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Shakespeare (and Fletcher’s) Henry VIII

August 10, 2015


I must have seen the BBC adaptation when it came out, because I rather religiously saw all of them.  So I must have seen John Stride play Henry VIII in a production that also included Claire Bloom and Timothy West.

I re-read this play recently, and found it better than I remembered.  Most scholars believe, reasonably enough, that it’s a collaboration with John Fletcher, and it’s certainly a play with highs and lows.

The strange thing about Henry VIII is that Shakespeare is not chiefly responsible for our image of him.  RIchard II, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and even perhaps King John need to escape from Shakespeare’s shadow to emerge as “authentic” historical figures, but our popular sense of of Henry VIII owes nothing whatsoever from this Jacobean drama.

In this drama, the King is far from being the most interesting character in his own play.  He’s strangely hollow and his motives appear vague and unsettled.  The star roles belong to Katherine of Aragon, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cranmer.  The play features some uncertain and rather expository dialogue leading up to a few key scenes.  It treads water a lot.  Wolsey is a remarkably nuanced figure – neither hero nor villain – a Machiavellian intellect allied to a sense of social purpose and no small amount of wit and imagination when it came to charitable endowments.  His final speech expressive of stoic resignation to fall from worldly grace, deserves to be better known.

So farewell—to the little good you bear me.
Farewell? a long farewell to all my greatness!
This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes, to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honors thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls as I do.

Katherine of Aragon is also provided with a good courtroom scene where she defends herself by offering a poignant description of a companionate marriage that she prays will survive the more abstruse theological questions regarding Henry’s brother Arthur, and Henry’s very very belated anxieties on that score.  Of course, this speech is no mere invention of Shakespeare and/or Fletchers, but is derived from historical sources.

Eventually the emphasis shifts to Cranmer, whose goodness is demonstrated and tested by Henry.  Henry announces that Cranmer is to baptise the infant Elizabeth at which point Cranmer becomes possessed by a spirit of prophetic inspiration and suddenly becomes aware that Elizabeth will become the greatest of all Tudors yet will die a virgin (though not without assenting to a seamless Stuart succession).  Henry seems delighted.  His subsequent dissatisfaction with a female heir and need to get rid of Anne – lies beyond the scope of this play. This is the only moment in the Shakespearean canon when Elizabeth actually appears as a character on stage.

This play may contain Shakespeare’s very last bits of dramatic writing.  Some linguistic analysis rather satisfyingly gives all the good bits to Shakespeare and the joiny-up bits to Fletcher.  The Henry of this play is merely a centrifugal principle, around which more interesting planets orbit.  It’s also a play replete with fancy costumes and special effects.  One of these special effects was of course responsible for the destruction of the Globe Theatre by fire.

To that extent, it’s lack of regular staging nowadays (though it was staged regularly and successfully into the nineteenth century) may be a function of residual superstition among actors and managers.

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