Shakespeare’s history plays are full of royalty, battles, and lines of succession to the throne. While much of the drama points to the right of the House of Tudor’s to rule, Shakespeare also weaves in themes about governing and under-mining authority, war and peace, cooperation and deceit, and many other aspects of the human condition. We have seen most of Shakespeare’s history plays from King John to Henry V. Many years after completing the last history play, Richard III (oh, do not take history to mean accurate accounting of historical events), Shakespeare, in collaboration with John Flecther, returned to a final history, of Henry VIII. We attended a recent performance at the Blackfrair Theatre, in Staunton, VA.
In contrast to the prior series of history plays, which presented lofty ideas about the royal families, Henry VIII takes a more literal tone. Harold Bloom’s commentary questions how much this was because this history was still fresh to the contemporary audience. At the end of the play, Elizabeth I is born. She had died only about a decade before the play was first performed. One must be careful about changing current history too much. Bloom also questions whether the sentimentality of the play was political propaganda. The golden era of Elizabethan drama and patronage had passed. The company needed to come up with new plays to draw audiences. Producing something with less depth and more pomp could fill the house and not risk censorship by James I.
I will speculate, also, that Shakespeare, already in semi-retirement from London, may have been mentoring John Fletcher to take over as the head-writer for the company. Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen are the two plays, of possibly a dozen or more collaboration between the two playwrights, that have survived. Maybe Shakespeare was saying, “This is how you write a history play”, “This is how you write a Greek/Roman mythology play”, etc.
While Henry VIII is well know for his philandering romantic life, and eventual six wives in pursuit of a male heir, the play Henry VIII attends only to the divorce of Queen Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn (spelled Bullen in the script) who bore Elizabeth. Behind this royal-domestic drama is the politics of the church. Cardinal Wolsey has been pulling the strings to position himself to control the royal families in England and France, and to pursue his ambitions to be appointed Pope. Henry VIII eventually learns of Wolsey’s manipulations and has him sent off. There is also the Duke of Buckingham, who could make distant claims to the throne, to be arrested, sent to the Tower of London, tried and executed. Many of the prior history plays sorted this all out with battle scenes on and off stage. Henry VIII defers to court room dramas.
A weakness and strength of the script is that is mostly pageantry, with great court scenes, costumes, speeches, dances, and court oratory. This lends more to presenting great figures in history, and less to making connection with the audience. We are impressed, not moved, as we might be in cheering for Prince Hal, drinking with Falstaff, or sneering at Richard III. Such pageantry tends to keep the characters at a distance from each other also. Thus, as I watched this play, I found the actor’s use of their hands, especially when contacting, or not contacting, with others on stage, to be informative.
Many of the initial scenes revolve around Duke of Buckingham’s (Gregory Jon Phelps) assertions that he has been deprived of his rightful position, but also that he does not seek retribution for the treatment of his father. His confidants, Duke of Norfolk (Rene Thornton, Jr.) and Duke of Suffolk (Abbi Hawk), reach out with consoling and cautioning hands on his shoulders and upper arms. Their touch attempts to direct him away from danger that awaits him, regardless of whether he seeks it.
Cardinal Wolsey’s (John Harrell) caresses the objects of power that he seeks: deeds to property, written commitments of loyalty to his plans, summons for arrest of those whom he deems necessary for imprisonment in the Tower. Yet, after Henry VIII receives letters intended for the Pope and diverted from Wolsey, he strips Wolsey of his position and power. In reaching for these letters, holding them to read, and then extending them out in astonishment, Wolsey falls to his knees, uttering some of the most memorable lines of the pay, just as he is fallen.
When Queen Katherine (Sarah Fallon) is tried for annulment, having not produced a living, male heir, she stands on a platform with her hands cross over her abdomen. These are calm, dignified hands, gently resting on each other. But, these are also the hands of so many queens captured in stone sarcophagi at their burials in so many cathedrals throughout England. Queen Katherine’s hands foretells of her death, as she attempts to defend herself with living words. The hands of no one in the court need touch her to convey predetermined decisions.
Henry VIII’s (Benjamin Curns) hands grant life and death in their touch. He can dismiss Buckingham, Wolsey, and Katherine. But, while dressed in a peasant costume and mask, he can reach with softness to Anne Boleyn for a dance, at which both their hands and eyes meet. When Anne bears the daughter Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s hands hold and cuddle the swaddled child with delicacy and delight. And, that touch melts the king, who will pass the royal line to the daughter who would become the Virgin Queen.