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Shakespeare and the End of History

Gordon McMullan, King's College, Cambridge


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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 sign of weakness or lack of interest, begrudging Shakespeare his return to professional activity in the wake of The Tempest. Yet it is also possible to see the play's disjunctions as deliberate, and to argue that, in turning back to history thirteen years after Henry V, Shakespeare is knowingly returning with experimental motivation to a form associated with the early part of his career in a manner characteristic of the 'testamentary act.'

In his work on late nineteenth-century writers, Michael Millgate notes alternative etymologies for the term 'testament.' Two in particular hold resonances which are curiously apposite for analysis of Henry VIII. The word, he observes,

has popularly taken on something of the aura of its now archaic meaning of 'covenant,' especially as found in scriptural accounts of the Last Supper (according to the Authorized version). Its use in legal contexts may also have tenuously attracted to it the sense of testifying or bearing witness, the word 'testator,' indeed, having historically been used as meaning both 'one who makes a will' and 'one who or that which testifies; a witness'. (Millgate 1992, 186)

The religious significance of 'testament' has immediate relevance for a play which looks back to the time of England's break with Rome and which examines the meaning of the birth of Elizabeth for English history. The play's religious (or perhaps better, ecclesiological) meditations, though, remain unsettling, exploring issues of conscience and motivation at the time of the Henrician schism whilst avoiding representing that schism directly. This evasion of direct representation is itself typical since it is the question of 'testimony,' of pinpointing and recounting the truth, which is repeatedly at stake in the play's uncertainties. The act of witnessing is demonstrated to be essential to the construction of history, and it is history as construct, rather than as event, which is emphasised throughout.

I would argue that an examination of the logic of truth in Henry VIII suggests that the play is best viewed as a complex and unsettling meditation on the 'end of history,' simultaneously promoting and denying the possibility...

(This entire section contains 738 words.)

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of truth at a moment of cultural crisis within which the word 'Truth' held very specific sectarian resonances. In deploying the phrase 'the end of history,' I wish to invoke both eschatology and historiography: on the one hand, the sixteenth and seventeenth century apocalypticism (the End of History) that provided a radical symbolic base for Protestants in their political and aesthetic struggle with the counter-reformation, and on the other, the late twentieth century acknowledgment of the radical textuality of historical representation (the 'end of history'), a recognition whose roots lie in the development of the writing of history—and of 'history plays'—in the early modern period.Henry VIII is thus, I would argue, in several senses a 'testamentary act': it is a 'late work' which explores the possibilities and problems of testimony and truth in order to examine the contemporary status of an historical covenant.


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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 year of first performance of Henry VIII was an extraordinary one for English politics and in particular for the politics of English Protestantism. The death of Henry, Prince of Wales, in November 1612 shattered the millenarian hopes that militant Protestants had invested in him, with his passion for military display and his allegiance to the dream of a Protestant Europe. Henry's enthusiasm for the impending marriage of his sister Elizabeth to Frederick the Elector Palatine, the principal Continental Protestant ruler, was taken up with a fervour verging on desperation after his death, with the result that (ostensibly, at least) James and his militant Protestant subjects were in atypical harmony at the beginning of 1613. Henry's death had been a terrible blow, though, and the outpouring of grief for the dead prince was continually in danger of overshadowing the celebrations for the wedding, which was postponed to February. Like its sister collaboration The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII dwells on the mixed negative and positive emotions induced by the rapid succession of funeral and wedding.3 The Prologue predicts a melancholy play: 'if you can be merry then, I'll say / A man may weep upon his wedding day' (Prologue 31-2). And the two wry choric Gentlemen, commenting on the speed of political and emotional change, capture (as they do throughout the play) the mood of the moment:

2 Gent.          At our last encounter The Duke of Buckingham came from his trial.1 Gent. 'Tis very true. But that time offer'd   sorrow, This general joy.                             (IV. i. 4 7)

It is hard not to see a parallel between the emotions expressed on stage at moments such as this and the political situation at the time of composition. And it is not surprising that those critics who concentrate on the topicality of the play are also most closely concerned with its relationship to Protestantism.

R. A. Foakes, in his influential Arden edition, points out that a 'play on the downfall of Wolsey, the last great Catholic statesman of England, on the rise of Cranmer, and the birth of 'that now triumphant Saint our late Queene Elizabeth' would have been very appropriate at such a time' (Foakes 1957, xxxi).4 He suggests that Henry VIII may well have been performed for the wedding itself, demonstrating a series of verbal parallels between contemporary descriptions of the occasion and the unusually detailed stage-directions in the Folio text, and emphasising the deliberate parallels drawn between Princess Elizabeth and her earlier namesake in sermons and pamphlets at the time. Frances Yates, in Shakespeare's Last Plays, [1975], examines the political effect that nostalgia for Elizabeth exercised in James's reign and notes the focus of Protestant hopes on Prince Henry. For her, Henry VIII is an unequivocally Protestant play which 'reflects the Foxian apocalyptic view of English history' (Yates 1975, 70).5 More recently, William Baillie ["Henry VIII: A Jacobean History," Shakespeare Studies 12, 1979] has analysed a series of topical motifs in the play which would be of particular relevance to militant Protestants, including 'the expansion of the monarch's personal authority in relation to the law, the sudden fall of a court favorite, and a divorce' (that of the Earl of Essex and Frances Howard) 248). And Donna Hamilton [Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England, 1992] has extended these claims, the latter in particular, arguing that Henry VIII aims specifically to discredit the 'Howard faction at court—a faction dominated by Catholics—by associating their values and projects … with Wolsey and the values he represents' (164). The consensus of these views (whatever the flaws of some of the individual arguments) is that Henry VIII was involved to a substantial degree in the politics of Protestantism at the time of composition.

'Topical' critics tend to emphasise the very last scene of the play—and in particular Cranmer's prophecy over the child Elizabeth—to support the general principle that Henry VIII celebrates and projects a future for English Protestantism under James. Yet curiously, despite the rigorous contextualisation effected by these readings, there is a further broad context which has yet to be acknowledged in topical readings of Henry VIII, but which is crucial for any reading which aims to assess the play's claims about truth. For Cranmer's language in the last scene and the many other references to truth in the play belong to an established tradition of sectarian appropriation which has clear associations with the crisis of 1612-13. 'Let me speak sir,' Cranmer demands of the king, 'For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter, / Let none think flattery, for they'll find 'em truth' (V. iv. 14-16). The child Elizabeth, he claims, 'promises / Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings, / Which time shall bring to ripeness' (18-21). In this time of revelation, he tells us,

                Truth shall nurse her, Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her; She shall be lov'd and fear'd: her own shall  bless her; Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn, And hang their heads with sorrow. … God shall be truly known, and those about her From her shall read the perfect ways of  honour.                           (V. iv. 28-32, 36-7)

And he goes on to foreshadow James's reign after the 'maiden phoenix' (40) has been called by heaven 'from this cloud of darkness' (44):

        Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror, That were the servants to this chosen infant, Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to  him; Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, His honour and the greatness of his name Shall be, and make new nations.                                (V. iv. 47-52)

This repetition of 'truth,' particularly in the context of revelation, read in tandem with the emphasis on Elizabeth's election, invokes the resurgence in 1612-13 of a sectarian iconography which had developed around the concept in the course of the previous century.

The appropriation of 'Truth' for Protestant iconography has been traced as early as 1521, when John Knoblouch of Strasbourg, printer to a range of advocates of religious reform from Erasmus to Luther, had deliberately used as his printer's mark an image of Truth personified as a harassed woman emerging from a cave. The belligerently anti-Catholic use to which Knoblouch's image was in due course put in England is clear from the titlepage woodcut to William Marshall's Goodly Prymer in Englyshe, published shortly after the Henrician schism, in which medieval images of the Harrowing of Hell are reworked to depict 'the liberation of Christian Truth (as seen by Protestant reformers) from her captivity under the monster of Roman hypocrisy.' The introduction here of the figure of Time as Truth's rescuer forcefully appropriates the motto Veritas Filia Temporis ('Truth the daughter of Time'), which focusses on the temporal revelation of Truth in the framework of apocalypse. Truth was claimed by both sides in the course of the sixteenth century, acquired for Edward VI, reappropriated for Roman Catholicism by Queen Mary at her accession, and then revived by Elizabeth for Reformed religion. Shortly after she came to the throne, Elizabeth went on a procession through London and was greeted by a figure representing Time leading a white-clad Truth who handed to Elizabeth the verbum veritatis, the Bible in English. Keen to confirm her association with Truth, the queen allegedly stopped and cried out, 'And Time hath brought me hither!'

It is this specifically Elizabethan appropriation, best known from the figure of Una in Book One of Spenser's Faerie Queene, that is key to the resurgence of the iconography of Truth at the time of the first production of Henry VIII. The playwright Thomas Dekker had forcefully dramatised the associations of the Time-Truth image early in James's reign in The Whore of Babylon [1607], which Gasper calls 'the definitive militant Protestant play's ([The Dragon and the Dove: The plays of Thomas Dekker, 1990], 62). As the play opens, Truth awaits the death of Mary so that she and her father Time can help Elizabeth (in the shape of Titania, the Fairy Queen) defeat the malign forces of the Whore of Babylon. The printers of the 1607 Quarto incorporate marginal glosses to help the reader negotiate the significance of the allegory, but by 1612 such interpretative assistance would have been unnecessary. Two examples of entertainments heavily invested with the iconography of Veritas Filia Temporis will serve to demonstrate the status of Truth at the time of Prince Henry's death: the anonymous Masque of Truth and Thomas Middleton's The Triumphs of Truth.

Middleton's entertainment was the first of his series of six pageants written for mayors of London in the 1610s and 1620s. The Triumphs of Truth was, according to David Norbrook ["'The Masque of Truth': Court Entertainments and International Protestant politics in the Early Stuart Period," in The Seventeenth Century 1, 1968], the most expensive of all such pageants in the Renaissance: 'for no other state occasion in James's reign did the City summon up so much enthusiasm' (94). It echoes the typology of Spenser and Dekker, presenting a 'lengthy struggle … between a female figure representing Truth', who is 'poor, thin, and threadbare,' and 'idolatrous Error' (94) riding in a glorious chariot. The arrival of Time precipitates an apocalyptic scene '[a]t which a flame shoots from the head of Zeal, which fastening upon that chariot of Error, sets in on fire, and all the beasts that are joined to it,' so that, by the close of the pageant, with the help of a few fiery special effects, the 'proud seat of Error' lies 'glowing in embers,' and Truth is triumphant. Middleton here seeks ways to instigate a 'reformation of the masque,' to reform a genre associated by English Protestants with James's unmilitant tendencies: the pageant draws on the Protestant triumphalism revived by the wedding of Elizabeth and Frederick after the shock of the death of Prince Henry, and as such is designed to send a strong message from city to court at a time of sectarian crisis.

It seems that Henry's death had already caused an iconographic reversal in the midst of the wedding celebrations themselves, a dilution of the Protestant fervour Henry had championed in the aesthetic arena, since there is evidence of an overtly apocalyptic masque-project for the wedding—The Masque of Truth—which was promoted by Henry but aborted immediately after his death (Norbrook 1986). The cancellation of this masque is of particular note because, where Middleton's pageant serves as an address to the court from outside, The Masque of Truth seems to have been initiated and supported from within. In the event, it was replaced by a conservative masque commissioned from Thomas Campion, a client of the Howard family, who (as Hamilton's analysis shows) were decidedly at odds with militant Protestant aspirations. No original text of The Masque of Truth is extant, but we do have an outline and partial transcription in French, which makes its apocalyptic allegiances abundantly clear. As the masque begins (or would have begun), Atlas is tired of holding up the world, and has come to England to give up his 'burden to Aletheia (Truth), … represented on stage by a huge reclining statue reading a Bible and holding a globe in her left hand' (Nor-brook 1986, 83). The Muses call on the various nations of Europe 'to pay tribute to King James for his patronage of the Truth' (Norbrook 1986, 83). Europe and her five daughters—France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Greece—then bow to Truth and offer tribute to James. At the very end of the masque, 'the globe splits in two and disappears, leaving behind it a paradise guarded by an angel bearing a flaming sword' (Nor-brook 1986, 83). Truth invites the various nations to repent and enter paradise, and the gates close behind them.

'Truth' can be seen in this context to be a highly loaded term, a Protestant absolute implying a militant foreign and domestic politics and with a heavy investment in the cult of Henry, Prince of Wales. As a result, the project offers a very different view of the marriage of Elizabeth and Frederick from that promoted by James. It presents the union not as the first of a series of Protestant and Catholic marriages designed to bring Europe together in peace but as a 'confessional alliance': James, as guardian of English Calvinist Protestantism, by uniting with the Protestant Palatinate, will ensure that the other nations bow to Reformed religion. It is clear enough why the masque was never performed: it would not exactly have been a diplomatic coup. But if Prince Henry did have a hand in its design, then its cancellation in the immediate wake of his death underlines the immensity of his loss to English militant Protestants.


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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.

Paul Dean similarly suggests [in "Dramatic mode and Historical Vision in Henry VIII, " Shakespeare Quarterly 37, 1986] that in Henry VIII there is no 'organic and cumulative movement toward a single concluding point' (178). And for Frank Cespedes ['"We Are One in Fortunes': The Sense of History in Henry VIII," in English Literary Renaissance 10, 1980], the play, despite its status as a 'history play,'

annuls eschatology and teleology. Against the optimistic principle of providential history invoked by Cranmer, the play emphasises the uncertainties of history in order to question the availability of an omniscient' perspective on historical events.


This suggests a tension (a defining tension, even) within Henry VIII between linear and cyclical forces. It is as if the play sets the Protestant teleological vision against a mythic sense of time as a cycle; and the key issue provoked by this linear / cyclical struggle becomes, perhaps oddly, not structure but tone. After all, while apocalyptieism is typically humourless, the cyclical and the ridiculous are rarely far apart: the inevitable repeat and return of serious events makes them more ironic, less serious.

Juxtaposing two examples of testimony—a description within the play of an event prior to the action of the play and a contemporary eyewitness description of a performance of Henry VIII—might help to underline the nature of the play's uncertainties. The testimony from the play proper is Norfolk's description of the Field of the Cloth of Gold (I. i. 13-38); the account of the performance is the letter of Henry Wotton which is the principal evidence for the date of first production. Critics seem to agree that the opening scene is in many ways representative of the play as a whole 'in its insistence on the second-hand nature of our acquaintance with historical events' (Dean 1986, 182). It is, as Gasper puts it, 'an artful piece of time-release poetry … which appears to be a panegyric of the court, but which reveals more and more scepticism, disgust and ridicule the more often we read it' (Gasper 1993, 208). Initially, though, we take Norfolk's glorious description at face value. He describes himself to Buckingham as 'ever since a fresh admirer' (I. i. 3) of the spectacle put on by the kings of England and France as they met to conclude peace at the Field of the Cloth of Gold:

                      To-day the French, All clinquant all in gold, like heathen gods Shone down the English; and to-morrow they Made Britain India: every man that stood Show'd like a mine. … Now this masque Was cried incomparable; and th'ensuing night Made it a fool and beggar. The two kings Equal in lustre, were now best, now worst, As presence did present them: him in eye Still him in praise, and being present both, 'Twas said they saw but one, and no discerner Durst wag his tongue in censure.                            (I. i. 18-22, 26-33)

Yet within a few dozen lines we gather that the whole thing was a waste of time, a temporary peace which 'not values / The cost that did conclude it' (I. i. 88-9). And we recognise, looking back at the speech, that it expressed a kind of relativism. The English and French are each viewed in light of the other, with no firm ground for judgement: 'The two kings / Equal in lustre, were now best, now worst, / As presence did present them' (I. i. 28-30). And we are brought up sharp with recognition of the emptiness of the grand gesture. As Lee Bliss observes, in arguably the best reading of Henry VIII to date, '[i]n the beginning all had seemed true to Norfolk and, in his report, to us; only in retrospect can we see how false, how truly unstable … that appearance was' (Bliss 1975, 3). And we rapidly come to the conclusion that

'admire' did not signify wonder in the sense of approbation, but rather an ironic sense of amazement at the disparity between a dream of transcendent and transforming harmony and the disconcertingly mutable political realities of an impoverished nobility and a broken treaty. (Bliss 1975, 3)

In Norfolk's testimony, then, judgement and therefore truth are seen to be at best contingent. The accolade goes to the champion of the moment, but the decision is arbitrary, the moment fleeting, and the triumph glitteringly hollow.

Sir Henry Wotton's letter describing one of the first performances of the play implies in a different way that grandeur is by definition short-lived. Pomp cannot withstand scrutiny, since familiarity breeds contempt:

The King's players had a new play, called All is true, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage; the Knights of the Order, with their Georges and garters, the Guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. ([The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, 2 vols., 1907, edited by Logan Pearsall Smith], 32-3)

Wotton is clearly concerned that pomp without distance becomes revealing and therefore self-defeating. The truth (i.e. the irony) of the accuracy and care with which the play represents royal ceremony seems akin to Toby's efforts in Tristram Shandy to explain where he was wounded: the more precisely you show the details, the further from the truth you move and the more ridiculous you seem. In Henry VIII this movement is most clearly embodied in the conversations of the two choric Gentlemen, notably in Act IV, as they watch the Coronation procession pass by.

The detailed stage directions in the First Folio are echoed in the Gentlemen's comments:

2 Gent. A royal train, believe me: these I   know; Who's that that bears the sceptre?1 Gent.                    Marquess Dorset, And that the Earl of Surrey with the rod.                                  (IV i. 37-39)

This detailing is apparently neutral: we simply absorb the display of power without question. Until, that is, the Gentlemen begin to move towards their more usual mode of irony. We have already seen the way in which conscience and lust have become intertwined in the king's manoeuvrings to gain Anne Bullen. The king repeatedly claims it is his conscience about his technically incestuous relationship with Katherine that is driving him to divorce. But the audience's suspicions of his motivations are compounded by his turn of phrase when he speaks of his regret at leaving 'so sweet a bedfellow,' crying 'But conscience, conscience; / O 'tis a tender place, and I must leave her' (II. ii. 142-3).6 Shortly afterwards, in mocking Anne for disguising ambition within her ostensible modesty, the Old Lady speaks with heavy innuendo of 'the capacity' of Anne's 'soft cheveril conscience' to receive gifts, if she 'might please to stretch it' (II. iii. 31-3). These moments of irony resurface at Anne's coronation. The Second Gentleman seems wholly caught up in the ceremony, but his rhapsody concludes with a suggestive, and politically dangerous, bathos:

Our king has all the Indies in his arms And more, and richer, when he strains that  lady; I cannot blame his conscience                                 (IV. i. 45-7)

His friend ignores this aside, but returns to the topic himself a few lines later. 'These are stars indeed—' says the Second Gentleman, admiring the courtly women, to which the First Gentleman adds, 'And sometimes falling ones,' a remark risqué enough (laying bare, as it does, Anne's perceived route to power) to produce a 'No more of that' from his interlocutor. Detail, then, both of the king's motivations and of the practical staging of royal display, leads directly to ridicule, greatness made thoroughly overfamiliar.

The issue of testimony thus foregrounds the uncertainties of the play. There is no firm basis for the interpretation of events: witnessing and irony become blood-brothers. And it is not just interpretation but events themselves which seem ever more problematic as the play goes on. For Pierre Sahel [in "The Strangeness of a Dramatic Style: Rumour in Henry VIII" Shakespeare Survey 38, 1985],

[m]ost of the events of Henry VIII are echoed—more or less unfaithfully—within the play itself. They are not dramatized but reported after having passed through distorting filters. Characters present incidents and occurrences—or, often, their own versions of incidents and occurrences. (145)

The effect of this filtering of events is to sustain a sense of radical uncertainty throughout the play. For Sahel, it is rumour which sets the tone: rumour sometimes as a political tool, sometimes simply as the 'buzzing' (II. i. 148) which seems constantly to be going on in the background of each scene. Despite fears of suppression ['no discerner / Durst wag his tongue in censure' (I. i. 32-3)], rumour is never silenced. The absolute Truth upon which the Prologue seemed to stand and upon which Cranmer's prophecy will depend is rapidly submerged in report and opinion.

The relationship between rumour and truth is overtly questioned at the beginning of Act II in another of the Gentlemen's conversations. '[D]id you not,' asks the Second Gentleman, 'of late days hear / A buzzing of a separation / Between the king and Katherine?' 'Yes,' replies his friend,

                    but it held not For when the king once heard it, out of anger He sent command to the lord mayor straight To stop the rumour, and allay those tongues That durst disperse it.

To which the Second Gentleman immediately retorts:

             But that slander, sir, Is found a truth now; for it grows again Fresher than e'er it was, and held for certain The king will venture at it.                                (II. i. 147-156)

That clause 'held for certain' neatly captures the tone: certainty occupies the same space as opinion. Truth, in this context, is equated with slander: the two seem interchangeable, dependent simply upon the succession of events and the way things are viewed from moment to moment. Communication thus becomes a process which simultaneously transmits and degrades truth, an organic and inescapable infection: 'it grows again / Fresher than e'er it was.' The build-up to this exchange of rumour is both revealing and complex. The Second Gentleman drops a broad hint of occult knowledge: 'yet I can give you inkling / Of an ensuing evil, if it fall, / Greater than this' (II. i. 140-2). His friend's eager, staccato reply is a masterpiece of contradiction, desiring while denying the desire to know the truth (or, rather, the rumour). It also emphasises faith, not just as trustworthiness but as belief: 'Good angels keep it from us: / What may it be? you do not doubt my faith sir?' To which the Second Gentleman responds, teasingly, 'This secret is so weighty, 'twill require / A strong faith to conceal it.' 'Let me have it,' cries the First Gentleman, 'I do not talk much,' a comment generally guaranteed to raise a laugh in performance, since the only capacity in which we have seen the speaker is as a gossip and rumour-monger.

Faith and truth are thus contiguous, and they are equally abused in the process of communication. In fact, the play seems to move towards a proleptic acknowledgement of current definitions of testimony. For Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub [Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, 1992], testimony is

not simply (as we commonly perceive it) the observing, the recording, the remembering of an event, but an utterly unique and irreplaceable topographical position with respect to an occurrence.


Individual testimony becomes not one person's perspective on a single coherent truth of which the witness sees only one facet, but rather 'the uniqueness of the performance of a story which is constituted by the fact that, like the oath, it cannot be carried out by anybody else' (Felman and Laub 1992, 206). Certainly, Henry VIII seems to dwell on the radical and unbridgeable difference between the perspectives different witnesses have on the same event, to the extent that the event itself cannot clearly be said to have happened. Far from sustaining a sense of Truth as a Protestant absolute, the play makes truth an impossibility. Everyone, from Buckingham and his surveyor to Wolsey and Cranmer, claims a monopoly of truth. They cannot all be right. This is the fundamental problem for any attempt to locate the play's obsession with truth in relation to apocalyptic, militant Protestantism, and it puts intolerable pressure on the last scene. The key question is whether this equivocal mood can be fully transformed by Cranmer's prophecy, whether apocalyptic Truth can assert herself above the arbitrariness of the rumour-ridden political world, and even whether the prophecy is as resolutely apocalyptic as has been claimed.


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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 emphasised in 'predicting' James's achievements ['Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, / His honour and the greatness of his name / Shall be, and the make new nations'iv. 50-52)]'7 Moreover, the phoenix' metaphor by which cranmer' fudges Jame's relationship to Elizabeth is shared with that most militant of Protestant plays, Dekker's Whore of Babylon:

           [O]ut of her ashes may A second Phoenix rise, of larger wing, Of stronger talent, of more dreadfull beake, Who swooping through the ayre, may with his  beating So well commaund the winds, that all those  trees Where sit birds of our hatching (now fled  thither) Will tremble, … yea and perhaps his talent May be so bonie and so large of gripe, That it may shake all Babilon.(Dekker 1607, F2V

James, however, had little intention of shaking 'all Babilon' his interest was in establishing Continent-wide peace by way of dynastic marriage and in confirming his personal appropriation of the seventh beatitude, Beati Pacifici. And of course juxtaposing Cranmer's prophecy with the passage from Dekker simply serves to underline the relative bloodlessness of Cranmer's 'apocalyptic' vision. More to the point, as Julia Gasper observes, it is noticeable that though Cranmer makes several biblical allusions in the course of his prophecy, he refers each time to Old Testament prophets and resolutely avoids the obvious text for apocalyptic visions, the Book of Revelation (Gasper 1990, 97). The relationship between Cranmer's prophecy and Protestant apocalypticism thus begins to seem very uncomfortable, particularly when seen in the particular 1612-13 context. And I would argue that it becomes still more problematic with the recognition that the christening scene invokes powerful visual as well as verbal images, drawing on two separate iconographie traditions, each of which presents Henry VIII in a less than flattering light. The first is the tradition of Veritas Filia Temporis which we have already examined as a broad context for the play's obsession with Truth; the second is the iconography of David and Bathsheba.

It is important to remember that, in the christening scene, it is Archbishop Cranmer, not King Henry, who occupies centre stage along with the infant Elizabeth. He stands over the child to make his climactic prophecy, and at this key moment of celebration, the scene, I would argue, evokes in a very specific way the iconography of Veritas Filia Temporis. The effect of this evocation is to exclude the king from the sacramental scene: at the precise moment in which Elizabeth inherits the mantle of English Protestantism, she is presented to the audience as the spiritual, if not the natural, daughter of Cranmer rather than of Henry. As we have already noted, the language of the prophecy encourages us to see the future Queen Elizabeth as the incarnation of Protestant Truth ['Which time shall bring to ripeness' (V. iv. 20)], and if, as Judith Doolin Spikes has suggested [in "The Jacobean History Play and the Myth of the Elect Nation," Renaissance Drama 8, 1977], the figure of Time in The Whore of Babylon informs the portrayal of Cranmer here in Henry VIII, then this is confirmed by the iconography 140). With Henry to one side, amazed by the archbishop's words, the audience sees the familiar vignette: Time stands over Truth and rapturously predicts the End of History. The moment serves abruptly to decentre the king, removing him from full paternity and leaving the circumstances of Elizabeth's birth (and consequently her legitimacy) as shrouded as her death in Cranmer's prophecy.

I would thus argue that an iconographic interpretation of this moment, taken together with the ambivalence of the portrayal of the king throughout, rejects the Erastian readings sometimes made of the play, rigorously questioning Henry's spiritual authority and thus by implication (extrapolating from the equation of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Elizabeth noted by Foakes) that of King James. Moreover, a second, more covert layer of iconographie potential at the moment of Elizabeth's christening can be seen to exacerbate the discomfort of this moment for James. The reference to 'Saba' (the Queen of Sheba) in Cranmer's prophecy obliquely associates the young Elizabeth with David's son Solomon, implying her adoption of Solomon's various attributes (notably that of wisdom). But seen in conjunction with the sidelining of King Henry and the absence of Anne Bullen at this key moment of the play, it also offers an additional, politically unsettling possibility.

The story of David's desire for and adultery with Bathsheba, his arrangement for the death in battle of her husband Uriah, and his subsequent repentance following denunciation by Nathan the prophet was one of the best-known of Old Testament stories, and an iconographie tradition had grown up which associated David's 'Penitential Psalms' with the Bathsheba story, particularly the initial image of David watching Bathsheba bathing.8 Reformation readings of 2 Samuel 11-12 tended to emphasise the story as an example of the inevitability of sin and the necessity of repentance, partly in reaction to a Roman Catholic tradition of fairly breathtaking licence in which David's desire for Bathsheba was interpreted as Christ's desire for his Church, Uriah became the 'Prince of this World,' and David's adultery was conveniently reworked as his rescue of the Church from the Devil. Certainly, the Penitential Psalms, like the image of Veritas Filia Temporis, were well-known as a Reformation battle-ground and were associated with the development of Protestant doctrine. The story had, though, been given a dark political significance during the reign of Henry VIII by Sir Thomas Wyatt, who produced versetranslations of the Penitential Psalms, was rumoured to have had an affair with Anne Boleyn before the king met her, and was imprisoned by the king at the time of her execution.9 According to Rivkah Zim, Wyatt 'may have seen King David—the royal lover guilty of manslaughter, if not murder, in the pursuit of illicit passion—as representing Henry VIII' (Zim 1987, 73-4; also [Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From more to Shakespeare, 1980], 115, 146-7). It would be hard to deny the dangerous resonances the story held for King Henry, desperately awaiting the birth of a son. David's penitence is such that God lets him live, but his punishment is the death of his first child by Bathsheba. The conception and birth of Solomon in the wake of this marks the return of God's favour, and is confirmed by an alternative name for the child, Jedidiah, 'beloved of God,' given him through Nathan the prophet.

It is thus possible to read the last scene of Henry VIII through an alternative iconographie tradition which associates the birth of Elizabeth and her subsequent life and reign with the return of God's favour to his chosen nation in the wake of sinful and adulterous behaviour on the part of the king. Cranmer's centrality as the counterpart of Nathan the prophet has the effect once more of marginalising King Henry in his uncomfortable equivalence to the easily-tempted David, God's anointed, but not always entirely reliable, king. And this might well have uneasy resonances for 1612-13, particularly if the audience were again to see in the character of Henry VIII a shadowing of King James. In view of Dennis Kay's assertion [in Melodious Tears: The English Funeral Elegy from Spenser to Milton, 1990] that the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, was widely represented, in a kind of nationwide act of penitence, as 'divine retribution for the nation's sin' (134), an awkward, and presumably highly dangerous, topical interpretation is on offer. The iconographie retreat from Erastianism we have already registered is thus highly telling. The English Reformation is represented at the climactic moment of the play both as something which has happened and as something which is still to happen, even in the reign of James I.

The last scene thus exemplifies the inherent contradictions of the play. In a practical exposition of the Derridean idea that truth is produced at the moment of the dissolution of truth, it is possible to see that the iconographie triumph of Protestant propaganda is achieved at a moment which highlights the contemporary uncertainties of the claim. The scene is a looking-forward to the future which is also a return to the past, mythologising the transition from Elizabeth to James by way of the (unhistorically direct) transition from Henry to Elizabeth, and at the same time strongly hinting at the ambiguous status of the militant Protestant apocalyptic project under James. Henry VIII can thus be seen as a meditation on the state of the English Reformation in 1612-13 which sets linear and cyclical models of history against each other in order to project a future for English Protestantism which is at the same time a return to the past.


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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 a memorial to the ending of epochs, Henry VIII can thus be seen as both a testamentary act and a self-consuming artifact.


1 The evidence for Henry VIII as a joint composition by Shakespeare and Fletcher seems to me to be conclusive. See, in particular [Cyrus Hoy, "The shares of Fletcher and his collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon, VII," in Studies in Bibliography 15, 1962]. For a useful recent contribution to the debate, see [Jonathan Hope; The Authorship of Shakespeare's plays: A socio-linguistic study, 1994].

2 All references to Henry VIII are to [King Henry VIII, edited by R. A. Foakes, 1957] and will be given parenthetically in the text.

3The Two Noble Kinsmen arguably echoes the prevailing emotions of 1613 by way of its unique tragicomic conclusion (a wedding and a funeral, simultaneously), voiced most succinctly by Palamon: 'That we should things desire which do cost us / The loss of our desire! That naught could buy / Dear love but loss of dear love.' See [The Two Noble Kinsmen, edited by Eugene Waith, 1989], V. iv. 110-112.

4 Julia Gasper, though, disagrees, pointing out [in "The Reformation plays on the public stage," Theatre and Government under the Early Stuarts, eds. J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring, 1993] that to perform a play 'largely concerned with divorce … at a royal wedding would surely have been an offence against taste and decorum' (207).

5 [Glynne Wickham, in "The Dramatic Structure of Shakespeare's King Henry the Eighth: An Essay in Rehabilitation," British Academy Shakespeare Lectures, 1980-89, 1993], however, finds a very different aim, arguing that the play was designed to rehabilitate Katherine of Aragon, presumably to pave the way for Catholic matches in the future.

6 As Judith Anderson and others have pointed out, the phrase 'tender place' is at best ambivalent at this moment. See [Judith H. Anderson, Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing, 1984], 128-9; also [Peter L. Rudnytsky; "Henry VIII and the Deconstruction of History," in Shakespeare Survey 43, 1991], 51.

7 On Apocalypse and Empire, see [Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, 1967], l0ff.

8 The 'penitential psalms' are a traditional grouping of Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. On the iconography, see [Inga-Stina Ewbank, "The House of David in Renaissance Drama: A Comparative Study," Renaissance Drama 8, 1965, pp. 3-10; Rivkah Zim, English Metrical Psalms: Poetry as Praise and Prayer, 1535-1601, 1987, pp. 70-74; M. B. Parkes, The Medieval Manuscripts of Keble College, Oxford, 1979, p. 175, plate 88; John Fisher, Treatyse Concernynge the Fruytfull Saynges of Davyd the Kynge and Prophete in the seven Penytencyall Psalmes, 1509, aa2r]. I am grateful to Professor Richard Proudfoot for suggesting the relevance of the David and Bathsheba story for the study of Henry VIII.

9 For the poetry of Thomas Wyatt, see [Sir Thomas Wyatt, Collected Poems, 1978, edited by R. A. Rebholz].

Source: "Shakespeare and the End of History," in Essays and Studies, edited by Laurel Brake, n.s., Vol. 48, 1995, pp. 16-37.


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