Seattle GreenStage did a Shakespeare in the Park production of Henry VIII this summer. Most folks aren’t aware Shakespeare wrote a Henry VIII. I thought the same thing. When I started reading it this summer, I saw that I had read it in college. Or at least underlined a bunch of stuff in the preface. I read it again before I went to see the production. It was a warm sunny afternoon with a cool breeze and I fell asleep for the entirety of my favorite part of the play. I fell asleep just as Katherine was entering for her trial and woke up just as she was leaving. Darn.
For my money, this is Katherine’s play (or Catherine of Aragon as we might remember from school). At her first appearance, she pleads with the king on behalf of his subjects to lower their taxes while casting reproachful glance at Cardinal Wolsey, the man responsible for the taxes. Henry’s attitude is that his subjects exist to provide him with the means to play, make war, and do whatever he wants to do. Cardinal Wolsey, himself wealthy and fond of luxury, is dedicated to making sure the king, and himself by association, can continue to live luxuriously–much like the wealthy do today in our country.
The next time we see Katherine, she is on trial. Though she has carried four or five babies to term, all the males have died. Henry has overheard the suggestion that this was God’s judgment on him because Katherine was his brother’s widow when he married her and somewhere in the bowels of the Old Testament there’s an injunction against that. He’s working this idea at the same time that he’s working Anne Bullen (or Anne Boleyn).
A lot of the story is imparted to the audience by means of people commenting and gossiping in town and in court. Here’s Lord Chamberlain and Lord Suffolk:
*C–It seems the marriage with his brother’s wife has crept too near his conscience.
S–No, his conscience has crept too near another lady.
In his determination to have a male heir, Henry plans to have his 20 year marriage pronounced unlawful, a marriage that had evidently been quite warm and happy until he started fretting about his heir. He gets Wolsey to arrange everything for him. And this is how we end up at the trial, which sounds like something our congressional clown show in Washington D.C. might come up with. I won’t say which political party. Here is the king and Wolsey and some slimy operative Wolsey has pulled in from the Vatican. Katherine has no counsel, not a political advocate from her home in Spain, not even another woman in the room.
She comes in, speaks eloquently to the king and ignores Wolsey. When Wolsey addresses her, she tells him that he has always been her enemy –“it is you have blown this coal betwixt my lord and me” (II, iv)–and she will not allow him to be her judge. Just in case he’s in any doubt about what she really thinks of him, she adds, “your heart is full of arrogancy, spleen, and pride.” She demands that her appeal go to the Pope.
Then she walks out of court.
There’s a buzzing:
“‘Tis not well. She’s going away.”
“Call her back.”
“Katherine, Queen of England, come into the court.”
“Madame, you are called back.”
She keeps right on going. I punch the air. It’s an impressive scene.
But when I got a chance to see it live, I fell asleep.
Anne Bullen becomes pregnant, the king marries Anne Bullen and his marriage to Katherine is pronounced illegitimate, in that order. Katherine goes into seclusion and eventually dies. Cardinal Wolsey falls out of favor because not only was he unable to obtain the divorce Henry wanted, he was found to be wealthier than the king. The play ends with the birth of Elizabeth who ironically grows up to be the greatest royal of them all and she wasn’t even male.
Here are lines I liked:
*No man’s pie is freed from his ambitious finger (I, i)
*Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself (I, i)
*All hoods make not monks (III, i)
*a killing frost (III, ii)
*That comfort comes too late,
‘Tis like a pardon after execution. (IV, ii)
Here’s another one for when unwelcome solicitors come knocking at my door:
*How dare you thrust yourselves into my private meditation? (II, ii)