Henry VIII

henry-viiiI’m actually not all that well-read when it comes to Shakespeare. I’ve read or seen ten out of thirty-eight of his plays, and a big chunk of his sonnets, but that’s all. Before reading Henry VIII, I hadn’t read any of the histories at all! Not even Richard III, except the bit everyone knows about the winter of our discontent. Which is why, when I asked a Shakespeare-loving friend which play I should read next, and she gave me the choice between this one and Measure for Measure, I chose this.

And it was fascinating. I know the history fairly well, partly because I’ve studied it and partly because I’ve recently read Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. This play has all the same characters as those marvelous novels, but a completely different perspective on their motivations and actions. It’s like looking at history through a 16th-century glazed window instead of through an open door.

Take Cardinal Wolsey, for instance. In Mantel’s version, he’s a wise hero, taken down by a conspiracy, tied to Cromwell through the twin bonds of mentorship and lower-class origins. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, Wolsey is a tyrant and a fool, bewitching the king, a danger to the nobles who really ought to have the king’s ear by reason of birth and position. When they bring him down, he makes a pathetic figure with whom we can briefly sympathize before he is off to be confined at the bishop’s residence. The inconsistency of his character (tyrant to figure of pathos) isn’t given much to build on. It’s strangely sudden, and leaves us feeling unsatisfied.

The king is likewise unsatisfying, but it’s because he’s too consistent. Though the real, historical action takes place over many years, the action in the play is much more rapid, which doesn’t give Henry time to grow and mature. In real life, Henry moved from being an impulsive young king, primarily motivated by external factors, to being perhaps the most intelligent and powerful figure on the European stage. In the play, however, he’s not given this depth, because there isn’t the time to have it develop.

One of the most interesting things about the play (to me, at least) is the figure of Queen Katherine of Aragon. She is given a lot of time in the play, and several long and beautiful speeches, including one very touching death scene. My question is this: why wasn’t Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth, given this time instead of Katherine? Wouldn’t it make sense to flatter the monarch, rather than the king’s first, divorced wife? Maybe I’m mixing up the timing; maybe Shakespeare was already under James by this time and it didn’t matter.

There are some beautiful lines in this play. Buckingham’s farewell in Act II, scene I is an example:


You few that loved me,
And dare be bold to weep for Buckingham,
His noble friends and fellows, whom to leave
Is only bitter to him, only dying,
Go with me, like good angels, to my end;
And, as the long divorce of steel falls on me,
Make of your prayers one sweet sacrifice,
And lift my soul to heaven. Lead on, o’ God’s name.

The long divorce of steel! What foreshadowing for Katherine and Anne in one sentence! And then there’s Wolsey’s rueful conversation with Cromwell as he goes to his doom in Act III:

Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition:
By that sin fell the angels; how can man, then,
The image of his Maker, hope to win by it?
Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee;
Corruption wins not more than honesty.

The irony of such good advice being given by a man who could never take it himself is both painful and sparkling, like a piece of mica.

Reading this play was so enjoyable, especially with Hilary Mantel’s characters fresh in my mind. To see all these people from another point of view — one so much closer to the historical source, but still fictionalized — was memorable and interesting. Have any of you read this play? Which one should I read next?

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7 Responses to Henry VIII

  1. I have read and seen all of the canonical plays by Shakespeare (except for The Two Noble Kinsmen). Of the history plays, the finest are the triad of Henry plays (IV parts one and two, and V), Richard III, and, perhaps the best of all, Richard II. I have seen Richard II performed twice, each time with quite different interpretations of the king, but both powerful and both emanating from the same text. Save the Henry VI trilogy and King John for much, much later–they are lesser works in the canon as a whole.

    Now Measure for Measure is one of my favorite plays, because its central moral problem is so easy for us to see through as hip, modern people, but a true mare’s nest for the characters in the play, and Isabella is one of the better female roles (that aren’t Lady Macbeth; Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus; Rosalind; Viola or Olivia in Twelfth Night; and the juicy if small role of Emilia, Iago’s wife in Othello). I’d go with your friend’s recommendation, or try Richard II. Both contain great ideas and powerful poetry.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for your recommendations, Christopher! This is very valuable — when I find myself in front of more than 25 texts, I feel a bit bewildered. Such a help.

  2. Jeanne says:

    We got DVDs of plays filmed at the Globe for Christmas, and one of them is Henry VIII, so we will get to watch it. So far we’ve only watched one, and it was Love’s Labour’s Lost, a good production.

    • Jenny says:

      What a great Christmas present! That sounds absolutely marvelous! I’d love to hear what you think when you watch it. And I haven’t read or seen LLL either.

  3. I vote: follow Christopher’s advice.

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