one of them prudently tells the other, and they go, to be replaced on stage by a group of apprehensive nobles who have also heard the news of the mooted separation and aren’t happy about Wolsey’s supposed influence on it – though they’ve also heard that Henry himself bears some notional responsibility for it. “It seems that marriage with his brother’s wife / Has crept too near his conscience,” says one, to which Suffolk replies “No, his conscience / Has crept too near another lady.” Whether Henry’s idea or Wolsey’s, Wolsey has been acting very efficiently, since Cardinal Campeius (Campeggio) has already arrived in England for the trial, and Henry has deputized Bishop Gardiner to deliver the summons to Catherine. “Would it not grieve an able man to leave / So sweet a bedfellow? But conscience, conscience; / O, ’tis a tender place, and I must leave her.”
This rings rather hollow when we see Anne – not with Henry, but with an Old Lady who’s there to be her confidante. After hearing Anne’s protestations of sympathy for Catherine (“so good a lady”) along with her declaration that she would never want to be queen, she’s greeted by the Lord Chamberlain, who informs her that she’s now the Marchioness of Pembroke and has a handsome income to go along with the title. Anne protests that she has no idea how to repay this favour: “My all is less than nothing,” she says, but she accepts nonetheless and once the Lord Chamberlain has left, the Old Lady is all over it. “Honour’s train / is longer than his foreskirt,” she cackles, but Anne reminds her that “The Queen is comfortless” and tells her for heaven’s sake not to mention this new development to her. “What do you think me?” says the Old Lady, and they leave. We in our turn now see the court at Blackfriars, and how Catherine is called and refuses to come. Instead, she kneels to Henry.
Sir, I desire you do me right and justice,
And to bestow your pity on me, for
I am a most poor woman and a stranger …
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable,
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance, glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined. When was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire?
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? ….
She implores him to give her impartial judges, and when Wolsey attempts to tell her that the “integrity and learning” of the present company is as good as any she’ll find anywhere, Catherine makes it clear that she believes none of this and is prepared to fight. “My drops of tears / I’ll turn to sparks of fire,” and furthermore accuses Wolsey of having opened up the rift between her and Henry.
You shall not be my judge. For it is you
Have blown this coal betwixt my lord and me,
Which God’s dew quench.
After Catherine has left the court, refusing to listen to the crier calling her back, Wolsey is now the one imploring Henry to remember the past as it truly happened.
In humblest manner I require your highness
That it shall please you to declare in hearing
Of all these ears – for where I am robbed and bound,
There must I be unloosed, although not there
At once and fully satisfied – whether ever I
Did broach this business to your highness, or
Laid any scruple in your way which might
Induce you to the question on’t …
Henry majestically “excuses” him from any such thing; it was when he was speaking with the French ambassadors about a possible marriage for Princess Mary that the issue of her possible illegitimacy was raised, and it occurred to him that he “stood not in the smile of Heaven” for having married his brother’s widow, which explained why none of his male children lived. “Prove but our marriage lawful,” he tells the court, and “we are contented / To wear our mortal state to come with her / Katherine, our queen.” Since Catherine has gone, however, Campeius has no choice but to adjourn to Rome, to Henry’s great displeasure – “this dilatory sloth and tricks of Rome.” Fortunately, he has an ace up his sleeve; his “learned and well-beloved servant, Cranmer” who’s on the verge of returning from wherever it is he’s been (Germany, presumably, but it’s not stated).
Wolsey and Campeius sense the situation is getting out of control, and soon enough they’re visiting Catherine and interrupting her woolwork with her ladies in order to beg her to listen to reason and compromise with Henry while she can. “For if the trial of the law o’ertake ye / You’ll part away disgraced.” “The more shame for ye! Holy men I thought ye,” is Catherine’s answer, though she eventually softens enough to sit down and hear them out – “The hearts of princes kiss obedience, / So much they love it, but to stubborn spirits / They swell and grow as terrible as storms,” says Wolsey, who certainly has reason to know. Catherine is unmoved, but the audience, at least, can see that Wolsey is starting to find himself in a tight corner and is genuinely concerned about where all of this is going to end. He’ll have more reason to be concerned soon, as the various nobles who have been grumbling against him are now rejoicing that Henry has come across a letter which Wolsey wrote to the Pope asking him to stay the divorce, for fear of Henry’s marrying “a creature of the Queen’s, Lady Anne Boleyn.” Not only is Wolsey’s goose soon to be cooked, but his efforts couldn’t have to come to anything, as Henry and Anne (“a gallant creature”) have married already and her coronation is being arranged. The still-offstage Cranmer has usefully rounded up the opinions of “All the famous colleges / Almost, in Christendom” and they’re all for the divorce.
Wolsey returns to find that he’s completely shut out of Henry’s confidence, and discovers the cause when Henry shows him not only the letter he wrote to the Pope but also a copy of some of his household accounts, which have somehow gotten into the packet of documents which Wolsey had sent via Cromwell earlier, and which an outraged Henry interpret as evidence of unforgivable worldliness. (In case you’re wondering – there’s no indication that Cromwell slipped the incriminating papers into the packet, though you could play it like that if you wanted. It’s never quite clear how they got there, in fact). Wolsey makes no attempt to argue his way out of the situation – like Buckingham earlier, he knows it’s useless. “I have touched the highest point of all my greatness, / And from that full meridian of my glory / I haste now to my setting.” Norfolk joyfully demands that Wolsey surrender the Great Seal, which he does, telling him “how sleek and wanton / Ye appear in everything may bring my ruin!”
“O, how wretched / Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!” says Wolsey, and after a melancholy reflection on how easily earthly glory vanishes, and his dismissal of the weeping Cromwell, he makes his last exit to what will presumably be a life of mortification. “Farewell / The hopes of court; my hopes in heaven do dwell.”
Anne’s coronation procession follows, with a great deal of (silent) pageantry and comment by various “gentlemen” in the audience. “I cannot blame his conscience,” says one of the king when he sees Anne passing by, and later we hear an account of the actual crowning itself from a third person. From Anne we hear nothing – none of the nobles in the procession speak; instead, they provide a spectacle and the gentlemen identify them for each other (and the audience).
Catherine, however, still has a good deal to say, although she’s running out of time to say it in. Now exiled to Kimbolton, she enters, “sick to death”, with some of her attendants, to hear the news which Griffith has brought her – that Cardinal Wolsey has died. Griffith tells her about his last days, and Catherine pronounces him a man
Of unbounded stomach, ever ranking
Himself with princes; one that by suggestion
Tied all the kingdom. Simony was fair play;
His own opinion was his law … He was never
But where he meant to ruin, pitiful.
His promises were, as he then was, mighty;
But his own performance, as he is now, nothing.
“Noble madam,” replies Griffith, “Men’s evil manners live in brass, their virtues / We write in water.” He then gives an alternative eulogy for Wolsey:
Though from an humble stock, undoubtedly
Was fashioned to much honour. From his cradle
He was a scholar, and a ripe and good one …
And though he were unsatisfied in getting –
Which was a sin – yet in bestowing, madam,
He was most princely: ever witness for him
Those twins of learning that he raised in you,
Ipswich and Oxford – one of which fell with him,
Unwilling to outlive the good that did it ….
His overthrow heaped happiness upon him;
For then, and not till then, he felt himself
And found the blessedness of being little.
Catherine is properly impressed. “After my death I wish no other herald,” she tells Griffith. “Whom I most hated living, thou hast made me, / With thy religious truth and modesty, / Now in his ashes, honour.” Being ill, she needs more sleep by then, and as she sleeps she sees “six personages clad in white robes” who hold garlands over her head and play music. “They promised me eternal happiness,” she tells her servants when she awakes. But before she can join them, she has one more earthly visitor – Caputius (as Chapuys is called here). He doesn’t have much to do except be sympathetic and promise Catherine that he’ll make sure to bring her last letter to Henry “Or let me lose the fashion of a man.”
As Catherine is leaving the world, someone else is on the verge of entering it; Anne Boleyn is in labour and the various hostile courtiers (Bishop Gardiner chief among them) are concerned both about the outcome and the fact that Cranmer has at last appeared in the flesh and ready to spread the pernicious New Religion – “this rank weed” – far and wide. Fortunately, they’ve made sure to give the king this news, in the least flattering form possible, and they’re hoping that Cranmer will suffer a fate similar to Buckingham’s shortly. As Anne is labouring somewhere offstage, King Henry is offering Cranmer his hand and then casually mentioning the “grievous complains of you” which he’s been hearing, and that while this matter is sorted out, Cranmer will have to “make your house our Tower.” Cranmer says that he fears nothing, despite his wealth of enemies, and Henry is moved enough to offer him a ring and tell him to send it back should anyone try to arrest him prematurely. “I swear he is true-hearted,” says Henry as Cranmer begins to cry at this, but is interrupted by the entrance of the Old Lady, bearing the news of Elizabeth’s birth and disgruntled at the insufficient tip she gets from a disappointed Henry, who was very vocally hoping that she would be a boy.
Meanwhile, Cranmer has quickly run into trouble with Gardiner, Norfolk, Suffolk, the Lord Chamberlain, and the Lord Chancellor, who are in the process of arresting him for his heretical beliefs (unspecified) until he produces the ring and they realize with horror that if anyone is going to suffer a stretch in the Tower, it’s them. Cromwell turns up for a moment to rub it in and to praise Cranmer “whose honesty the devil / And his disciples only envy at,” and Henry promptly appears to tell Gardiner “Thou hast a cruel nature and a bloody,” and the others “I thought I had some men of understanding / And wisdom of my Coucil, but I find none.” Cranmer is invited to baptize “the little maid” and does so, in the process prophesying her future greatness, from the moment of her birth until the “unspotted lily” departs this world for the next. Henry, initially dismayed at having had a girl, is instantly reconciled. “Never before / This happy child did I get anything,” he cries, and all exeunt, having been promised a holiday in celebration of her.
SEX OR POLITICS? Politics – the scheming by Wolsey, Catherine and the various nobles is a central part of the play, and of course there’s Henry’s much more heavy-handed attempts to make it look like he’s overcome with grief at the idea of parting with Catherine even as he’s loading Anne with honours and pensions of a thousand pounds a year. Religion is present but the specifics are very, very muted – Wolsey mutters that Anne is “a spleeny Lutheran” and one of the nobles opines that England will never be safe from heresy until Anne and her “two arms” (Cranmer and Cromwell) have been killed, and of course Cranmer is accused of being a heretic near the end – an accusation which he answers with a steeliness of spine alien to the original. However, if you want to find out just what this “heresy” consisted of, or what the doctrinal issues involved were, good luck to you. Like John Bank, who wrote Vertue Betray’d seventy years later and in an equally fraught religious and political climate, Shakespeare knew that it didn’t pay with the censor to get too detailed when talking about religious matters. More practically, it also ran the risk of stopping the action cold and boring the audience.
Doctrinally incorrect or not, when Cromwell tells Wolsey that Thomas More has been appointed Chancellor, Wolsey’s apparently unironic verdict is
That’s somewhat sudden:
But he’s a learned man. May he continue
Long in his highness’ favour, and do justice
For truth’s sake and his conscience; that his bones,
When he has run his course and sleeps in blessings,
May have a tomb of orphans’ tears wept on ’em.
The “Chancellor” appears later on, but he’s a fairly generic character and is never addressed by name.
WHEN BORN? Not stated for any of the characters (and the birth order of the Boleyn siblings is irrelevant here, since Anne is the only one to appear on stage or even to be mentioned).
THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy, while never mentioned in his capacity as Anne’s suitor, does get a glancing reference when Griffiths is telling Catherine of Aragon about Wolsey’s arrest and death. “After the stout Earl of Northumberland / Arrested him at York, and brought him forward …”
THE QUEEN’S BEES Aside from Anne herself to Catherine of Aragon (“a creature of the Queen’s” as Wolsey describes her in one of his less discreet moments) only one other maid is named – Patience, also waiting on Catherine of Aragon (and doubtless the inspiration for Patience Linacre in My Friend Anne three hundred years later).
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Anne may not have any named maids of honour, but at least she has the Old Lady, whose conversations with her are very reminiscent of Emilia’s with Desdemona’s, although with a happier outcome – for the moment, anyway. Once at Kimbolton, Catherine has Richard Griffiths (though his first name isn’t mentioned) and the deathbed visit from Caputius, AKA Chapuys. Wolsey has Cromwell, who at first runs messages from him to the king and who’s later encouraged by Wolsey to go into the king’s service. Cromwell is also the audience for Wolsey’s deathbed “If I had served my God” speech.
THE PROPHECY There are a couple of moments when minor courtiers, goggling at the lovely and virtuous Anne, wonder whether “from this lady may proceed a gem / To lighten all this isle?” and similar things.
Cranmer, of course, gets the big overt prophecy – made after Elizabeth is born and the plot against him is foiled, and he’s standing godfather to her at her christening.
….Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thought still counsel her …
And of course, since James I had been king for ten years by this point
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was …
If Shakespeare had lived a few centuries longer I’m sure he would have agreed with Disraeli that “Everyone likes flattery, and when it comes to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.”
However, Anne herself gets a moment of unintentional prophecy – reflecting on the troubles of Catherine of Aragon (“so good a lady”) she proceeds to make some very solemn and, it must be said, very young-sounding pronouncements on the subject.
O, God’s will! Much better
She ne’er had known pomp; though’t be temporal,
Yet if that quarrel, fortune, do divorce
It from the bearer, ’tis a sufferance panging
As soul and bodies severing ….
I swear, ’tis better to be lowly born
And range with humble livers in content
Than to be perked up in a glist’ring grief
And wear a golden sorrow.
She goes too far, however, when she grandly declares that “By my troth and maidenhead / I would not be a queen,” and is promptly shot down by the Old Lady, whose rejoinder is “Beshrew me, I would / And venture maidenhead for’t; and so would you / For all this spice of your hypocrisy.”
IT’S A GIRL! “Is the queen delivered? Say Aye, and of a boy,” says Henry to the Old Lady, when she comes with the news of Elizabeth’s birth. The Old Lady gamely tells him that “‘Tis a girl / Promises boys hereafter,” and furthermore that the baby and Henry are as alike as two cherries, but a discontented Henry gives her a hundred marks and departs to see Anne. A hundred marks isn’t a bad amount of money but the Old Lady is annoyed – she expected more. Henry remains out of sorts about the baby’s sex until Cranmer christens her and makes his prophecy, at which point an awestruck Henry tells his “Lord Archbishop” that “Thou hast made me now a man. Never before / This happy child did I get anything,” and concludes the action by declaring that there will be no work done for the rest of the day – “This little one shall make it holiday.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.
FAMILY AFFAIRS Irrelevant – this is one of the very few works in which none of her family features in any way, unless you count the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey – who, since the action is severely truncated, are actually Anne’s grandfather and uncle, not her uncle and cousin.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Since the play ends with the birth of Elizabeth, it never comes up. However, given Anne’s characterization up to that point (to say nothing of her status as the mother of Elizabeth, the future “pattern to all princes”) it seems highly unlikely.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The quotations above will suffice. I will say that I had an especial weakness for Buckingham’s, Catherine’s, and Wolsey’s speeches; the fact that they all at one point or another face up to inevitable doom with tragic dignity probably has a lot to do with that.
ERRATA Like a lot of plays, everything is very, very telescoped, to the point where it would be impossible to meaningfully compare the timeline of the play to that of real events. Everything seems to take place over the course of about eighteen months at most instead of the sixteen or so years between the Field of Cloth of Gold and Catherine’s death (not to mention Anne’s death). This results in a lot of oddities like Catherine dying when Elizabeth is a newborn, Wolsey living to learn of Anne and Henry’s marriage, and Buckingham’s not attending the Field of Cloth of Gold so he and the audience can be told what it was like since even the Jacobean penchant for stage pageantry probably couldn’t have reproduced that particular event.
WORTH A READ? There’s only one possible answer, of course. It’s a wonderful play which almost made me wish I lived in the nineteenth century so I could see different actors taking on Wolsey and Catherine of Aragon. (Since I live now, I’ll have to content myself with having seen approximately twenty different productions of Twelfth Night). Of course, considering the subject of this blog, there is one major omission: Anne. She has a few lines at the Cardinal’s feast where Henry meets her (this is the only scene when they’re on stage at the same time!) and a few scenes in which she and the Old Lady exchange badinage, but all we really learn about her is that she’s generally charming and is sorry for Catherine of Aragon’s position but doesn’t seem to see much relation between Catherine’s loss and her own gain. A good actress could doubtless endow her with more personality than her lines give her, but what she has in the text looks very thin compared to Catherine, whose “spark” keeps her resistant to the end, Wolsey, who goes from corrupt annihilator of rivals to embracer of penitent, pious solitude, and Henry, who begins by literally leaning on Wolsey and allowing Buckingham’s execution, to shaking off his advisors and flatterers and saving Cranmer from them. It’s obviously a somewhat incomplete portrait (to put it mildly) but dramatically, it works.
Of course, there is the dramatic elephant in the room, and that is Anne’s death. Shakespeare avoids that issue by having the play end with Elizabeth’s birth so that her mother’s disappearance never has to be dealt with, but I have to wonder what the audience of thought of it – surely many if not most of them had heard some version of Anne’s ultimate fate. However, even if Anne’s story is left hanging, Buckingham’s final speeches, towards the beginning, were so reminiscent of the scaffold speeches of Anne, George Boleyn, et al that it might as well have been a deliberate foreshadowing. I doubt very much that this was intentional; there was an accepted formula for last words from the scaffold, and even if the condemned individual deviated from the script somewhat it would be easy enough for witnesses to confuse one speech with another or forget any less usual remarks that someone had made. Even so, I appreciate seeing Anne’s speech there, even if Anne was not the one saying it.
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