- Henry VIII
- Cardinal Wolsey
- Cardinal Campeius
- Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury
- Duke of Norfolk
- Duke of Buckingham
- Duke of Suffolk
- Earl of Surrey
- Lord Chamberlain
- Lord Chancellor
- Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester
- Cromwell, servant to Wolsey
- Queen Katharine, Henry’s first wife
- Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife
The Play’s the Thing: The play opens with a prologue which basically says this isn’t a comedy but a serious play. You’ve been warned. Buckingham and Norfolk are discussing the current treaty negotiations with France and how annoying Wolsey is. Particularly because of his habit of outmaneuvering anyone who might even possibly develop a closer relationship with Henry than the one he has. Wolsey then shows up, he and Buckingham make faces at each other, and then Wolsey disappears. Shortly afterwards, Buckingham is arrested and shipped off to the tower along with some other people. Henry is holding court when Katharine shows up. She’s there mostly to get Henry to reconsider Buckingham’s imprisonment as Buckingham is well-liked by the people. But Henry trusts Wolsey so he’s not changing his mind. There are then some trumped up witnesses who say Buckingham is plotting to take the crown for himself. Henry sends Buckingham to a formal trial and says he’ll abide by whatever decision that body makes. There’s a scene that doesn’t really contribute much and then we get another where Wolsey is throwing a party. Some guys in disguise (including Henry) crash it. Wolsey recognizes Henry, invites him to sit down, and Henry meets Anne and thinks she is a fine looking lady.
Out on street corner, two dudes meet up and discuss Buckingham’s trial. He was found guilty. And the guys are totally blaming Wolsey. Buckingham then shows up and gives a big speech to the people on the street where he makes amends with some guys and tells people to tell Henry that Buckingham was really a good guy. Norfolk, Suffolk, and the Lord Chamberlain chat about Henry and talk about how Wolsey is manipulating him into reconsidering his marriage to Katharine (who was his brother’s wife first). They creep up on Henry who tells them off and prefers to hang with Wolsey and Campeius. In the only scene where Anne actually appears and says more than one line, we get an interlude where she’s talking with her pal, Old Lady (no lie, that’s what she gets named as in the character list) about how she has no desire at all to be queen (if if makes you feel better, Anne, it won’t stick long). Then a messenger shows up to give her a title care of Henry. We then come to a scene where Katharine eloquently tells Henry she’s not going to stick around while he weighs the pros and cons of continuing their marriage after 20 years. She leaves, he talks about how great she is but that he’s got worries about the legitimacy of his heirs.
Katharine is hanging out in her garden listening to one of her wenches (her words, not mine) sing a sad song when Wolsey and Campeius show up. They’ve brought the news that Henry’s breaking up their marriage and she’s not queen anymore. Norfolk, Suffolk, and company are bitching again about Wolsey and crowing because Henry found a letter from him to the Pope asking the Pope to delay on his decision in order to prevent a marriage to Anne (which it’s too late for anyway). Wolsey has Cromwell hand over a package to Henry. Unfortunately for Wolsey, it details all of the money he’s been stockpiling for his eventual bid for power in the church in Rome. Henry calls him out on it and Wolsey falls from grace. For several pages.
Our two random dudes are back on their street corner, this time chatting about Anne’s coronation which is happening that morning. They’re joined by a third random guy who witnessed it and tells them every detail. Meanwhile, Katharine is in the country somewhere and dying. There’s some stuff that happens but it’s not very interesting.
The next act opens with the news that Anne is in labour. Henry then meets with Cranmer to let him know he’s trouble and will be appearing before the council the next day. We then get news that Anne has had a baby girl. There’s then some political maneuvering around Cranmer being let in. Suffolk and Norfolk are asses, Henry puts them down for flaunting their power over Cranmer. He then pardons Cranmer and tells him he’s going to be a godfather to the new princess. There’s then a scene of porters having to deal with plebs going wild with partying for the christening for the princess. It’s pretty dull except for the joke about this one christening leading to thousands more as a result of that night. We then get the actual christening of Elizabeth and an entire scene of compliments to her reign. Then there’s an epilogue apologizing for the play’s shortcomings.
Heroes and Villains: My favourite character for this play is Katharine. She’s one of the few characters with anything approaching a personality, she has some decent speeches, and she stands up to Henry. Not bad for a woman who only has a few major scenes.
Pick Up Line with Style:
“O beauty/ Till now I never knew thee” (I.iv)
Speech to Know: There’s no amazing speeches in this play but Katharine has a decent one when Wolsey tells her that Henry is dissolving their marriage.
“Would I had never trod this English earth,
Or felt the flatteries that grow upon it!
Ye have angels’ faces, but heaven knows your hearts.
What will become of me now, wretched lady?
I am the most unhappy woman living –
Alas, poor wenches, where are now your fortunes?
Shipwreck’d upon a kingdom, where no pit,
No friends, no hope; no kindred weep for me;
Almost no grave allow’d me: – like the lily,
That once was mistress of the field flourish’d,
I’ll hang my head and perish.” (III.i)
View from the Pit: Despite the awesomeness of the source material, Henry VIII is boring. Shakespeare is so careful to make no one too much of a villain that there never really is one and the play skirts almost all conflict, making it rather uninteresting. Having taken an entire history class on the Tudors, I can tell you that there is a lot of juicy stuff to play with from this period of Henry’s reign and yet Shakespeare barely touches it. He barely even hints at the break with the Catholic church that happened during this period. Anne Boleyn is basically a cardboard figure to lavish praises on (probably safe to say as little about your monarch’s mother as possible I suppose). And the final scene of the play is basically just an extended compliment to Elizabeth I. But really, the play isn’t that great and I almost wish Shakespeare had saved the ink. If you’re only going to take the safe approach to recent history (which is a fair position to take when the monarch could have your head chopped off if she really doesn’t like it) why bother doing it at all.