Home » A Year With The Tudors, history, theater

The Master Touch: One Encounter with Shakespeare’s Henry VIII

They captivate our imagination, and they inhabit our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will examine their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the ninth installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.

Shakespeare probably wrote his wonderful stage-play The History of the Life of Henry VIII (or All is True) sometime around 1613, and it comes down to us as the only artistic intersection between the greatest of all Tudor artists and the most dramatic of all Tudor monarchs. No “Year with the Tudors” would be complete without a glance at this, the last play Shakespeare ever wrote. Only it turns out that according to some critics, it’s not all that wonderful, and of course, Shakespeare didn’t write it. Where would we all be without the lunatic asylum that is Shakespearean studies? It would be a happier world, but alas, we’ll never see it.

I first saw Henry VIII in London, performed in a playhouse that is now long gone, done by players who are all long dead, but at the time, it seemed an incredibly living thing to me. Unless I’m much mistaken, this last play of the Bard’s was the first of his efforts I ever went to see, and at first it bored me every bit as much as all the rest of Elizabethan theater did at the time. The play’s main throatpiece, the hefty man who would in a scene or two play the Duke of Buckingham, stepped out onto the stage dressed in a drab frock and loudly recited the play’s opening … whatever you call it, to the audience. A warning? An admonition? In rolling tones, he promised us all no laughter and little fun – “be sad, as we would make ye” – a history lesson, basically, for which we had paid the cost of a good dinner and a bottle of bad wine. I knew little of Shakespeare’s plays at the time, but the dismissive verdict of a friend well-versed in them at the time, “too clever by half,” leapt unbidden to mind.

 
Then the most amazing thing happened. I saw somebody I knew. He wasn’t in the audience (although there were acquaintances there), though, he was up on the stage. He wasn’t an actor (although a couple of them were acquaintances too), nor was he of course any of the historical personages being portrayed; the real Queen Katherine was an equine shrew – if that’s not mixing phylum intolerably – not the holy, selfless creature in the play; the real Cardinal Wolsey was a good-hearted man with only a normal portion of venality, not the scheming arch-villain Shakespeare created with Holingshed’s help; the real Buckingham was a scheming nitwit – never a healthy combination in Tudor times – not the paragon of virtue in front of the audience).

No, the person I saw was captured in that first conversation we in the audience hear. Buckingham meets the Duke of Norfolk and the Lord of Abergavenny, and they tell him about the so-called Field of Cloth of Gold, the meeting Henry VIII held in France with the French king Francis I. Norfolk relates all the pageantry with apparent enthusiasm, but it quickly becomes apparent that Buckingham isn’t any more interested in hearing the play-by-play than Norfolk and Abergavenny are in giving it; all three mainly want to share malicious gossip about Wolsey, the “butcher’s cur” who is the King’s most trusted advisor. Buckingham allows himself to get worked up into quite a fettle about Wolsey’s impertinent overreach, and Norfolk intentionally feeds that outrage while at the same time trying to sound like he’s not, and that dynamic froze my attention. I knew people like that, actual people, and here they were perfectly captured in the words of a drama.

Old hat, you say: Shakespeare does that sort of thing all the time. Very well, but I hadn’t seen any Shakespeare before, and it astonished me in how un-theatrical it was.

And astonishment piled on astonishment as the play went on. Henry raising himself to a rage at hearing of Buckingham’s alleged betrayal (and the canny way the playwright never really tells us one way or the other if Buckingham is actually guilty), the fiery confrontation between Queen Katherine and Wolsey while the king stays mostly silent, the opulent pageantry of it all – the theater exerted itself with abandon – and we in the audience were treated to stage spectacles, one after another.

The play follows a series of high persons brought low. Buckingham, one of the foremost peers in the land, is arrested about ten seconds after the curtain goes up, and his subsequent speech as he’s led to his death is one of the finest in the play. Henry tells Katherine that she has half his power and all his devotion, but by Act II his mind (and other parts) is straying to Anne Bullen (who here is written as an innocent, as how else could she have been written, being the mother of the great Elizabeth in whose shadow the world still lived, even a decade after her death?), and we watch the Queen descend through a personal agony that’s acutely drawn. Wolsey, the play’s only great figure, starts off a proud, overbearing potentate but comes through his own greed and carelessness to be discarded by the king, and his farewell speeches are the best things in the play. Only poor put-upon churchman Cranmer, attacked by the scheming privy council, is saved from the ruin that caught the other three characters – he’s saved by the direct actions of the king, right at the end of the play.

 
This is a bold play, one punctuated by scenes of grandeur. There’s a lavish ball at Wolsey’s palace in Act II, giving stage directors a chance to show finery and fire off ordnance (famously, it was during the firing of such ordnance in this scene that the thatched roof of the Globe caught fire and the whole place burned to the ground in a little more than an hour, with no loss of life and with the ironclad assurance that this accident would be mentioned every time the play was thereafter mentioned). When Anne Bullen walks in state in Act III, there’s another chance for the play to show to the audience the borrowed finery of the lords and ladies who ruled their world. There’s even a chance for special effects: in Act IV, poor dying Katherine has a vision-scene full of glowing, heavenly beings – enough for any enterprising practitioner of stagecraft to work wonders.

But the thing about Henry VIII that most readily takes hold of the viewer is the signatory stateliness with which each of the three falling-down characters meets their end. Buckingham’s speech is beautiful (and, maddeningly, still elusive on the subject of whether or not he’s actually guilty), long a favorite of actors:

Yet, you that hear me,
This from a dying man receive as certain:
Where you are liberal of your loves and counsels
Be sure you not be loose. For those you make friends
And give your hearts to, when they once perceive
The least rub in your fortunes, fall away
Like water from ye, never found again
But where they mean to sink ye. All good people,
Pray for me! I must now forsake ye; the last hour
Of my long weary life is come upon me.
Farewell!
And when you would say something that is sad,
Speak how I fell.

Katherine’s downfall – more protracted than either of the others – includes a trial at which she is both supplicant and accuser, and it also includes a scene in which she’s interviewed (bullied, really, although she doesn’t bend an inch) by Wolsey and is so poetically pathetic and defiant that her speeches roused the admiration of, among others, Samuel Johnson:

Can you think, lords,
That any Englishman dare give me counsel
Or be a known friend, ‘gainst his Highness’ pleasure –
Though he be grown so desperate to be honest –
And live a subject? Nay, forsooth, my friends,
They that must weigh out my afflictions,
They that my trust must grow to, live not here.
They are, as all my other comforts, far hence
In mine own country, lords.

And the greatest of all three falls is Wolsey’s, who goes from high churchman with power rivaled only by the king to disgraced outcast in the span of some ten lines. The king has come into possession of some documents that incriminate Wolsey’s worldly greed, and he holds onto them in Act III with a poker player’s reserve, letting Wolsey prattle on:

My sovereign, I confess your royal graces,
Showered on my daily, have been more than could
My studied purposes requite, which went
Beyond all man’s endeavors. My endeavors
Have ever come too short of my desires,
Yet filed with my abilities. Mine own ends
Have been mine so that evermore they pointed
To th’ good of your most sacred person and
The profit of the state. For your great graces
Heaped upon me, poor undeserver, I
Can nothing render but allegiant thanks,
My prayers to heaven for you, my loyalty,
Which ever has and ever shall be growing
Till death, that winter, kill it.

When the king reveals his hidden knowledge and his anger, he does so surgically, almost gently (when in reality, his condemnation of his great cardinal had the force and the volume to chip mahogany):

‘Tis nobly spoken.
Take notice, lords, he has a loyal breast,
For you have seen him open’t. [Giving him papers.]
Read o’er this;
And after, this; and then to breakfast with
What appetite you have.

As I stood in the audience watching all this, I largely ignored Henry – something that would have been impossible in reality, but something the play clearly intends, since he’s everywhere portrayed in such high and neutral tones that the only impression he makes is one of almost depersonalized royalty itself – and found myself absorbed in the darting of Wolsey’s inner struggle, which goes from shock and alarm:

What sudden anger’s this? How have I reaped it?
He parted frowning from me, as if ruin
Leaped from his eyes.

To a last, lunging desperation to restore the status quo:

Is there no way to cure this?
No new device to beat this from his brains?
I know ‘twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if it take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again.

To an acceptance that’s arrived at as quickly, decisively, and completely as all his other decisions, but that’s still for my money the most moving part of the play:

Nay then, farewell!
I have touched the highest point of all my greatness.
And from that full meridian of my glory
I haste now to my setting. I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more.

I walked out into the fragrant twilight thinking Shakespeare had done a fine job. The play is full of people having their lives ruined – justly or unjustly – by royalty, and yet royalty is never made to look bad – a neat trick for a playwright in royal service who nevertheless doesn’t want to be quite the royal lickspittle. In Act V the king saves Cranmer from his accusers with great forgiving gestures, and so well is the scene handled that I never wanted to ask why the same king didn’t do right by his wife. Indeed, the play concludes not only with the christening of the child Henry had with another woman but with long and rapturous predictions of the glories of that child’s reign. I thought that in addition to being superb pageant of a thing, it was also extremely canny politics. Masterful, in other words; the work of somebody who clearly knew exactly what he was doing (Hazlitt had a similar impression, when he wrote that the portrayal of Henry was “a very disagreeable portrait, sketched by the hand of a master”).

Only very much later did I find out how wrong I was! The trouble started in 1850, when a man named James Spedding published an essay in The Gentleman’s Magazine called, ominously enough, “Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Henry VIII?” It seems that upon reading and re-reading the play, Spedding became increasingly unhappy with it, but unlike most people who experience such diminishing returns with a work they re-read, Spedding found the fault to lie not in himself but in the play itself. If it wasn’t pleasing him the way Shakespeare ought to, he reasoned, then surely it isn’t quite Shakespeare? The Prophet spoke true: myriad are the paths by which we lose the way.

Spedding cited a lack of dramatic unity, a certain feeling of limp unease in many of the scenes, and once he had his disquiets, he wasn’t long in finding facts and figures to back them up. The scenes that bothered him, it turned out, had a prevalence of unstressed ‘extra’ syllables tacked on to the standard ten of blank verse – ‘feminine’ endings of a type Spedding argued Shakespeare didn’t particularly fancy. And it wasn’t just that Shakespeare didn’t fancy them, no: according to Spedding, somebody else did – John Fletcher, he of Beaumont and Fletcher fame, a Jacobean playwright of decidedly second-rate abilities. When Shakespeare went into semi-retirement from the King’s Men and withdrew to scenic Stratford, the company turned to Fletcher as a possible replacement on the marquee. Fletcher was a well-practiced literary collaborator, and that was all the prompting Spedding needed to start analyzing Fletcher’s plays for extra syllables and feminine endings. And once he started looking, he started finding. Spedding counted up the number of times Shakespeare used extra syllables, compared them with the number of times Fletcher did, mapped each of their preferences onto the play’s verses, and found what he considered to be clear evidence of two hands at the helm. He totaled his findings into a chart, and one or another variation of that chart has dogged Henry VIII as closely the silly business with the cannon. This chart, that’s been the bane of students and the program of participle-parsers for a hundred and fifty years:

A glance at that chart will show interested readers the heart of Spedding’s heresy: according to his breakdown, it was Fletcher, not Shakespeare, who wrote Buckingham’s touching final speech, Fletcher who crafted the structure of Wolsey’s downfall, Fletcher who wrote Wolsey’s change of heart. In other words, according to Spedding – and the many adherents to his theory since – Fletcher wrote all the good bits and Shakespeare, the creator of Henry V, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, mainly chipped in with some filler and a little reheated Holinshed. As more than one critic has pointed out since Spedding’s article first saw light, if Henry VIII is Fletcher’s, it’s the greatest thing he ever wrote by a wide, wide margin.

Critics have said other things too, for although Spedding’s theory that Henry VIII is the product of a collaboration of some sort has wormed its way into Shakespeare studies to such an extent that most standard editions of the play list it as such, there have always been skeptics who think Spedding got it wrong (Shakespeare aficionados Algernon Swinburne, R.A. Foakes, and G. Wilson Knight were among the unconvinced).

A lawyer would say the foremost argument against Spedding is that his entire theory is internal and subjective – there isn’t any external evidence of textual collaboration. An editor would say the strongest argument against Spedding is the fact that Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues Hemings and Condell, who in 1623 published the First Folio of the playwright’s collected works for the stage, openly professed that they were including all of Shakespeare’s plays and none that weren’t his. They left out such well-known collaborations as Sir Thomas More, Two Noble Kinsmen, Cardenio, and Pericles, but they included Henry VIII. A Shakespeare scholar would say the Bard should get the benefit of any doubt just by virtue of how many different ladles were in the soup: Spedding and his followers point out words and phrases preferred by Shakespeare or Fletcher – that, for example, Shakespeare leans toward more old-fashioned words like ‘do’ and ‘hath,’ whereas Fletcher likes contractions like ‘em instead of ‘them,’ something Shakespeare tends to avoid. Any argument based on such word preferences must be statistical in nature and therefore inherently suspect, and that’s without taking into account all those other ladles – copyists and typesetters have word preferences too, after all, and Foakes, among others, has argued that these preferences, more than any alleged collaboration, account for the variations in Henry VIII.

Lawyers, editors, and Shakespeare scholars could all be wrong, of course. Two other groups present Spedding’s collaboration hypothesis with much graver challenges: actors, and me.

The play has always been a favorite with actors, mainly due to the plum roles of Katherine and Wolsey, and a theater-expert would be hard-pressed to find even one thespian in the last four hundred years who thought there was any chance he was speaking lines written by John Fletcher (it should be noted that this most certainly includes actors, like the great Edmund Kean, who had actually acted in some of Fletcher’s plays – not an easy resume item to come across these days). It’s been fashionable for centuries to dismiss the critical abilities of actors and characterize them as mere (albeit variously talented) mouthpieces, but like most fashion, this is idiocy: they’re the ones working with the material, day in and day out, including those heart-in-throat moments on the stage in front of hundreds of bored, preoccupied citizens. The fact that no actors of note have ever stepped forward and agreed with Spedding or any variation thereof is, to my mind, quite a vote of confidence for poor old Shakespeare.

And then there’s me. As I said, I walked out of that long-ago performance of Henry VIII quietly amazed at having seen a kind of dramatization, a kind of genius, that I’d never seen before. The characters were candidly, effortlessly real even when they had no particular dramatic reason to be so – the old courtiers who in one scene bemoan the gauche licentiousness of the new court and in the next nevertheless revel in it, the old waiting-woman of Anne Bullen’s, whose stock comedic utterances are leavened with touching little hints of the largely un-dramatic life she’s lead until now, the subtle way Cranmer is shown to be both grateful to Henry and a little afraid of his unpredictability, without undercutting either the gratitude or the unpredictability, the way Katherine’s natural pity for the fate of her arch-enemy Wolsey forces its way to the surface even though she’d clearly rather it not – I was pleased by all the pomp, naturally, as was everybody else on the audience, but what really worked on me was the humanity of all I’d seen.

I’ve seen many, many plays on stage since that afternoon, and I can tell you two things: that all-pervading humanity is the singular hallmark of Shakespeare’s plays, and there isn’t a scrap of it in anything John Fletcher ever wrote. Actually seeing the plays, hearing the words, watching the actors embody the drama, erases all doubt of authorship in a way that pouring over texts with a caliper and an abacus can’t possibly do. James Spedding needed to get out of the house more often.

In Act III of Henry VIII, a shattered Wolsey, freshly discharged from the king’s good grace, gives his great monologue:

Farewell! Ah, a long farewell to all my greatness!
This is the state of man: today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honors thick upon him.
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is aripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth. My high-blown pride
At length broke under me and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream that must forever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye.
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favors!
There is betwixt that smile he would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have.
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again.

Of this passage, the noted Shakespearean scholar Mark Van Doren quipped:

Any workman of 1612 or 1613 could have worked out the vegetable autobiography of Wolsey in terms of his tender leaves, his blossoms, his blushing honors, his greatness ripening, and his root nipped on the third day by a killing frost.

Which is, of course, an easy thing for a critic to say but so tricky a thing to do that none of them ever has. Unlike sport, all art looks easy – a critic like Van Doren could as readily say the “seven stages of man” bit in As You Like It was obvious enough for a “workman” to write, but it’s not Van Doren’s name next to it in Bartlett’s.

Henry VIII ends with the christening of the baby Elizabeth, after which Cranmer offers a bit of prophecy about the glowing glories of her coming reign. This was probably public relations on Shakespeare’s part; in 1613, James I’s daughter Elizabeth was married to Prince Frederick, the Elector of Palatine. As the great Shakespearean authority Samuel Schoenbaum puts it:

If the composition of Henry VIII testifies to anything, it is to the committed professionalism of its author: the supreme poet was yet a shareholder in a company of players and not unwilling to emerge from semiretirement in Stratford to provide his London colleagues with a vehicle admirably suited to catching the popular fancy in a moment of national rejoicing.

It should be as simple as that, with no James Speddings or John Fletchers to vex us with their conundrums. Shakespeare was the premiere mythologizer of his age; he certainly needed no help mythologizing creatures as larger-than-life as Henry and his satellites. As we’ve seen in our year with the Tudors, they were right at home in mythology.

___
Steve Donoghue served as an aide to the Union’s Minister to England, Charles Francis Adams between 1861 and 1868. Queen Victoria was said to be delighted by his “brassiness.” Like Adams’ private secretary, he has held a deep fascination with history ever since.