Shakespeare's Henry VIII is a story of a ruthless race to power and the desire for an heir. The Duke of Norfolk tells Buckingham of the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. On the instigation of Cardinal Wolsey, Buckingham is arrested for high treason. The Queen interrupts the indictment of Buckingham to demand that the king undo a tax imposed by Wolsey to finance the French war.Read more
For their first step in preparing a Shakespearean production, the director and designers might very well ask, "How does this play differ from Will's others of the same genre?" The first collection of Shakespeare's plays, published seven years after his death and called the First Folio, groups his plays into Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. For the tragedies and comedies the differences are usually quite clear from the start: Macbeth is set in Scotland, Hamlet in Denmark; Two Gentlemen of Verona is set in, of course, Verona, while A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in ancient Athens (sort of). But what of those ten English history plays, named after a Richard or a Henry (or in one case, a John), all set in England? How, and to what extent, does each differ from the others? Our Henry the Eighth differs from Shakespeare's other English history plays in four noteworthy respects which, taken together, have influenced our approach to staging the play.
BACKGROUND Henry VIII succeeded his father, Henry VII, in 1509, four days before his eighteenth birthday. After the death of his brother, Arthur, Henry married Arthur's widow, Katherine of Aragon, daughter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. This marriage was sanctioned by the Pope because, according to Katherine, her previous marriage was never consummated. The marriage was politically advantageous for both parties, keeping Spain and England allied against France. Katherine was a strong, intelligent leader who served as an unofficial ambassador for Spain. She and Henry were married for twenty years and she bore him several children, but no sons; and only one daughter, Mary (later Queen of England), survived. The play chronicles the years 1520-1533. ACT I The play begins immediately following a meeting in France between young Henry and his French counterpart, Francis I, a lavish conference engineered by Cardinal Wolsey referred to as the "Field of the Cloth of Gold." As the parties return from the conference we learn of the growing animosity between Wolsey (Archbishop of Canterbury and principal advisor to Henry) and England's most powerful nobleman, the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham suspects Wolsey of negotiating a false peace treaty with France while pandering to Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor), but before he can present his case to the king, Wolsey charges Buckingham with treason and intention of regicide. Buckingham is found guilty in a trial scene that also shows Katherine appealing on behalf of the commoners against the higher taxes (engineered by Wolsey) to pay for the unpopular war on France. Wolsey's wealth and power are under suspicion by many, and he throws an extravagant feast to entertain the king and his noblemen. Here, Henry meets Anne Bullen (also spelled Boleyn), and he is captivated by her youth and beauty. ACT II The news of Buckingham's trial is reported in the streets, and Buckingham arrives for his arraignment. He affirms his innocence, and forgives his conspirators. News of Henry's concern over the legitimacy of his marriage to Katherine spreads. The king cites his concern that the marriage to his brother's widow may have been wrong in the eyes of God, thus accounting for the lack of a male heir. Henry then sets his sights on marrying Anne, and begins the process of annulling his marriage to Katherine. At Wolsey's instigation, Katherine is brought into court and, in the presence of the Pope's legate from Rome, is challenged to defend the legitimacy of her marriage. In the most powerful scene given to a female character in Shakespeare's history plays, Katherine refuses to bow to Wolsey's political pressure and resolutely avows her devotion to Henry as a wife and the legitimacy of their marriage. Having made her case to the king, she refuses to argue further with Wolsey and exits the scene. The trial proceeds without her, though it is still not clear if Rome will sanction a divorce. ACT III Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius, the papal legate, confront Katherine in her apartment and try unsuccessfully to persuade her to agree to a divorce. But Wolsey, who is against Henry's marriage to Anne, secretly writes to the Pope asking him to stay the annulment. Henry discovers Wolsey's betrayal, as well as documents detailing the wealth that Wolsey has surreptitiously amassed as Archbishop of Canterbury. Lords Suffolk and Surrey, following Henry's orders, strip Wolsey of his titles. Thomas Cranmer, a longtime ally of Henry's, replaces Wolsey as Archbishop. Wolsey, experiencing a profound reversal of fortune, renounces his former self, and advises his confidant Cromwell to avoid the ambition and greed that brought about his fall. ACT IV The people of London learn of Henry's secret marriage to Anne Bullen and shortly thereafter celebrate her coronation. As she anticipates her final hours, Katherine experiences a brief, reassuring heavenly dream, after which she instructs that Henry be sent her blessings and urges him to remember his obligations to their daughter, Mary. She departs the scene gravely ill. ACT V With Wolsey and Katherine now gone, attention turns to the future in the personages of Thomas Cranmer and Anne's new-born baby, Elizabeth. Cranmer, Wolsey's replacement and new confident to Henry, has been denounced as a heretic by the former archbishop's secretary, Gardiner. Henry meets Cranmer the night before the trial to warn him of the false charges of treason that are brought against him. At the trial, the Lord Chamberlain indicts Cranmer, and Gardiner moves to have him committed to the Tower. Cranmer defends his innocence, and before he can be tried further, Henry interrupts the proceedings. Henry's defense of Cranmer, and his suspicion and chastisement of his Council show him as a smarter, more politically savvy leader than the king from the beginning of the play. Henry's embrace of Cranmer as the new Archbishop of Canterbury and godfather to baby Elizabeth is immediately followed by a joyous celebration as the final scene establishes Elizabeth's powerful reign as the future Queen of England.
Henry VIII's England "For the future, the whole world will talk of him." Venetian Ambassador to Henry VIII, 1509 As one historian notes, for citizens of London, "life and theatre, history and art, were often interchangeable." This was perhaps nowhere more evident than on the stage of the Globe Theater, where Shakespeare dramatized many important episodes of English history. The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth chronicles thirteen years of Henry VIII's thirty-eight year rule. Henry was a larger-than-life figure, and arguably one of England's most influential and controversial rulers. Young, handsome, and charismatic, Henry succeeded his father to the throne when he was only seventeen. Though well educated, he initially showed little interest in politics, preferring instead jousting, hunting, archery, and tennis. He was a skilled soldier, and personally led several attacks against France. At the beginning of his reign, his foreign and domestic policies were heavily influenced by his wife Katherine (herself a skilled politician), and Cardinal Wolsey (Archbishop of Canterbury), the richest, most powerful magnate in England. As Henry's opinion of Wolsey disintegrated, Henry took more of an interest in politics and foreign policy. He focused on expanding the power and the image of the monarchy, and his charismatic leadership inspired widespread nationalism. His attempt to procure the Pope's approval for a divorce from Katherine, though motivated by romantic desire for Anne Bullen (Boleyn), was also driven by his desire to secure a male heir and ensure succession of the throne. England was still a relatively medieval society; the Wars of the Roses had only recently ended with the establishment of the new Tudor line, and the fear of civil war was palpable. The desire for a son, fueled by the threat of political instability, led to a series of marriages and divorces. Henry's twenty-year marriage to Katherine produced a daughter, Mary, but no sons. His second wife, Anne Bullen, also delivered a daughter, Elizabeth, who was destined to become one of England's greatest monarchs. Failing to deliver the long hoped-for son, Anne was convicted of treason and adultery and was beheaded in 1536 (a mere three years after the play ends). The day following Anne's execution, Henry married Jane Seymour, who gave birth to Prince Edward (later Edward VI, who ruled only for six years), and she died in childbirth. After Jane's death, he married Anne of Cleaves (whom he divorced), Catherine Howard (later beheaded), and, finally Katherine Parr (the only wife to outlive Henry). Henry's reign was characterized by several significant events: numerous vainglorious wars with France and the Holy Roman Empire that bolstered England's navy but left the country in recession; the break with the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of the Church of England; the strengthening of both Parliament and the monarchy; the state appropriation of Church property that enfranchised a growing middle class but left the Church destitute; and countless trials and executions. Henry was a fierce leader, whose tactics were later criticized as despotic. Because Henry's personal ambitions were largely aligned with the interests of the state, England prospered under his rule. After the short and tumultuous reigns of his children Edward VI (1547-53) and Mary I (1553-58), such prosperity returned during the rule of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). - Elizabeth Jochum, dramaturg
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