37. Henry VIII
Here we go then, the final two.
Henry VIII is one of those plays that I almost certainly would never have read if it hadn’t been for this self-imposed challenge. I knew that Shakespeare had written a play on Henry VIII but I didn’t really know what bit of his life it covered or the events it included.
It is an intriguing play. I can see why it is hardly performed and yet it has a lot that is very good about it.
In essence, this is a piece of Tudor nostalgia. The play is really the story of the birth of Elizabeth. That, dramaturgically, is how the play is structured. All leads to the climax of Elizabeth’s christening and an amazing speech by Cranmer, foreseeing the greatness of this child and of her reign (even though, at the time, they would have still been hoping Elizabeth would never have to rule!). It is a really beautiful and, it seems to me, heartfelt speech, that suggests Shakespeare genuinely missed the reign of Elizabeth and respected her hugely as a monarch.
Due to this play showing events that were only a generation old at the time, Shakespeare cleverly negotiates the politics. Wolsey is presented as the greedy, scheming cardinal but his redeeming qualities are also voiced after his death. Katherine (the divorced Queen) is a figure of pity but with a huge amount of fight in her. Interestingly, Anne Boleyn is presented as a saintly figure of unimaginable beauty and grace – presumably, as befits her status as mother of Elizabeth and pseudo-martyr (though play ends before her fall from favour). Henry himself seems strong but sensitive, nothing to object to! All very measured and toeing the party line.
I couldn’t help feeling that now might be quite a good time to revive this play since this period has rarely been so well-known and in the public consciousness, with the success of the Wolf Hall series in print, as well as on stage and screen. It means that most of the little knowing references Shakespeare throws in (eg hints at the future rise of Thomas Cromwell) are likely to land, in a way that previously we may not have presumed they would. (Though one hopes our education system has at least retained its love of teaching the reign of Henry VIII to young people at various intervals during their schooling!)
The fact that the play, in many ways, is about Elizabeth – who doesn’t appear until the final act and, at that, is a baby! – does mean that the play struggles with narrative drive. It doesn’t have a question or problem that is drawing us through the play. As such, it feels a little hap-hazard. More a collection of (very well written) scenes, than a coherent and exciting plot. Many of the scenes are brilliant though and there are some good (and lengthy) speeches in there too. There are some really strong two and three hander scenes, loaded with subtext. It is certainly one I’ll be turning to for material for scene study workshops!
It is also a fascinating play for the stage directions. It is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays where there are large chunks of very detailed stage directions. He (or this could be his co-author Fletcher) describes in detail the nature of royal processions, who is where and wearing what. It suggests that they were interested in some sense of accuracy here, that perhaps wasn’t felt to be as necessary in the fictional or more distant history plays.
I’m very glad to have read this play. It is both better and worse than I thought it would be! Better, in that the scenes are brilliantly written and it is a good read; worse, in that it doesn’t really hang together and feels a bit like a piece of nostalgia. Having said that, I would be interested in giving it a go as a director. Off the back of Wolf Hall, I think it would prompt some interesting discussions and it sheds a fresh perspective on Shakespeare’s work too.