Sunday, April 24, 2011

Discussion: Henry VIII

The play: Henry VIII or All is True

The plot tweet: In idealized reign of Henry VIII, great people fall and Anne Boleyn gives birth to glorious future queen. No mention of upcoming beheading.

My favorite line:
I know myself now, and I feel within me
A peace above all earthly dignities,
A still and quiet conscience.


More than any other Shakespeare play, Henry VIII needs to be seen rather than read. The pomp and pageantry, buried in dry stage directions within the text, can no doubt be breath-taking on stage. Likewise, characters whose speeches are ambiguous, especially the king, can be "filled out" on stage. Is Henry a corrupt and lusty king or a pious ruler who fears for the future of his kingdom? That's a question any good stage production would answer.

This is Shakespeare's final history play, written toward the end of his life in collaboration with John Fletcher (with whom he also collaborated on Two Noble Kinsmen). Some scholars hate it because it is episodic and lacks a central character. Other scholars, like the editor of my Arden edition, see it as the glorious "grand finale of Shakespeare's history plays."

I'm withholding judgment until I see the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's production of the play next January. I want to see the masques and processionals, hear the tone Anne Boleyn uses when she claims she doesn't want to be queen, see how Henry reacts when Katherine refuses Wolsey as her judge. More than any other play, Henry VIII leaves these questions for the production to decide.

One thing that fascinates me about this play, though, is the immediacy of the action to Shakespeare's own time. Queen Elizabeth, whose birth is celebrated as just shy of miraculous, died in 1603, and this play premiered at the Globe ten years later, in 1613. (We know the exact year because the Globe burned down during one of the first performances.) At the time, the reigning king (who was patron of Shakespeare's theater company) was Elizabeth's cousin and a descendant of Henry VII. In other words, Shakespeare had to walk a fine line here, which is probably why the king and Anne Boleyn come off better in this play than they do in historical accounts.

What, then, was Shakespeare trying to say with the play's original title, All is True? Is it his smartypants way of admitting that the play is a fabrication to make the Tudors look good? Or, is he saying that the characters' perspectives are all accurate in their own way? Once again, I'm withholding judgment until I see this play on stage. No pressure, Cincy Shakes.

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