Friday, March 2, 2018

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

In 2017, after having mostly avoided them all my life, I surprised myself by falling head-over-heels for Shakespeare's history plays. I made it through both the Major and the Minor Tetralogies last year, but didn't get around to reading the two 'standalones' - Henry VIII or King John - before the year's end.

And so I pick up again with Henry VIII, which seemed a logical place to start after having finished with Richard III last year. A rather impressionistic, telescoped version of the history, Henry VIII begins with Henry's nobles in the midst of a power struggle with Henry's Lord Chancellor and chief advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey neither has noble patrons, nor was born noble, nor has earned nobility through service to the crown: but (gasp!)
he gives us note
The force of his own merit makes his way.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Our Villain for Tonight, Cardinal Wolsey. Shakespeare (and possibly his co-writer John Fletcher) faced a rather nasty conundrum in this play, in which he attempts to tell the story of Henry VIII's divorce of Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn in the most diplomatic way possible, without throwing shade on either Anne (mother of the beloved Elizabeth I) or Katherine (herself a deeply beloved queen). His solution seems to have been that he was going to blame Wolsey for everything.

This is actually a fairly time-honoured tactic. The divine right of kings was a hangover from ancient paganism that had never been fully challenged by medieval Christendom, but the assumed primacy of the Church in all of life ensured that for most of the medieval period, the divine right wasn't exercised with full freedom. Not only did the Reformation shatter that assumption of the primacy of the Church, but it revived the divine right of kings doctrine in the attempt to do so. For many reformers, the primacy of the state was a major argument against the primacy of the Church and Henry VIII, a power-loving tyrant if ever there was one, was not slow to take advantage of this. In effect, he used the English Reformation as a way to neuter the church, which had once been a powerful counterbalance to the crown's power in England, and transform it into a mere arm of the state. In doing so, he ushered in an age of absolutism in England which would not end until 1688 and the (not-so, but we can discuss that another time) Glorious Revolution. Anyway, the point is that during this period, during which Shakespeare was writing, the divine right of kings meant that the king could do no wrong. The closest you could come to crying foul play was blaming the king's bad advisors - a nice legal fiction that tended to get various earls and dukes beheaded without ever actually touching the king.

Cardinal Wolsey, then, was the ideal scapegoat for the desperate playwright, and this play is an excellent example of how the divine right of kings worked in practice. In Richard II, Shakespeare had made some very subtle criticisms of the doctrine with the result of waking the Queen's ire - and that was a king from two hundred years previous, not the rather more recent Henry VIII, who would therefore have to be handled with kid gloves.

The Henry in this play, then, is exactly how his own propaganda depicted him - a rather jolly and heroic figure sincerely conscience-stricken by his marriage to his brother's widow (although Shakespeare can't resist having someone crack that it's not his conscience that bothers him - it's his desire for Anne). Meanwhile, Wolsey is the villain; right up to his fall from the king's grace, that is. I loved what happens next: Wolsey discovers humility. Shakespeare depicts him in a mildly Flannery O'Connor way as a man whose soul is finally saved by his own downfall, and his final scene is one of the most memorable and moving things in the play.

Another of the notable things in this play is the character of Katherine of Aragon herself. As mentioned above, during her lifetime she was intensely popular, and as far as I can tell she thoroughly deserved it. Whether sticking to her guns throughout her divorce, or rallying them very literally that one time when Henry was away and Scotland invaded and she rode north to oversee the defence - well, Protestant I may be, but I admire Katherine. I didn't expect Shakespeare to treat her as well as he does, however, given that her claim to be Henry's lawful wife threatened Elizabeth I's claim to the throne. But he does. Katherine of Aragon almost dominates this play, arguing her case with lines taken directly from the historical record. And it's awesome. Anne Bullen/Boleyn, by contrast, barely appears in the play, and her treatment is far more ambivalent: her biggest scene is one in which she claims to feel sorry for Katherine, while a shrewd old lady in waiting accuses her of shedding crocodile tears while waiting for her own chance to become queen. There's enough plausible deniability in the scene to prevent the playwrights getting in any trouble, but there's more than enough to make the audience nod knowingly.

The play drops any attempt at subtlety whatsoever in the final scene, which turns into a panegyric to the praise of the newborn Elizabeth I and closes on that happy note, before anyone can pop up to accuse Anne Boleyn of anything. Wikipedia tells me that there's been some historical debate over when Henry VIII was actually written, but my assumption on reading the play was that it dated after Elizabeth's death, owing to a few lines that refer to James I. Despite this, Henry VIII remains a testament to the utmost care renaissance authors had to use when writing about their kings.

This is not to look down my nose at the play. I do think that if Shakespeare had been in a position to take more risks, Henry VIII might have been more than what it is. This is not a Richard II or a Henry V (indeed maybe it says something that one of his greatest history plays, Richard III, deals with its title character as a usurper and criminal) and probably its greatest drawback is the somewhat fuzzy depiction of the central character. But Henry VIII is still Shakespeare, and as a result, it's still well worth reading and thinking about.

Find Henry VIII on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or as an audio recording on YouTube.


Joseph J said...

Great review. I remember being surprised to learn that Shakespeare wrote a play on Henry VIII. It seemed to me that simply to tell the story at all would be a threat to the legitimacy of Elizabeth and the English Reformation (you've probably seen Eddy Izzards rant about it).

I would be interested to know how this play compared to A Man For All Seasons in its treatment of the material. I re-watched that movie recently after not having seen it for years and I was blown away by how good it was. The dialogue is exquisite. Wolsey is great villain, but I can't remember if they show some hint of redemption at his death. It certainly makes one shudder at the dastardly behaviour of the religious and civil leaders at the time, and the courage it would take to stand against the force of the tide.

asquith said...

Have you read Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell? It brings to life the world if the Elizabethan stage, the personal and financial struggles of actors , the politics and religion of the time, actors being beset by puritans who wanted to abolish the theatre, authorities hunting down Catholics and "traitors", and so on.

You can't go wrong with BC and, as an amateur dramatist himself, he knows how to conjure up that world.

Suzannah said...

Joseph, yes, it was clearly a very tricky undertaking! One of my favourite non-fiction books is Geoffrey Robertson's THE TYRANNICIDE BRIEF about the guts it took to prosecute Charles I - an eye-opening read even though the author dramatically misunderstands Calvinism.

Asquith, no, I haven't read any Bernard Cornwell, but I hear from a lot of folks who do. :) Maybe someday!


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