*Westminster Palace. Royal palace in London in which most of the play is set. The vast palace affords the play’s producers rich opportunities for sumptuous spectacle. Life at the royal court often consisted of revels, masques, and displays of splendor. There is plenty of pageantry in Henry VIII, but there is also harsh and cold realism. As Shakespeare shows, King Henry’s court was a place of intrigue and counter-intrigue, of fulsome emotion and eloquence. His play exploits the size and layout of Henry’s palace for the various conflicts that are played out.
The play uses various rooms for different dramatic purposes. An antechamber, for example, is the setting for the duke of Buckingham’s outrage at Cardinal Wolsey and his aim—which is forestalled—to report to the king about the cardinal’s treachery. The palace itself is the place in which news of the birth of the daughter of Anne Bullen (Anne Boleyn) is first heard, and it serves as the locale for the play’s climax, in which the infant Elizabeth is baptized and eulogized by Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, in the final scene. The council chamber is the place where Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, makes suit to the king on behalf of the people who are upset by the court’s extravagance. An anteroom and yard are used for brief scenes in act 5 dealing with the bishop of Winchester’s unsuccessful attempt to destroy Cranmer.
Upon first reading, Henry VIII seems obscure and inaccessible to modern readers. Its episodic plot leaps from one group of characters to the next, relying on the audience's background understanding of Tudor history to fill in the gaps. Despite its difficulties, however, the basic format of Henry VIII looks more familiar. It can be seen as an Elizabethan version of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," a glimpse, although fictionalized, into the lives of the most famous public figures of the era. It examines the private and the public lives of England's rulers, and looks at what happens when personal likes and dislikes get tangled up with politics. Henry's desire to find a new wife is not just the story of a man having an affair; he is the king, and the woman he chooses will influence a nation and mother the heir to the throne. The squabble between Buckingham and Wolsey is not just the jealousy of two men competing for their boss's attention; the outcome is a matter of life and death and will determine whether nobles and commoners have equal right to rule. The popularity of stories about the personal lives of the powerful is borne out by the large collection of history plays written and performed during Shakespeare's time. Audiences wanted to know about the lives of their public figures, just as modern audiences are fascinated with the personal lives of the Kennedy family, or the British royal family.
For all its familiarity as a peek into the lives of the famous, Henry VIII contains qualities that are peculiarly Elizabethan. As much as a modern author or director might fictionalize the lives of modern leaders, for example in Oliver Stone's version of the life of John F. Kennedy, modern stories sometimes lack the moral tone prevalent in Henry VIII. Shakespeare's play belongs to a medieval tradition known in Latin as de casibus illustrorum, "concerning the falls of great men." The typical de casibus story depicts a man rising to greatness and then falling at the whims of fortune. The story moralizes the fall, teaching that no amount of worldly power or wealth can survive the final stroke of fortune which is death, and that wise princes will amass spiritual wealth rather than scrambling after fleeting worldly goods. The falls of Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey all occur in the de casibus tradition; Wolsey especially seems to undergo a spiritual transformation after being stripped of his earthly power. In this sense, the play is meant to be a meditation for members of the audience to contemplate their own existence in the...
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