Shakespeare and the End of History
The study of a writer's late work as often as not invokes two apparently incompatible models of history, linear and cyclical. The concept of the career (with one possible OED definition humorously quoted by Michael Millgate [in Testamentary Acts: Browning, Tennyson, James, Hardy, 1992] as 'a short gallop at full speed') seems to imply a conscious, if imperilled, linearity, within which 'late writing' can be seen either as evidence of decline or as an act of will, a looking forward beyond death, a bequeathing, a rejection of the finality of the final (2). At the same time, this bequeathing can be, and often is, manipulative, a deliberate rewriting of the past for the benefit of posterity. In this sense, the 'testamentary act' can be seen as cyclical rather than linear, a return to the 'early' in order to reshape it for those coming after. In other words, late writing is as much about revision, rethinking, and reshaping for the future as it is about finality.
The peculiar tensions and uncertainties that characterise Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII are, I would argue, the product of its status as just such a 'testamentary act.'1 Coming as it does at the very end of Shakespeare's career, the play has been seen as a failure or at best a partial success, as evidence of artistic decay or actual illness. Even those who accept that the play is collaborative tend to read the partnership with Fletcher as a possible...
(The entire section is 738 words.)
The word 'truth' turns up no fewer than twenty-five times in Henry VIII, along with eighteen appearances of 'true' (nineteen, if you count the title of the play as reported by contemporary observers, All is True), six of 'truly,' and one of 'true-hearted.' The Prologue alone offers two mentions of 'truth' and one of 'true,' connecting the concept first of all with a nexus of faith, hope and expenditure ['Such as give / Their money out of hope they may believe, / May here find truth' (Prologue 7-9)], then with a sense of deliberate selectivity or, perhaps, election ['our chosen truth' (Prologue 18)], and finally with the relationship between artistic intention and representation ['the opinion that we bring / To make that only true we now intend' (Prologue 20-21)].2 The play seems almost to tease its audience with 'truth,' hinting at contemporary relevance while retaining a certain ambivalence: 'Think ye see / The very persons of our noble story / As they were living' (Prologue 25-7), the Prologue demands, though it is not clear whether this is merely an exhortation to forget the time-lapse between the events on stage and the England of the present, or whether it is a broad hint that the characters have their counterparts in contemporary politics. A number of recent critics have opted for the latter, reading the emphasis on 'truth' as a straightforward assertion of the conscious topicality of the play.
(The entire section is 2319 words.)
This context for Truth would seem to confirm readings of Henry VIII, or All is True as a firmly Protestant, apocalyptic play. Cranmer's prophetic emphasis on Time and Truth evokes an iconographie tradition central to the representation of Protestant hopes and it provides a resounding resolution to the political dilemmas dramatised in the course of the play. Yet several critics (e.g. [Lee Bliss, "The Wheel of Fortune and the Maiden Phoenix in Shakespeare's King Henry the Eighth, " English Literary History 42; 1975]) have rejected readings of Henry VIII which begin with Cranmer's speech and then look back at previous events in light of that speech. For these critics, there is a strangeness, an uncertainty, about Henry VIII which is not resolved by locating the play within a tradition of unquestioning apocalypticism: Cranmer's prophecy may come as a final revelation in the play and it may seem to echo the language of apocalypse, but (pace Frances Yates) Henry VIII can hardly be called an apocalyptic play. As Clifford Leech pointed out nearly forty years ago [in "The Structure of the Last Plays," Shakespeare Survey 11, 1958],
Of all the last plays [Henry VIII] is the one that most clearly indicates the cyclic process. Nothing is finally decided here, the pattern of future events being foreshadowed as essentially a repetition of what is here presented....
(The entire section is 2305 words.)
There is little doubt that, for all the problems of truth and testimony the audience have witnessed by the time they arrive at Elizabeth's christening, Cranmer's prophecy nonetheless has a powerful and direct emotive charge. Foakes is clearly right in arguing that the Jacobean audience would have been attuned to two Elizabeths and two royal ceremonies. The prophecy is thus directed at a series of futures, some already completed by 1613, others still projected. And it depends heavily upon the audience's hindsight for its success. The completed predictions serve to validate those as yet unfulfilled, offering a clear linear dynamic to the eschatological mindset, but it is important both to recognise the play's rejection of direct historical agency and to ponder the expected response to the unproven predictions, in particular the Jacobean audience's reading of the scene's references to and predictions for King James. And I would argue that the play demands the deployment of hindsight as a means to examine the contemporary status of the Reformation in England.
Part of the curiosity of Cranmer's speech is that it seems to ascribe to James imperial aspirations which were associated with militant Protestantism but which were at best marginal to the king's own preferred policies. Apocalypse and Empire have a traditional intimacy: here it is the colonisation of America, promoted by Protestants but viewed with suspicion by the king, which is...
(The entire section is 1659 words.)
There is one further level on which Henry VIII can be seen as a testamentary act, a very specific act of 'will.' Marking and, I would argue, embracing the transition from Shakespeare to Fletcher (the scene of Cranmer's prophecy is, after all, Fletcher's, not Shakespeare's), Henry VIII returns to Elizabeth and to the history play both to mark the genre's roots in Shakespeare's early work and to project its future in Fletcher's post-Shakespearean plays. For Shakespeare to give up this moment to Fletcher (whose usual pattern of collaborative work was to write the central acts of a play and leave the beginnings and endings to his partner) can be read not as a sign of weariness or illness but as a significant gesture, an apparent selflessness which is in fact a projection of self. It is a gesture which looks forward to an ideal future, to a new reign which will be both different and the same, even as it recognises that successors rarely live up to their predecessors' hopes. In other words, Shakespeare's not writing the scene of Cranmer's prophecy can in itself be regarded as a testamentary act, disabling all readings of the play which view the scene as a culmination, a conclusion. It is no more final than any of the other episodes that have made up the play. To project a future, it returns to the past, a progression at once linear and cyclical, sustaining the hegemony both of Shakespeare and of the King's company, succession assured. As...
(The entire section is 723 words.)