The modernity of Henry VIII

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Hugh M. Richmond, University of California, Berkeley

When the Shakespeare Program at the University of California, Berkeley, announced its production of Henry VIII—the first I know of in northern California—the very existence of so neglected a Shakespeare play was unknown to many students on our campus. Some of the more knowing argued that so unfamiliar a play could not have been written by Shakespeare and was therefore unworthy of revival. Initially my cast was hardly less doubtful, swayed only by the fact that our previous productions of such marginal texts as Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen had confounded pessimistic expectations by exciting their audiences to enthusiasm and delight by their distinctive theatrical impact. For all three of these late plays diverge from the critical expectations of most Shakespearians to the point that many scholars are still tempted to assert that they are at least in part by other authors, and therefore necessarily inferior. In practice, we found that the three plays display a unique stage blending of unpretentious naturalism of style (as in the crowd scene before the christening in Henry VIII, V.iii.l-90) unexpectedly combined with exploitation of the new scenic effects which Inigo Jones had recently imported from Italy (as in Katherine's deathbed vision, IV.ii.82). This bold combination of opposites displays the characteristic theatrical imagination of Shakespeare. In the case of Henry VIII, its diverse qualities of verbal realism and physical spectacle are so distinctive that they have had a sustained and decisive influence on the history of the English stage and even on the evolution of historical realism in the medium of cinematic film itself, as I propose to demonstrate. Without such performances as Sarah Siddons's playing of Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, the history of the modern stage would have lacked a formative influence in the development of naturalistic acting styles of which Method acting is only one example. In the event, such is this play's power to exact attention that our student production of Henry VIII was noticed twice in the august pages of the New York Times (6/5/89, 7/5/89).

Despite our minimal resources, the effect of our opening scene for the play was true to the theatrical tradition of its splendour, thanks largely to the costumes of our Dramatic Arts Department, for we anticipated the documentary sentiments of the play's Prologue by progressively assembling our whole cast on stage in period dress:

                           Think ye see
The very persons of our noble story
As they were living.

This required the marshalling of no less than forty-five distinctive characters, all attired in the extravagant Tudor costumes required by the text—since the script is uniquely exact for its times in specifying highly elaborate costume details (as in the stage directions for the coronation procession at IV.i.36). From the start, our audience was overpowered by this massive evocation of a whole Renaissance society, involving numerous historical characters, and not limited just to the obviously familiar major roles of King Henry, Cardinal Wolsey, Queen Katherine and Anne Bullen, but extending to Sir Thomas More, Archbishop Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and a host of a scarcely less significant historical personalities. We cast our Prologue as a Court Lady, to match the importance of the female roles in the play (following the precedent of Tyrone Guthrie in 1949, who assigned it to the Old Lady for the same reason). Indeed, we altered the gender of the Lord Chamberlain to that of a duchess, identified as 'the King's Sister', for the same reason, and similarly transposed the sex of Lord Abergavenny to diversify Buckingham's faction. Women were a very significant part of Tudor culture, dating back to the time of Henry VII's dominant mother, Margaret Beaufort (see Richard III, I.ii.20-4, IV.ii.87-93). Since the time of Sarah Siddons the stress on this feminine element in Henry VIII has helped to keep it current—as the Epilogue clearly anticipates in its concern with 'the merciful construction of good women' (10), which our Court Lady also delivered.

The play is thus not focused narrowly on the lead character but evokes almost all the relevant figures in what has proved to be one of the formative periods in early modern England. This transformation was not simply the result of a Renaissance of classical learning, but was also partly governed by the more truly revolutionary effect of the Reformation, which for good or ill has since determined the religious, moral, and political values of many Western societies. In displaying the replacement of the Catholic Queen Katherine and Cardinal Wolsey by the 'Lutheran' Queen Anne and the Anglican Archbishop Cranmer, Shakespeare defines a key event in the development of modern England: the break with Rome which occasioned not only the creation of the Anglican Church; but that distancing of England from the rest of the European continent which has barely been overcome to this day. When Samuel Rowley wrote an earlier play about Henry VIII and his court, When You See Me, You Know Me, he also showed some of this historical awareness—but his history was erratic and heavily slanted in favour of simpler Protestant attitudes. It was also confused by wildly fanciful episodes and extended clowning.… Rowley's facile sectarianism is just what Shakespeare's Prologue explicitly rejects: 'a merry, bawdy play, / A noise of targets' (14-15). Unlike many earlier productions (including Guthrie's), which reduced Bishop Gardiner and even Archbishop Cranmer to comic, ineffectual figures, we played our clerical figures very seriously and intensely, as surely befits a martyr such as the latter proved to be in the end. The play is thus not simply political but ecclesiastical, not to say religious, in its concerns.

On the other hand, Shakespeare's last play is not about the inner religious tensions of King Henry, who has little of the deep subjectivity of a Hamlet or a Lear. Such a more inward Henry VIII only appears in another characterisation of 'Enrique VIII' a decade later, in 1627, created by the Spanish Catholic dramatist Calderón for his treatment of the subject in La cisma de Inglaterra, with 'Ana Balnea' as the villainess and 'Infanta Maria' as the ultimate heroine. In Shakespeare's play there are no intense soliloquies or vehement affirmations for any other character either. The play suited the modest acting resources of our student company because of its low-key emotions and intimate verbal style. The most that characters like Buckingham, Wolsey, and Katherine achieve in their falls from power is a rueful reconciliation with fate. All that Buckingham can manage on his way to execution is:

The law I bear no malice for my death;
'T has done, upon the premises, but justice;
But those that sought it I could wish more
Be what they will, I heartily forgive them.

Wolsey in ruin is no more passionate:

I know myself now, and I feel within me
A peace above all earthly dignities,
A still and quiet conscience. The King has cur'd

Rather than attempting the investigation of the deepest drives of a dominant hero, the play plots the political interactions of the various interests grouped around a king who is less of an autonomous agent, such as a Coriolanus or an Antony, than a pivot for the action. Despite the effects of Henry's attraction to Anne Bullen, we are never exposed to the compulsive feelings which drive his choices. He may echo Romeo momentarily when he first glimpses Anne (I.iv.75), but he never rises to the self-betraying romantic rhetoric of Romeo. Indeed, Henry is presented as less than fully conscious of his own motives. Even when trying to explain them publicly at the trial (II.iv.156), he attributes his arguments primarily to political origins:

My conscience first receiv'd a tenderness,
Scruple, and prick, on certain speeches utter'd
By th' Bishop of Bayonne, then French
Who had been hither sent on the debating
Marriage 'twixt the Duke of Orleance and
Our daughter Mary.

One has only to compare this pedestrian account to the emotional tensions of the marriage settlements in the opening scenes of King Lear or Othello to grasp how retrospective and distanced Shakespeare makes the major decisions in Henry VIII. By contrast to Henry VIII, in Shakespeare's earlier history plays 'There is dread of particular kings but not of the institution of monarchy, and there is no institutional ceremonial procedure to encloud the personalities of monarchs or to insulate them from home truths as Henry VIII is so long insulated from the truth about Wolsey' [Blair Worden, "Shakespeare and Politics," Shakespeare Survey, XLIV, 1992, p. 12]. This subordination of the King's private feelings to his public persona is perhaps a trait of political realism in the play, contrasting with the distinctive self-absorption which Shakespeare attributes to a Macbeth or an Othello. The play's restraint in language and attitude certainly denies an actor any chance of exploiting swashbuckling rhetoric like that of Othello's speeches to the Venetian Senate and just before his suicide (I.ii. 127-70; V.ii.59-282, 338-56), or any savouring of the tensions in the hectic mixed metaphors which reveal to us such a deeply self-divided Macbeth (I.iv.1-28; III.ii.13-56).

Moreover, Henry VIII does not confine itself simply to the great dramatic moments in the lives of its principals: the trial of Henry's divorce from Queen Katherine; the consequent fall of Wolsey; the related meteoric rise of Anne to become queen; Cranmer's triumph over his enemies; and the final birth to Anne of the princess who is to become Queen Elizabeth I—the patron of the author himself. In our production we found that, despite the interest elicited by these major moments of confrontation, the overall emotional and verbal texture of the play was far subtler, more varied, and ultimately far less merely showy than is usually assumed from stress on these scenes. It is true that the play has always provided the optimum opportunity for elaborate period costumes and enormously rich and complex scenery evoking historical settings such as Whitehall, Westminster Abbey, and Hampton Court. But we were surprised to find our audiences responded just as intensely to the numerous supposedly minor scenes among supporting characters with which these larger spectacles alternate so skilfully. Blair Worden confirms this more intimate effect: 'We are taken into a Renaissance court: the court of the monarchy that has broken the medieval nobility and imposed new values and new rules of conduct.' In earlier plays honour is accorded to the personal bravery of such a figure as Hotspur, but 'in Henry VIII honour has come to mean something quite different. Now it is defined and circumscribed by the court. The term congratulates the court's control of power and of reward and of display' (Worden, pp. 12-13).

Worden finds the vivid vignettes of courtly decadence a crucial part of this picture: 'The nobles are not sentimentalized: we glimpse their snobbery and selfishness and petulance.' It is true that in the past the pageantry of Anne's coronation (IV.i) often so impressed spectators that it was broken out of the play as a separate spectacle—for example, in the eighteenth century (see p. 39 below). However, in Anne's earlier little scene (II.iii) with her attendant, the cynical Old Lady continues to delight modern audiences with her sardonic insight into Anne's veiled ambition, as she did, too in eighteenth-century productions. We were fortunate in casting an experienced and mature actress in the role. She confirmed that the brief part of the Old Lady always earns its performer credit disproportionate to its extent, because of the witty cynicism with which the old courtier drily admits she would willingly sacrifice her virtue for a bent 'three-pence' or even for 'Carnarvonshire', let alone 'for little England' and 'a thousand pounds a year' (II.iii.36,46-8). The audience responds with similar wry realism to her pretentions after noting the compulsive flirtatiousness of Anne earlier. Anne's flippancy sets a cynical tone before the King's arrival at Wolsey's ball. At Berkeley we stressed this trait through her self-betraying bandying of low sexual innuendos with the senile sensualist Lord Sands (I.iv.1-50). Such realistic scenes are full of dry wit, but they also carry elusive overtones of the court's ominous character, as when Anne, confronted with the King's generosity, involuntarily anticipates her tragic future as queen: "it faints me / To think what follows' (II.iii. 104-5).

One of the reasons that the script so suited our unprofessional cast is that it is not a kinetic study of monumental egotism in a great character such as the tragic heroes, Hamlet, Othello, and Lear, but the painstaking exploration of a whole society through the interaction of multiple minor characters at every level. Henry cannot act as a private person without costly public exposure to comment, which the divorce trial elicits from the court and the people. Similarly, Katherine's private virtues are no protection in a complex dynastic situation: her personal views are not endorsed by the script, as her humble attendant Griffith makes painfully apparent in a scene which subverts the authority of her judgements against Wolsey in a most salutary and unexpected way (IV.ii). In displaying the complexity of this historical pattern of social structures and personal attititudes, Shakespeare provides his characteristically varied illumination through such small parts as Griffith, the Old Lady, and Lord Sands, in a plain, vernacular style which is very modern. Even at pivotal moments such as Queen Katherine's self-vindication before the court (II.iv. 12-134), Shakespeare chooses rather to have her follow faithfully the authentic, plain words of the original records than to embroider them with more elaborate flowers of rhetoric.

The text insists on the realistic communication of intimate behaviour, suiting the histrionic capacities of my students. Observing the nervous Cardinal just before his fall, Norfolk describes Wolsey's anxious meditations with a precision anticipating that of Method acting:

          he bites his lip, and starts,
Stops on a sudden, looks upon the ground,
Then lays his finger on his temple; straight
Springs out into fast gait, then stops again,
Strikes his breast hard, and anon casts
His eye against the moon. In most strange
We have seen him set himself.

The script is full of such exact specifications, including far more elaborate stage directions than other contemporary texts, as when the Cardinal glimpses Buckingham in the first scene: 'The Cardinal in his passage fixeth his eye on Buckingham, and Buckingham on him, both full of disdain' (SD I.i. 14). This kind of detail indicates that we are dealing with a far more realistic, mundane version of history than the tradition associated with Marlowe's 'mighty line', or the grandiloquent speeches of the heroes of Richard III or Henry V.

For example, there are two anonymous observers who recurrently comment on the big spectacles in Henry VIII: the progress to the execution of Buckingham (II.i.1-56), the pending trial of Katherine (II.i.137-69), the coronation of Anne (IV.i.1-117). In print their lines may read like dull redundancies to the visible action; but when we cast them as two gossipy London housewives, they proved to be dextrous evocations of that universal desire for inside information which is shared by modern media commentators and their audiences when talking about the 'Royals'. Similarly, in performing the curiously protracted opening scene (in which Buckingham and his cohorts recapitulate the diplomatic events of the time, such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold), we discovered the concern that underlay this anxious recension. This was not simply plot exposition, but display of the speakers' anxiety to clarify current political issues which results from living in a police state where the least outward lapse from the political correctness of the moment spells not merely ruin but almost instant execution—as the fate of Buckingham so drastically confirms. Blair Worden notes the contrast with Shakespeare's earlier plays about the medieval kings of England: 'Shakespeare's medieval nobility had been a warlike nobility, its power resting as much on its estates and on its ability to arm its tenantry as on royal favour. By contrast the nobles at the court of Shakespeare's Henry VIII cower in the royal antechambers dreading the royal anger (II.2.64-74)' (Worden, p. 12).

This deep tension underlies many seemingly banal scenes as read on the printed page (III.ii.i-74), which only performance can fully evoke. Thus the near-destruction of the innovative Cranmer by the malevolence of the reactionary Gardiner (V.ii) is frighteningly true to our modern experience of the veiled machinations within totalitarian states. In our Berkeley production we had at first intended greatly to reduce the deeply villainous Gardiner's part, but the student cast in the role stoutly defended the restoration of most of his lines (e.g. V.i.1-55) as essential to his giving acute tension to the last scenes of the play—and he proved right, thus refuting the feeble-minded theatrical tradition of making Gardiner a drunken clown which has persisted from the Restoration productions to Tyrone Guthrie's. The quarrelsome final council session (V.ii.43-215) is surprisingly convincing on stage, with its endless shifting of loyalties and awareness. We found it suited the conspiratorial era of Gorbachev.

What marks the play as distinctive is this deliberately repressed dramatic tension, validated by the intense awareness in most audiences of the doom which hangs over every important character. We continually sense the discrepancy between, on the one hand, the surface display of a flamboyant egotism, clad in bright costumes, glittering with brocade and jewellery and moving in richly furnished apartments, and on the other hand, the universal, desperate, and valid anxiety about impending disaster which subverts the very showiness which has made the play such a popular success over the centuries. An audience may savour the authentic costumes and sets (though we, at least, had to be content merely with a dais in a spacious room decorated in Jacobean style)—but the play's most memorable audience 'affect' lies in the dramatic irony felt because almost no one watching it can be ignorant that the proud integrity of Queen Katherine will not save her from ruin, and that the executioner is waiting offstage not only for Buckingham, but ultimately for Anne, for Cranmer, for More, and for Cromwell.

The dramatic experience most exploited by the play thus makes it a memorable study in dramatic irony which continually flatters the audience by invoking the observers' own complex judgements on the action presented. These are based on the superiority of the audience's own hindsight to the characters' anticipations of the outcomes of the situations on stage. Of course, the original audiences in 1613 would have felt this irony even more intensely than we do because they were at most two generations away from the historical events shown, events which directly affected their parents and themselves. Yet even in remotest modern California we all know about King Henry and his ill-fated wives—indeed, it is probably this play which led the way for Charles Laughton's entertaining histrionics in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and to the successful historical television series in which the King's role was taken by Keith Micheli (both actors graduated from these modern media events to stage performances of Shakespeare's version). However, while we may know the story at a distance from such modern documentary artefacts, Jacobean audiences would still have had a shivering sense that they lived within an era when the volatile and murderous behaviour of Henry VIII remained the norm, as the belated execution of Sir Walter Ralegh confirmed in 1618. For us, such immediacy and relevance may only be evoked by such themes as the career and fall of a Huey Long, or of a John Kennedy, or even of a Margaret Thatcher.

In order to understand fully what we now can experience through Shakespeare's script for Henry VIII, it is therefore first necessary to trace how our renderings of it both derive from and yet contrast with the accumulated theatrical experiences of earlier audiences. For, unlike almost all other Shakespearian plays, Henry VIII has an unbroken theatrical history from the time of Shakespeare himself, in which successive directors have drawn on received opinion about the author's own intentions and practical knowledge of how best these can be realised. In this play at least, no modern productions can avoid indebtedness to this inherited expertise, however fashionably contemporary they seem with our own values and conventions. This remains true even of such provocative productions as that of Terrence Gray at Cambridge in 1933, which used cardboard figures for some of the characters (for this effect appears already in the seventeenth century); or the comic realism which vitalised Tyrone Guthrie's 1949 Stratford production (which drew on caricatures of the script already over-developed by Davenant's successors); or the post-modernist artifices of Howard Davies at Stratford in 1983 (which required the use of the same mechanical scenic devices used by Davenant and his rivals). Even our modern feminist concern with the female roles of Shakespeare goes back to the reversal of sympathy from Henry to Katherine achieved by eighteenth-century actresses culminating in Sarah Siddons, whose new mode of self-projection into the role of Katherine anticipates most of the attitudes, techniques and effects of Method acting. Thus, in examining how performance helps us to understand the text of Henry VIII, we also learn how modern staging came about. My students discovered that they were not rehashing stale history in a moribund chronicle play, but investigating precedents for many of their own manners, attitudes, and experiences. The remarkable aptness of the script for the methods of the modern media is at least partly because these methods themselves are derived directly from the tradition and even the precedent afforded by the staging of Henry VIII.…

Source: "The modernity of Henry VIII," in King Henry VIII, Manchester University Press, 1994, pp. 1-10.