The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268

Anne of the Thousand Days begins as the curtain rises to reveal a dark stage in the prologue of act 1. The lights come up on a young woman sitting in a room with a barred window. It is Anne Boleyn on the eve of her execution in May, 1536. She speaks, ruminating on her imminent death as the just end of her bloody career as Henry VIII’s second wife and queen. Anne wonders out loud how many days there were from the day she first gave herself to Henry to the last day she saw him at her trial; she falls into a reverie as she begins to remember and count the days. The lights fade, momentarily leaving a spot on her as act 1, scene 1 begins.

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It is the spring of 1526, and King Henry VIII is coming to Hever Castle, the home of his treasurer, Thomas Boleyn. Boleyn owes his wealth and his station to the fact that for the past four years his eldest daughter Mary has been the king’s mistress. Pregnant with Henry’s child, Mary knows that she is losing the king and bitterly regrets having given herself completely instead of holding something back to keep his interest. Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s powerful chief administrator, enters, revealing that Henry comes to Hever because he has had his eye on Mary’s younger sister, Anne. The king makes his entrance soon thereafter. Henry VIII, who after many years of marriage to Queen Katharine of Aragon is still without a male heir, is a powerful man who justifies his personal excesses by invoking the divine right of his kingship. He sends Boleyn off to get Anne, staying to talk with some gallants of the court; he has never been refused by a woman, Henry boasts, and once he has her he loses interest.

The lights fade on this scene and come up on the next to reveal a young Anne in the arms of her lover. They are both very much in love and wish to be married. Wolsey interrupts them, sends the lad off, and tells Anne of the king’s intentions. Indignant and mindful of her sister’s sad situation, Anne defies the cardinal. He is joined by her parents, who plead with her to forget her fiancé and give in to the king’s will. Anne’s arch criticism of the “royal bull” is interrupted by Henry himself, who has come for her. He finds wooing rough going as Anne quickly asserts herself, displaying a courage and independence the likes of which the shocked and angered Henry has probably never before experienced. Challenging the king, she defies him to destroy her, her family, and her lover; Henry storms off in an impotent rage.

The rest of the act passes quickly, with Anne staying at Hever as Henry resumes his relations with her sister; meanwhile, Anne’s lover is married off to another woman and dies soon thereafter. Henry remains obsessed with Anne, the only woman who has ever refused him. He returns to Hever and dances with her, trying to win her again, only to be countered by her assertion that she would never suffer to be merely his mistress and bear him bastards. In a fever to have her, Henry promises that the pope will annul his marriage on the grounds that the queen had previously been married to his brother, leaving him free to make Anne queen of England and her son heir to the throne. Anne closes act 1 from her prison cell, saying that that was the first night she gave herself to him and the night she began to love him.

Act 2 is King Henry’s reminiscence, beginning with a prologue in which he considers Anne’s death warrant, tormenting himself by wondering whether she was ever unfaithful to him. In the first scene, Anne has prematurely assumed her place as queen at Henry’s court, making it a center of culture and learning with such figures as Sir Thomas More, the brilliant writer and statesman. Henry and Anne’s idyll is ruined when Cardinal Wolsey tells them that the pope has refused to annul the king’s marriage to...

(The entire section contains 1839 words.)

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