Why This Play?:
My choices in what to read are slowly but surely becoming more limited as I am now on my 26th play for this project! I haven’t dabbled too much in Shakespeare’s collaborative efforts, so it felt time to take a peak at a shared work. And I have to say, I was thoroughly unimpressed. The problem with this play is that it lacks any cohesive tone or theme that follows the entire story. The characters don’t have full arcs where the audience witnesses downfall or redemption. I tried my best to separate my knowledge of these historical figures and to just appreciate them as characters within a single story. Unfortunately, this play allows for very little complexity, layering, or humanity in these characters, aside from maybe Katherine. Of this play, I found myself asking, “What is the point of you, Craig?”
Seriously. What is this play even trying to say? It can’t decide what kind of story it is. It's a history play about a narcissistic and volatile king who hardly has a strong political message beside following his whims. It feels exactly as frustrating as the current US presidential election, with particular emphasis on a certain candidate.
So What Happens?:
Some English lords are gathered to discuss the recent Field of the Cloth of Gold. Which means we the audience get to hear about it second hand! Essentially, there was a to-do in France – Henry VIII met Francis I in a big show of international friendship. This whole shindig was orchestrated by English Cardinal Wolsey, one of Henry’s major advisors. Lord Buckingham complains to Norfolk and Suffolk about Wolsey’s power and sway over the king. He’s acting like he’s running the show, and Buckingham won’t stand for it! He’s gonna speak his mind to Henry, but Norfolk warns him to be careful. Yes, Wolsey’s super powerful…which means he could come after you! And what do you know? That’s exactly what happens in this very scene: guards arrive to arrest Buckingham under some vague charges of treason.
King Henry is super grateful to Wolsey for watching his back. He’s about to head out to hear what Buckingham has to say for himself, but Queen Katherine interrupts. She brings news that the English people are mighty upset over some new taxes that have suddenly arisen. The King is flabbergasted; he didn’t approve any new tax. Turns out that Wolsey approved an implemented it, although he tries to pass it off that vague other parties are speaking ill of his actions. Henry quickly dismisses the tax, and Wolsey is pretty quick to instruct underlings to cancel the tax (while sort of trying to make it sound like the cancellation is also his idea). Henry’s disappointed at having to punish Buckingham, and Katherine hints that maybe other parties are falsely accusing him of bad behavior. But any hint of treason can’t be tolerated, so Henry orders Buckingham to trial.
A few nobles (Chamberlain, Sands, Lovell) talk about how much better England is than France, and gossip about a swanky banquet the Cardinal is throwing that evening. The banquet occurs on stage, and it is lavish. Everyone who’s anyone is there for a masked ball. Sands flirts with a lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn [in some editions, spelled “Bullen”]. But the king arrives and is instantly smitten with her. Wolsey tries to distract Henry by moving him into another room, but the king insists she accompany him.
Two gentlemen discuss the Duke of Buckingham’s trial and sentence. He’s been found guilty of treason and will be put to death. As they are commenting on how Wolsey most likely orchestrated this disposal of Buckingham (and the people’s dislike of the cardinal), the prisoner is brought in among several nobles to a crowd of commoners. Buckingham addresses the crowd: he does not hold any ill will against the king, and he asks for their prayers. He’s led off to be beheaded, leaving the two gentlemen to gossip about how the royal couple has separated. Later, Lords Chamberlain, Norfolk, and Suffolk whisper that Henry has decided that (after YEARS of marriage), he’s suddenly using the fact that Queen Katherine was his brother’s widow as an excuse to end his marriage. Rumor has it Henry’s got his eye on a lady-in-waiting, but Wolsey wants to use the opportunity to get the king married off to a French princess to strengthen the countries’ new alliance. Wolsey brings another Cardinal (Campeius) to Henry to plead to the pope about ending Henry’s marriage. Henry thinks they need to formally hear Katherine’s pleas first.
Elsewhere, Anne is yammering on to an old lady about how she’d (hypothetically) never in a million years want to be queen. The lady rolls her eyes in disbelief when Lord Chamberlain arrives to inform Anne that the king is bestowing her title of Marchioness of Pembroke (along with annual income!) as a sign of his admiration. The old lady laughs and teases Anne, wondering what she now thinks about hypothetically being queen. At Blackfriars, Wolsey presides over the court. Katherine speaks passionately to the king, declaring that she has ever loved him and served as an obedient and supportive wife. She then expresses her extreme distaste for Wolsey straight to his face. She leaves, and Henry pronounces she was a stellar wife…but he’s gotta go through with his divorce regardless. She’s never provided an heir to the throne, and this brother’s widow bit could maybe be cause for annulment in the Catholic Church’s eyes. But the church has yet to approve this, and Henry’s getting antsy.
Meanwhile, Queen Katherine is holed up with her ladies, just mired in misery. Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius drop by for a visit. Wolsey beats around the bush, hemming and hawing in an overtly polite way to try to convince the queen to yield to the Henry’s desire for divorce. Katherine flares up, angry that these two supposed men of God (upholders of marriage) would suggest such a thing. She’s done nothing but yield to Henry’s happiness for the duration of their marriage (24 years!!). She finally, haltingly, offers to let the cardinals counsel her.
Suffolk, Norfolk, and Chamberlain are still whispering about their dislike of Wolsey. Suffolk reveals that Henry is in possession of a letter from Wolsey to the Pope, advising him not to grant Henry an annulment. This also included a list of rich stuff that Wolsey has that was unknowingly bankrolled by royal funds. Joke’s on Wolsey – turns out that Henry has severed ties with the Catholic church and married Anne already. The lords observe as Wolsey strides in, talking to himself about how he needs to convince the king to marry a French princess. Henry arrives and demands to hear loyalty oaths from Wolsey, who complies. Henry hands him the papers and leaves. When Wolsey realizes that his letters accidentally got into the king’s hands, he knows he is undone. Very suddenly, lords arrive to mock him and strip him of his honors and property. The final twist of the knife? Sir Thomas More is replacing him as Lord Chancellor, Anne is on her way to be coroneted as queen, and his enemy Cranmer has been named Archbishop of Canterbury (placing him as a main advisor to Henry).
Those two gossipy gentlemen are back, and they’re discussing Anne’s coronation that’s set to occur at any minute. In fact, here comes a huge, showy parade through the streets of London now! We then receive some of the most detailed stage directions in the entire canon as the whole royal procession (and costuming!) is detailed. The gentlemen run a who’s who commentary on the whole thing. After the procession heads to church, a third gentlemen comes by to relay how the whole coronation went. It’s just a glowing review of how much everyone loves the new Queen. Oh, and this guy Gardiner (Archbishop of Winchester) was there too; he just happens to be the enemy of Cranmer.
Over in Kimbleton, the Katherine has been reduced to Princess Dowager (essentially only acknowledging her long-ago unconsummated marriage to Henry’s deceased brother). She’s sick, weak, and miserable. Her servant Griffith informs her of Wolsey’s death, and at first she’s utterly unsympathetic. But when Griffith tells of how Wolsey was subdued, humbled, and fearful of God at the end of his life, she forgives the man she hated. She falls into a sickly sleep, and peaceful spirits visit her dreams. She awakes to a visit from an ambassador from her nephew by the name of Caputius. She implores that he convince Henry to heed a letter from her, asking the king to care for their daughter and her servants after her death. Captuius promises to help, and Katherine hopes she will be given the burial rites of a queen when she dies.
Back in the king’s court, Gardiner decides he’s going to pull a power play. With news that Anne is in labor and possibly on the brink of death, he claims the kingdom would fare better if she dies. He goes one further and says that they should be rid of Cranmer as well; he’s too close to the king and has too much sway. Others wonder if that’s exactly what could protect Cranmer, but Gardiner is full steam ahead. Elsewhere, Henry tells Cranmer he’s gotten word that Cranmer’s got some enemies. Poor friendless Cranmer starts to break down, but Henry tells him to buck up. He’s gotta stand up for himself! But if that doesn’t work, flash this ring of the king’s as proof of his favor. An old lady bursts in to inform the king that he has a new child – a girl (alas!) and that Anne’s pulling through (huzzah!).
Cranmer tries to go to a council meeting, but the guards won’t let him in, which is super embarrassing. Henry and his doctor, Butts, observe this huge slight from afar and decide to watch on. The council finally admits Cranmer only to inform him that some people want to testify against him…but since they’re afraid of retribution they don’t want air any grievances to his face. Instead, they’ve all decided to send him to the Tower. Cranmer produces the king’s ring as proof of his don’t-mess-with-me-ness. The guards promptly back off, and Gardiner and the rest of the council realize what a huge mistake they have just made. Henry swoops into the room, raining hell down on the council and calling for Gardiner to embrace Cranmer. He then bestows full honors on Cranmer by asking him to be godfather to the new baby princess.
All and sundry gather for Elizabeth’s baptism. Cranmer makes a huge speech prophesying the great and mighty works to come from the small child, and the golden age she’ll see through. Henry is pleased, and a long line of amazing rulers are foretold. Yay, England!
Check This Out:
If you didn’t watch Wolf Hall, I don’t really know what planet you were on in the past year. The incredible Mark Rylance won many well-deserved awards for his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. For a look at Wolsey as a sympathetic figure rather than a greedy villain, check it out (yay, Jonathan Pryce!). Streaming on Amazon! Or, of course, you could always read the books. But then you wouldn’t get to see Damien Lewis’s glorious mood swings and peacock strutting as Henry VIII.
While not historically accurate, you must concede that Herman’s Hermits is pretty damn catchy:
Tangential item, but I’ll mention it nonetheless. I’m reading Game Change right now, which just feels apt in election season. All the secretive in-fighting of the campaigns reminds me of the mini-plots to bring down Wolsey and Cranmer…and just the various cutthroat nature of most of Shakespeare’s history plays. It’s a hugely interesting book and definitely made me realize that politics has changed very little over the past few centuries.
Have you seen @KngHnryVIII on Twitter? He’s a hilarious user that is drawing some stellar parallels between himself and Donald Trump the past few months. Given that we’re in the throws of the strangest election season I’ve ever seen, this play felt pretty timely, which brings me to the next section…
Thoughts & Themes:
Alright, dear readers, I’m going to level with you: I struggled to find any personal connection to this play. Which is a damn shame, because Henry’s historical story is a rich and compelling one. He certainly wasn’t a compassionate or logical king, but his life was pretty juicy, and he and his court have been fictionalized in far more entertaining ways throughout the centuries. Henry and the other figures are portrayed as flawed but human characters in those other stories, but not here. Wolsey’s a half-assed “villain” who is (kinda, sorta) redeemed offstage, and Cranmer is a weak embarrassment who doesn’t have the fire to go up against his enemies without the king getting involved. We don’t ever even learn why Henry valued either of them to begin with. I don’t need all my characters to be strong, but I do need the story to have a point.
This play gives us very few glimpses into the souls the characters (particularly the title one!) and it suffers for that. Barely any soliloquies here. Katherine is a sympathetic victim of circumstance who does get some solid scenes, pleading her case to remain queen and exerting anger over Wolsey – she’s truly the only one who is given any merit. Everyone else plots against someone for vague reasons, no one who works for Henry seems to really trust his decision-making abilities, and the primary theme that pervades the play is that of mistrust.
The oddest thing is, that this discomfort I felt in reading this play was strangely familiar. I consulted my Shakespeare buddies on Twitter (#BardCreatures) to see their thoughts on the play too. Turns out I was definitely not alone in my negative reaction to this work. Some of the feedback they gave was that it doesn’t really fit into either a political story or a straight drama, that it’s hard to slog through, and that Katherine is the only character worth any note for her speeches. All that kept circling in my head was that it’s a tale of everyone wanting to overturn someone else’s (lower-ranking) power, with a tempestuous and blustery king who overrules everyone and does whatever he wants in the end. And it smacked me in the face that I’ve seen Shakespeare’s play every day of the past 15 months whenever I turn on the news. (Incidentally, I'm hardly the first writer to note this)
Dear reader, I hearby present to you: A Brief List of Ways that Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII is Basically US Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
- Each really serves more as a plot device than an actual man
- Henry: He pops up to move the plot forward (lusting after Anne à wanting to end marriage, conveniently receiving Wolsey’s private letters à call for the cardinal’s overthrow, giving Cranmer the ring & interrupting council meeting à deus ex machina to save Cranmer)
- Donald: The term demagogue has been invoked on many occasions for this man...he feeds off the crowds at his rallies and leans into the narrative that draws the biggest cheers rather than asserting solid policy about what he wants to achieve in office. No emotions portrayed other than anger and pride
- It’s all about spectacle, not substance
- Henry: The intricate stage directions portray a show of literal pageantry, the masked balls, the opulent costuming, the
- Donald: The perma-tan, the blustering, the models and golf courses and casinos, the bravado, the golden toilet, etc.
- Constant power shift in the lower ranks, in which the king/leader always plays the trump card (ha!) to ultimately decide which yes-men he wants to have around him
- Henry: Hand-picking the rise and/or fall of Wolsey, Cranmer, Gardiner
- Donald: Abrupt reorganization of his campaign team, firing Lewandowski and hiring Conway
- Lots of promises of security that ring empty
- Henry: Breaking marriage vows to Katherine at a time when those were held as pretty sacred. Hell, the play itself is called “All Is True” and the audience can’t even fully believe that!
- Donald: “Trust me”, “believe me”, “I’m the only one who can_____”, etc.
- No one, and I mean NO ONE questions his authority or word (despite the fact that his staff doesn’t seem to trust his opinions and decisions)
- Henry: When he’s questioned about Wolsey’s trustworthiness he promptly shuts it down, no one challenges his desire to divorce Katherine or to court Anne
- Donald: Threatening to go after various press groups, no longer allowing any press on his plane or bus when travelling, shouting down debate moderators when fact-checked, only recently sticking to teleprompters when speaking
- Bright and shiny daughter who is the unexpected hope for the future of the leader’s empire (when none of the other progeny pans out):
- Henry: Elizabeth
- Donald: Ivanka