Study Guide

Henry VIII

by William Shakespeare

Henry VIII Essay - Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII

Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII


Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII

Ivo Kamps, University of Mississippi

The methods and politics of history writing intrigued Shakespeare throughout his career as a dramatist. Among his earliest plays, Shakespeare's first tetralogy already offers a full-blown conception of the shape of English history, interlacing Machiavellian ideas, providentialism, and Tudor ideology (see Rackin 27-9). The second tetralogy, culminating in Henry V, successfully dramatized a more complex grasp of the past, tarnishing the popular Elizabethan notion of the "great man" who bends history to his will (see Kamps 94-104). Even in a late romance such as The Tempest we discover that Shakespeare frames the basic conflict between Prospero and Caliban in terms of Prospero's "history" of his tenure on the island and Caliban's account of the same events (see Barker and Hulme). Other examples of Shakespeare's fascination with things historiographical are plentiful in the Roman plays and througout his oeuvre, but nowhere is his interst in the nuances of the production of historical accounts more pronounced and more thoughtfully treated than in Henry VIII (1613), a dramatic collaboration with John Fletcher. Deeply steeped in the historiographical developments that occurred in sixteenthand early seventeenth-century England, this play appropriates and dramatizes various contradictory historiographical methods and bespeaks a decisive break with official Tudor ways of thinking about the English past.


In The Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham represents the view of many Elizabethans when he decrees it to be the task of "historical Poesie" to record the "famous acts of Princes and the vertuous and worthy lives of our forefathers" (54). Arthur B. Ferguson, in his influential study, Clio Unbound, expands on this notion and suggests that Tudor historians cared little about social customs, institutions, and beliefs, and perhaps even less about secondary and largely informal causes, or anything else that reached "beyond the history of states as told in terms of the acts, the ambitions, and the tragic dilemmas of the actors themselves" (4,5). Alvin Kernan unites these views when he observes that Tudor playwrights appropriate the typical historical pattern for their historical dramas: "a weak or saintly king makes political mistakes and is overthrown by rebellious and arrogant subjects; the kingdom becomes a wasteland and society a chaos in which every man's hand is set against his fellow; after a period of great suffering, reaction against the forces of evil occurs, and a strong and good king restores order" (264). Henry VIII, it has been claimed repeatedly, is an aesthetic failure because it lacks a strong king as well as cohesive philosophy of history (Ribner 191).

It must be conceded that Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII fails to meet expectations raised by both Tudor historiographical practice and historical drama. The king is neither Puttenham's "great man," nor Kernan's "strong and good king [who] restores order." Joseph Candido describes him as a "well-intentioned yet strangely inattentive king" who fails "to address himself to the deep religious and political differences that divide his ministers" (56, 57). He is "blithely superficial" in his approach to the "grave and divisive issues of his reign" and too out of touch "to inspire our confidence in quite the same way that Henry V or even Bolingbroke does" (Candido 57). The central question here is whether Shakespeare and Fletcher are trying to portray the traditional "weak ruler" or aiming at something altogether different.

A second question is whether the play's episodic structure is due to a lack of both a consistent dramatic design and "a coherent and meaningful philosophy of history" (Ribner 291), or is instead a deliberate effort to portray history differently. How we answer these questions hinges on how we view the play's final scene and how we read Archbishop Cranmer's speech at the christening of Princess Elizabeth. Ostensibly at heaven's bidding, the Archbishop of Canterbury foretells the Age of Elizabeth as a golden world. She shall shower on England "a thousand thousand blessings"; "every man shall eat in safety / Under his own vine what he plants, and sing / The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours"; and "God shall be truly known" (Henry VIII 5.4.19, 33-35, 35). The nature of this speech is important because after the turmoil portrayed in the play—the opportunistic removal of the loyal Queen Katherine, the equally expedient execution of the Duke of Buckingham, and the timely fall of the powerful and corrupt Cardinal Wolsey—Cranmer tries to restore social order in the Henrician state by proffering a prophetic history of the next seven or eight decades. He links the Elizabethan past (which flows from the Henrician past) to the Jacobean present: "Nor shall this peace sleep with her" because her successor, James I, shall be "as great in admiration as herself," inherit her "blessedness," and "He shall flourish, / And like a mountain cedar, reach his branches / To all the plains about him: our children's children [i.e., James's generation] / Shall see this and bless heaven" (42, 43, 52-55). In this decidedly teleological oration it is the promise of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I which underwrites the appropriateness of Henry's rule. But what is a promise to Cranmer's audience in 1533 is of course history to his audience in 1613. In short, how we respond to the play as a whole depends greatly on how we respond to Cranmer's rendering of Tudor-Stuart history.

Commentators who view the play as an aesthetic success turn to this final scene (and its historiography) to unify its various elements into a meaningful whole. Paul Dean, for instance, contends that while the "falls" of Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey and the "rises" of Anne Bullen and Thomas Cranmer are not unrelated, they are best understood "as a translation into dramatic terms of the undulations of the Wheel of Fortune which controls the action" (Dean 177). Dean acknowledges and then unifies the play's episodic structure by invoking the medieval de casibus tradition, thus explaining a Jacobean history play in terms of an essentially medieval theory of history. Frank V. Cespedes argues "that the structure of Henry VIII is designed to force upon its audience an awareness of two things at once: the fortunate march of English history toward the reign of Elizabeth [and James], and the 'sad,' 'woeful' story . . . of individuals during Henry VIII's reign who unwittingly helped to shape, and perished in the unfolding of, this historical process" (Cespedes 415). Thus the play presents the Jacobean viewer with "a conflict between historical ends and means" (415) of an essentially "'good' historical process" (437). Matthew H. Wikander simply notes that the Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey episodes "befog" the "play's historiography," which really "celebrates the stability and continuity of the monarchy in a manner even more providential than that of the Tudor chronicles" (46, 47). If Cranmer constitutes the standard of historical judgment in the play, then Dean's and Cespedes's readings are...

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Ii. Buckingham, Katherine, And Wolsey: "The Chronicles Of Their Doings"


The judicial proceedings against Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey manifest none of the disinterestedness, uniformity, and stability one might hope to expect in a nation of law. Although conducted—at least in name—on behalf of the state, the three trials reveal a variety of motivations and methods of legal protocol, in particular with regard to the composition and treatment of evidence. The purpose of this variety is to show how radically different legal and historiographical discourses are able to exercise power and claim knowledge (or what passes for knowledge) under a single rubric, that of justice or truth or law.

Although many of the events that bear on the fates of these three characters do not lie in the distant past, common historiographical principles apply because, as D. R. Woolf observes, the kind of accounts of "current events, which would now be deemed journalism, were [then] commonly referred to as histories" (16). In understanding the trials of Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey it is therefore significant that Renaissance historians were generally dubious about the construction of reliable accounts of current or recent history. Bodin observes: "Sure those that will write of the present, can hardly write truly, but [because] they must touch the credit and reputation of some men" (11). Annabel Patterson, among others, has argued credibly that Bodin's point about the power of men of reputation was not lost on Shakespeare or his contemporaries (Patterson 52-115). And Raphael Holinshed himself, a principal source for Henry VIII, openly bemoans the historian's inability to be an witness to all that happens himself and the unfortunate need "to inquire of moderne eie-witnesses for the true setting downe" of what he delivers (Holinshed, Preface).

In Henry VIII, the case against the Duke of Buckingham is shaped by the historiographical concerns just described. During a pre-trial hearing held at Cardinal Wolsey's instigation, Henry seals the Duke's fate on the basis of the testimony of a single character, the Duke's former Surveyor. We hear of a formal trial (conducted by the Duke's peers) during which additional witnesses are heard before the Duke is officially sent to the scaffold, but it is the pre-trial hearing before the King that procures the death sentence. The oral testimony of a disgruntled employee is relied on to reconstruct the past speeches and intentions of a character (Holinshed, by contrast, places much greater stress on the "evidence" supplied by other witnesses, and he points out that "inquisitions were taken in diuerse shires of England of him" [Holinshed 658-60]).

Buckingham is arrested on charges of "high treason" against the King's person (1.1.201) only moments after declaring his aim to inform the King of Wolsey's treasonous political strategems. But before turning to the scene in which the Duke's Surveyor brings the "evidence," Shakespeare and Fletcher insert another scene—clearly for the purpose of juxtaposition—in which Wolsey himself stands accused of shadowy dealings. And if we compare the case against Buckingham with the initial assault on Wolsey's reputation, we instantly notice alternative ways of handling historical evidence. Early in act 1, when he is accused of levying unprecedented taxes on the people and thereby causing a popular uprising, the Cardinal bitterly complains that he is "Traduc'd by ignorant tongues, which neither know / My faculties nor person, yet will be / The chronicles of my doing" (1.2.72-74). Wolsey has good reason not to want anyone to narrate the history of his activities, for at the court he has few reliable allies and many opponents who would not hesitate to bring him down. But with Henry on his side, maybe Wolsey need not worry how his actions are chronicled. Katherine, who appears in the sympathetic role of the people's advocate, and who has little trouble exposing the Cardinal as the driving force behind the exorbitant "commissions, which compels from each / The sixth part of his substance, to be levied / Without delay" (1.2.57-59), is incapable of convincing her husband to acknowledge that Wolsey's unauthorized levy is a sign of his fundamentally corrupt character. The King immediately rescinds the tax measure and in that respect takes the evidence against the Cardinal seriously, but when it comes to the Cardinal himself, the charges against him are, for all practical purposes, treated as if they were, indeed, but slander from the tongues of ignorant accusers. The contradiction is never resolved.

In sharp contrast, Buckingham's pre-trial hearing before the King—the very next event in the same scene—shows us precisely how devastating an effect oral testimony can have on a person's reputation and fate. The Duke stands accused of treason by a single person, his former Surveyor, a man the Duke believes is now on the Cardinal's payroll (1.1.222-23). The Surveyor claims to have heard the Duke "discharge a horrible oath" in which he swore that, "were he evil us'd," he would assassinate the King (1.2.206, 207). The Surveyor, however, offers no material or corroborating evidence. His only attempt to bolster his credibility is to relate how the Duke was incited to these villainous thoughts by a "vain prophecy" (149), which promised that "the duke / Shall govern England" (170-71). Queen Katherine is obviously disturbed by the developments, and she (echoing Bodin) points out that the Surveyor may well be motivated by a desire for revenge against his former master, who dismissed him from "office / On the complaint o' th' tenants" (172-73). The Queen's observation also recalls the earlier complaint against Wolsey, who, like the Surveyor, was charged with wrongdoings by anguished subjects (56-57). The similarity heightens the contrast between the two "trial" scenes, and the difference between the judges. Under roughly similar circumstances, the Duke dismissed his Surveyor, while the King retains his Cardinal. And to top it off, the King pronounces the Duke a "traitor to th' height" (214) solely on the basis of the testimony of a man of dubious motivation and reputation.

Holinshed was clearly not convinced of Henry's justice in this matter (even though he enumerates more "evidence" against the Duke). Recalling one of his own guidelines for history-writing, Holinshed concludes his recapitulation of the indictment against Buckingham with the following remarks: "These were the speciali articles & points comprised in the indictment, and laid to his charge: but how trulie, or in what sort prooued, I haue not further to say, either in accusing or excusing him, other than as I find in [Edward] Hall and Polydor[e Vergil], whose words in effect, I haue thought to impart to the reader, and without anie wresting of the same either to or fro" (Holinshed 661). Holinshed does not always show himself such a paragon of historiographical prudence, but here his assessment accords with that of modern historians (see, for instance, Ridley 122-23), and Shakespeare and Fletcher follow the chronicler's lead by inserting a scene in which two gentlemen agree that "By all conjectures" (2.1.41) "the cardinal is the end of this" (40), that is, of the Duke's fall. That the King may be implicated in the biased proceedings against Buckingham is suggested by Henry's words to Cranmer in act 5: "At what ease / Might corrupt minds procure knaves as corrupt / To swear against you? Such things have been done" (5.1.131-33). (The passage is lifted from Foxe's Acts and Monuments, but with an interesting addition. The line "Such things have been done" does not appear in Foxe. The addition suggests that Shakespeare and Fletcher want us to recall the Surveyor's testimony against Buckingham. The relevant passage in Foxe reads: "Do you not consider what an easy thing it is to procure three or four false knaves to witness against you? Think you to have better luck that way than your master Christ had?" [896].)

But there is a further consideration to be reckoned with in assessing the "justice" doled out by the King, one that makes it critically perverse to view this episode as merely a clash between "great men." Buckingham himself offers a complex reading of his fate. When first arrested, he stoically professes that

The net has fallen upon me; I shall
Under device and practice.
It will help me nothing. To plead mine innocence, for that dye is on
Which makes my whit'st part black. The will
of heav'n
Be done in all things: I obey.

(1.1.203-4, 207-10)

There is an intriguing irony at work here. Buckingham is apparently so convinced of the efficiency of Wolsey's plots ("device and practice") against him that he believes it useless to resist (regardless of his actual guilt or innocence). He also implies, however, that if his impending death is indeed a certainty (and only if it is a certainty), then it must be God's will that he dies. Consequently, in the Duke's world view, the effectiveness of Wolsey's machination becomes equated directly with providence because only providence can be a certainty.

These views do not change as Buckingham's execution draws near. Following the trial he still professes his innocence, but also states that he bears the law (a third facilitator in his downfall) no malice for his death, and that "his vows and prayers / Yet are the King's" (2.1.62, 88-89). The law, he says, "has done upon the premises but justice" (63), and thereby he appears to validate the process which has brought him down, even though he still implicitly challenges the evidence and says he "could wish more Christians" those who have "sought" the judgment against him (64). This dichotomy continues to haunt his final thoughts. "Heaven has a hand in all" (124), he proclaims, but then warns that if you "are liberal of your loves and counsels, / Be sure you be not loose; for those you make friends / And give your hearts to, when they once perceive / The least rub in your fortunes, fall away / Like water from ye" (126-30).

Simultaneously, Buckingham asserts the omnipresence of providence and holds out for the efficacy of an individual's actions. If we posit that the Duke believes his predicament to be shaped by binary powers—divine determinism versus independent human agency—we can only conclude that he has given up on a unified vision of the world in which contradictions are only apparent. This paradoxical view of reality becomes less vexing, however, when we consider Foucault's conception of power as a field of forces without traditional notions of agency, and from which there is no escape: "Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power" (Foucault 95). The apparent paradox is resolved if we do not insist on situating the Duke's views in the context of a binary clash between freedom and determinism. Although Buckingham clings...

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Iii. Historiography And Royal Legitimacy

Judith H. Anderson astutely observes that "looking back from Cranmer's vision to the rest of the play, even in the absence of an intentional signal from the playwright[s], we should have difficulty not wondering whether so nice a vision is not merely rhetorical" (153). At the christening of the infant Elizabeth, Archbishop Cranmer's exalted historical vision of a Golden Age to come is plainly intended to erase the historiographical eclecticism and the inscrutability of history itself that the play has given voice to up until that point. As behooves the king's impromptu historian, the divinely inspired Cranmer presumably affords special insight into the "deep structures" of history by suggesting that while certain...

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Works Cited

Anderson, Judith H. Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.

Barker, Francis, and Peter Hulme. "'Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish': The Discursive Con-texts of The Tempest." Alternative Shakespeares. Ed. John Drakakis. New York: Methuen, 1985. 191-205.

Blundeville, Thomas. The true order and Methode of wryting and reading Hystories. Ed. Hugh G. Dick. Huntington Library Quarterly 2 (1940): 149-170.

Bodin, Jean. "Of Choice of History, by Way of Preface." Thomas Heywood's translation of Sallust, The Conspiracy of Cataline and The War of Jugurtha (1608)....

(The entire section is 723 words.)