Henry VIII, though classed with the History Plays, treats English history in a very different way. The play does not realistically enact a political conflict, as the other history plays do. Rather, it is a symbolic tribute to the Tudor Dynasty, presented in the manner of Shakespeare's other late plays, the Romances. Like these plays, it uses an episodic plot line, studded with spectacles and tableaus, and closes with the promise of a new generation. Moreover, Henry VIII makes the same moral point as the romances—that humanity depends on divine providence, which requires that we exercise our capacity for good through a steadfast spirit, mercy, and forgiveness. The play celebrates King Henry VIII's attainment of wisdom and the country's simultaneous rejection of the authority of Catholic Rome, but Henry does not guide the play's development so much as he is simply its leading figure. A national myth is embodied in Henry VIII—that England is chosen by providence for Protestant freedom—and it is Henry who leads the country there. The final tableau confirms Henry's virtues in those predicted for his daughter Elizabeth, the last and greatest of Tudor monarchs. In the earlier history plays, the qualities of the characters, good and bad, generated events; here, history is driven by destiny.
As in the romantic literature on which Shakespeare's last plays were based, the rise or fall of great personages is displayed in a series of brief, almost actionless scenes that enact a pattern of loss and regeneration. Buckingham (1) is executed and Queen Katherine humiliated because of the Cardinal Wolsey's enmity; then Wolsey is exposed and discredited. Anne Bullen (better known today as Anne Boleyn) is crowned, and Cromwell and Cranmer assume high office. Finally, Cranmer's enemies—led by Wolsey's one-time underling. Bishop Gardiner—are confounded. All these events are given significance in relation to the growth of Henry. The king is easily deceived by Wolsey about Buckingham, and his moral qualms about his first marriage help Wolsey bring about the fall of Katherine. Although the intervention of chance is necessary to expose the cardinal, the king then masterfully subdues him. The king recognizes good in the virtuous—and Protestant—Anne, despite Wolsey's attempts to keep her from him, and the king's maturing wisdom contributes to the rise of Cromwell and Cranmer, two fine men, the latter an important Protestant religious hero. Finally, the king saves Cranmer from Gardiner's machinations. When the monarch has thus arrived at a summit of wisdom and maturity, he brings forth a glorious successor in Elizabeth, who is rhapsodically praised by Cranmer in 5.4. Cranmer's eulogy even extends to the monarch ruling at the time the play was written, Elizabeth's successor. King James I.
Henry VIII also resembles the romances in its use of pageantry. The play opens with a description of elaborate ceremonies and closes with the enactment of one. Between the opening and the close there are several spectacular tableaus, often with heavily descriptive stage directions that indicate their importance to the play. These episodes are more than mere entertainment, however. In the first half of the play, they demonstrate the effects of evil on the play's world; in the second, they evidence the exaltation of its recovery from evil. In 1.1 the meeting of monarchs in France is described in terms that convey greed and corruption. One side's display resembles 'heathen gods' (1.1.19); the other then makes 'a fool and beggar' (1.1.28) of its competitor. The women 'almost sweat to bear' (1.1. 24) their jewelry. Most significant, 'these fierce vanities' (1.1.54) are associated with the villainies of Wolsey; moreover, the treaty being celebrated is shown to be worthless. In 1.4, the cardinal's banquet offers an aura of decadence, especially in the risque conversation before the king's masque, which is important to our sense of Wolsey's evil effect on the court. (On the other hand, the masque, during which Henry falls in love with Anne—a development that counters Wolsey's evil—is a lovely, ordered dance.) In 2.1 Buckingham is solemnly led to execution with 'tipstaves before him, the axe with the edge towards him, halberds on each side' (2.1.53, stage direction); the grandeur of the play's world becomes increasingly ominous. An extremely elaborate stage direction at the opening of 2.4 describes in detail the panoply of Katherine's divorce tnal. Particularly gaudy is the ecclesiastical pomp of the two cardinals, clad in their scarlet robes and escorted by 'two Gentlemen bearing two great silver pillars'. However, their rich display cannot help the king, who is attempting to rectify a sin that has deprived the nation of an heir to the throne. As the scene ends. Henry rejects the 'dilatory sloth and tricks of Rome' (2.4.235) in favor of the 'well-beloved' (2.4. 236) Cranmer. Here, the play's luxuriant splendor is associated with Catholicism, but the path of recovery is evident.
After Wolsey's downfall and the revelation that Anne is to become queen in Act 3, we again find spectacle in Act 4, but now the association is entirely positive. In 4.1 a complex, 10-part stage direction presents the coronation procession. The Gentlemen remark on the participants, including Anne:'. . . the sweetest face I ever look'd on ... an angel' (4.1.43-44). The Third Gentleman then provides a description of another ritual ceremony, the actual coronation, in entirely positive terms. The splendid and spectacular are now associated with the good of England and the triumph of virtue. Although Katherine's vision in 4.2 is in a very different key, it, too, is presented in great detail; it is also entertaining on stage and distinctly linked with virtue, in this case more personal and religious. Lastly, there is another procession preceding Cranmer's speech at Elizabeth's christening. This sumptuous parade provides a fitting culmination to the play's use of ceremony and ritual as expressions of moral tone. Here, the triumph of virtue is confirmed in another formal display of religion, but this time it is a Protestant religion—a distinction immediately evident to Shakespeare's audience, through costume as well as Cranmer's presence.
Divine intervention underlies the play's developments. In the first half this is clear in the way chance brings Anne to the king's attention and exposes Wolsey. It is also evident in the forgiving attitude and acceptance of God's will of Wolsey's victims. In the second half of the play, the religious theme becomes prominent, limiting the importance of personality among the play's chief characters. Henry demonstrates the significance of personal growth—the wisdom and maturity he attains in the course of the play are necessary to its happy conclusion—but he simply displays differing outlooks, without going through a process of internal development.
More striking as personalities are the 'tragic' characters, who embody the importance of patiently accepting fate. However, they are restricted in emotional range, precisely to emphasize their thematic significance. Buckingham, Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey appear only briefly before meeting their fates; they achieve importance only at their downfalls, when they respond to adversity with dignity and wisdom.
Upon his arrest, Buckingham's anger against Wolsey—his only trait so far—disappears, and he simply says, 'The will ofheav'n / Be done ... I obey' (1.1. 209-210). In this he is supported by his fellow victim, Abergavenny. On his way to be executed in 2.1, Buckingham forgives his enemies and accepts his downfall as a blessing. Though he reveals some bitterness in recollecting his father's similar fate, he controls it and departs with a prayer: 'I have done, and God forgive me' (2.1.136).
Queen Katherine's conduct at her trial—her dignity as she presents her case, her fire as she turns against Wolsey, and her resolute departure—is truly impressive. Even when she recognises defeat, she finds powerful poetry to express it: 'like the lily / That once was mistress of the field and flourish'd, / I'll hang my head and perish' (3.1.152-153). (This episode is introduced with the Song 'Orpheus with his lute' [3.1.3-14], which in its union of mysticism and music is a typical ploy of Shakespearean romances.) Perhaps most important is Katherine's joint demonstration, with Griffith, of forgiveness towards Wolsey. In her mild way, the deposed and dying queen is bitter towards her enemy, but after Griffith's recital of the cardinal's hidden virtues, she confirms that 'religious truth and modesty' require her declaration, 'peace be with him' (4.2.74, 75). She approaches her death 'meditating /On that celestial harmony I go to' (4.2.79-80). Her vision adds supernatural sanction to our impression of her virtues, as well as reinforcing the importance of divine intervention in the play's world.
Most significant, the play's only important villain, Wolsey, makes a similar demonstration of acceptance. Once his downfall is certain, in 3.2, the cardinal recognizes the futility of his struggle for wealth and power, and rejects the 'Vain pomp and glory of this world' (3.2.365). Free from the temptations of intrigue and ambition, he finds 'A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience' (3.2.379-380), and he thanks the king, who has overthrown him, for his newly found 'fortitude of soul' (3.2.388). He considerately advises Cromwell on both worldly advancement and spiritual health, before departing from the court with the wish that he had 'but serv'd my God with half the zeal / I served my king' (3.2.455-456). In 4.2 Griffith repeats the lesson in describing the cardinal's death: 'His overthrow heap'd happiness upon him, /For then, . . . [he] found the blessedness of being little / And . . . died fearing God' (4.2.63-68). Thus, Wolsey's end, like those of Buckingham and Katherine, points to the ultimate superiority of the divine over the mundane. The eulogies Shakespeare provides for the cardinal are all the more important when we consider what a departure they were from the standard English view of his day. For most English Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries, Wolsey was a chief villain of pre-Reformation English Catholicism; to present him as a recipient of God's mercy was to make mercy a prominent theme indeed.
Like the romances, Henry VIII stresses the triumph of good and the importance of patience in adversity, elevating these propositions by placing them in a schematic plot in which it is clear that God controls all. However, unlike the romances, the plan is set in an historical world, one still very well known to the play's original audience. It is not only a moral tale of suffering borne with dignity, it is a national myth. Here the regenerative pattern of the romances is employed to display the redemption of a particular country at a particular time—England as it acquired the state church—and the anti-Catholic stance—with which its people largely identified in Shakespeare's time. In the spirit of the Romances, this process yields great optimism: old errors are expiated in an atmosphere of reconciliation, and the future offers the promise of a new generation. The providence that lends strength to the allegorical characters of Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest is here devoted to an entire people. Henry VIII is a romantic mode.
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