Study Guide

Anne of the Thousand Days

by Maxwell Anderson

Anne of the Thousand Days Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Anne of the Thousand Days addresses the consequences of excessive ambition. The principal characters, Anne and Henry, lust for what they cannot or should not have, and in the end they are both doomed for the atrocities they commit in attempting to attain their goals. They sacrifice everything of true value to their sexual, political, and material avarice and are thereby condemned to spend the eternity of history together.

From the outset, both protagonists are flawed in ways that give rise to inevitable conflict, but it is Henry who tips the scale and starts in motion the action of the play. Henry the king enjoys royal prerogatives to which Henry the man, with his overblown masculinity and sexual pride, is ideally suited. He naturally considers unconquered territory a challenge, and when Anne refuses him he retaliates by taking from her the man she does want. A vengeful ambition is sparked in both with the initial denial to each, by each, of the simpler things they had sought. They lock into each other symbiotically, becoming interdependent as their violent romance escalates to disaster. Anne and Henry boldly promise each other what they cannot or should not: Henry promises Anne the crown, Anne promises Henry a son. Technically, the crown is Henry’s to confer on whomever he pleases, but it is not easy, and he makes Anne his queen at the bloody price of his soul. Anne dares nature by promising Henry a son and heir, but her failure is only mortal. In her defeat and ruin Anne sees the error of her ways and meets death morally transcendent.

Because of who they are, the stakes of their ambitious game are high, and what begins as the sexual conflict of two strong people ends in tyrannical slaughter, suspension of justice, and spiritual upheaval. Henry and Anne irrevocably change their world, making a monument of their greed and ambition: “What we were will be permanent in England, however it came about, whether your will, or mine, or theirs.”