Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.
— Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 2
The English Renaissance ended with the death of Elizabeth. As throughout Europe, the Reformation gave rise to the Baroque era, not that anyone living through it could readily make that separation. It is the advent of Opera that defines that line historically for scholars between the Renaissance and the Baroque, and what are the plays of Shakespeare if not the grand Opera of English royalty, albeit set alone to lyric without instrumentation? Indeed, if we take the music out of Opera, the beating heart of the stories resembles Shakespeare, precisely because both Opera and the works of the Bard are patterned after the idea of the revival of the Greek traditions: the Renaissance, by any other name. But alas, if you remove the music from Opera, the entire point is missed, and the Opera falls apart. For the Bard, lyric is everything.
It’s been a long road through Shakespeare’s history plays, that canon devoted to his study of English history through its royalty. As we’ve discussed from King John and through the various Henry and Richard plays that comprise The Hollow Crown and the events of The Wars of the Roses, the Bard is looking not only at the history of England, but at its relationship to God and the Church. I’ve surmised from the beginning that he was a closet Catholic, and so in order to keep his head firmly attached in the “tolerant” golden age of Elizabeth’s reign, he praised all things seen to be good with one hand while bearing the dagger of blame in the other. It’s the kind of tap dance that got many in his company arrested or worse, and somehow he made it through intact in both body and reputation.
Henry VIII is a play that isn’t performed often by comparison of the others. This surprises me given the sheer amount of interest in all things Tudor that I see out on the internet. It’s the historical soap opera that keeps on giving. To that end, there is some controversy as to whether or not it even stands in the canon. Some believe this to be Shakespeare’s final play. Others believe he had precious little to do with it. I would argue his fingerprints are all over it, perfectly in line with the Bard’s pro-Catholic, pro-English, anti-Elizabeth, anti-Protestant campaign that serves as the through-line for all of his historical plays. It fits the same patterns, and it serves the same functions, hiding in plain sight in the exact same ways.
On its surface, this play documents the known points of history that every Tudor enthusiast knows backwards and forwards: the downfalls of Buckingham and of Cardinal Wolsey, the rise of Anne Boleyn (or Bullen as she’s called here), the tragedy of Katherine of Aragon, and culminating in the birth of Elizabeth… ironically, Shakespeare’s first patron. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. Without reading deeply, we see all praise heaped upon the future queen with the mighty Henry smiling upon the procession to the very end while his daughter’s greatness is prophesied. But even disregarding how he himself felt about the necessity of a male heir (the entire crux of his own arguments), there are some things to point out up front that inform the deeper reading and what I’ve argued across the entirety of the history plays to be Shakespeare’s airing of grievances.
The first point, and the most important one, is Katherine of Aragon. She alone falls from grace while retaining her saintly dignity. She was raised to the elevation by the Tudor dynasty, she was born a royal of Catholic heritage that she continued into that Tudor dynasty, and even in death she becomes a martyr to all things both Catholic and “true” to the England Shakespeare laments. The entirety of the King’s Great Matter — the pursuit of divorce from Katherine and the break with the Church of Rome — relied on merely hinting at the break by spotlighting Katherine. Katherine, in her role as martyr, becomes the stand-in for not only the other Catholics who have been “endangered” by the line of succession that led to Elizabeth, but also the stand-in for Catholicism as a whole.
Point two: all others who fall from grace do so in the quest for power. Henry is master of his dominion, and all who seek to challenge his will ultimately suffer for it. They are seen as villains on the surface, but… are they? Could it be they stand for the countless of victims of the entirety of the Tudor reign and Protestant Reformation? It is noted that there are two names in this play who are not brought forward to fall. The first is Anne Boleyn. As the mother of Elizabeth and a former queen by the time of Shakespeare’s writing, she is a martyr of the Reformation and honored (more or less) for bearing the queen who would bring relative peace and stability after so many decades of turbulence. She is the harbinger of Elizabeth’s so-called golden age. The second is the other prominent Catholic voice to whom both Protestants and Catholics alike would honor for being a learned man: Sir Thomas More. For Shakespeare to bring him to the center stage to answer for his crimes would be to make Henry look truly evil, thereby tipping the Bard’s hand. It is enough to know that Wolsey was not entirely good in his Catholic role, and it is enough to understand that even in the “peace” the Tudors bring after the Wars of the Roses, the likes of Buckingham can still be executed as a traitor for pursuing a rightful claim to the crown. Shakespeare can thus mold Henry into the tyrant while being more subtle about it. Henry’s pursuit of an heir through Anne Boleyn is no longer the whole of the break with Rome; he is merely the catalyst after a long line of usurpers and war that put England on the wrong side of Shakespeare’s God. The rest is in the presence of the actor who embodies the role, and even then… the script seems to call for restraint (open to interpretation, of course).
The whole of the play seems to cast down those who would plot through cunning and deceit. Again, save for Katherine, those who rise or otherwise maintain their position (such as Henry himself) are those who act in simplicity. And yet, Katherine is still the model for such simplicity and noble dignity. Her loyalty to the throne and to her God is the unquestioned centerpiece of the entire play for those who would share Shakespeare’s sympathies.
Conscience is another point that the Bard plays heavily upon. Henry’s Great Matter has always been portrayed through Tudor propaganda as an attack of conscience. If his trusted Wolsey is the “quiet of my wounded conscience,” then surely his downfall is not because he failed to secure the divorce Henry wished, but rather because he failed to keep the King on the path of God. Remember the lesson of Henry V, whom the historical Henry VIII admired: though his father may have been a usurper, the king himself found the grace of God and victory in arms against foes of the throne through inheritance of the throne through lineage (as God approved and demanded) and through loyalty to the Catholic traditions. Wolsey, as cardinal, failed in his duty to the faith and lost everything, and Henry lost England’s soul as a direct result.
But if the throne can be inherited in grace even through a usurper, how do we explain Elizabeth? To any who read that message deliberately, one can come away with an honest appraisal of the Virgin Queen and her reign. However, she reigned in the Protestant faith and secured it. And even more direct than that, she was a woman. Shakespeare could never abide that. Even Elizabeth’s predecessor Mary I — a noted Catholic who tried to reverse the course of her father’s will — failed in her duties in the eyes of the Bard precisely because a woman was never to sit on the throne of England. It’s short-sighted by everything we understand in the 21st century, but by the standards of the English Renaissance, it makes perfect sense to the misogyny of the age. We don’t have to like it. We don’t even have to understand it. We only have to know that’s how it worked back then. As progressive and humanistic as Shakespeare can sometimes be seen to be, he was far from perfect by any standard. His message was clear: the queen was on the wrong side of faith, and she was the wrong gender.
Let’s add further insult to injury from the Bard’s point of view. This play was written several years after Elizabeth’s death. Who was her successor? James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England upon his accession. Scotland. The only thing potentially worse for an Englishman of Shakespeare’s pride than having a woman sit the throne is to see it filled by an “animal” like a Scot. I see writings like this all the time in my historical readings, and it never ceases to amuse me because Scotland’s nobility was in many ways far more “noble” than anything England had put on the throne in a lot of years up to that point. No less vicious, mind you, but more “noble” from the historical definitions of the era. From the Bard’s point of view, not only is there a number of centuries of subjugation to wrestle with, there’s also the sticking point that Scotland was Protestant before England because Elizabeth executed their reigning Catholic, Mary Queen of Scots, for treason and conspiracy against her royal person. Double whammy. Elizabeth unwittingly united the hated enemies of Scotland and England in Protestantism. Sort of puts the whole Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes into perspective, doesn’t it? Catholics were desperate, and some extremists stepped up.
Just to add even more salt into the wound, there was something else that happened about the same time as the Bard was writing this play: King James commissioned his infamous Bible, outlawing the Geneva Bible of the Protestant Reformation but also subverting the Catholic texts. For English speaking peoples, this would be the religious standard for centuries to come, with only the extremely learned getting a glimpse into the differences between the doctrines that could undermine the faith as Shakespeare would have understood it. Not that the Bard was any paragon of virtue, but you see the point. Shakespeare is the hero of his own story, after all, and he is trying to bring his people back to God while somehow keeping his head in the process. For a man to whom the idea of martyrdom holds power, he was quite the coward, all things considered. But while he lacked the courage of his convictions, he did leave us some pretty incredible plays all the same. His place in history is secure, probably more so than any of the English royalty he hoped to skewer.
James I continued Shakespeare’s patronage where Elizabeth left off, and in an outward show of praise for her, it extended to him from a “loyal subject.” Like Elizabeth, James had a long reign in Scotland, longer than any before him, in fact. Like Elizabeth, James was a noteworthy scholar and not easily fooled. But Shakespeare only had to continue the masquerade already in progress, and as he was no longer battling a woman, he likely feared he’d met his match in James. If Elizabeth could recognize herself in the monarchs of Shakespeare’s plays, so James would recognize himself as well, thus King Henry VIII has to be restrained and dignified, the model of aristocracy and supremacy, questioned only with mortal consequences, regardless of whatever else history or public gossip may claim to the contrary. So it is that Henry VIII becomes the last word on the Bard’s arguments, and the play is perhaps less powerful than it could be even in the wake of Elizabeth’s passing on account of being hobbled for the sake of appearances. England is in the hands of a Protestant Scotsman, and we have a line of English usurpers and a Protestant queen to blame… or to thank, as Protestants and James himself would read it. Like those in his play who practiced deceit and cunning, Shakespeare fell, not from any mortal grace, but from the grace of God through the misdeeds of the noble. Clearly, it weighed on his conscience. After all, of the canonical 38 plays (depending on which source you use these days), ten of them — more than a quarter — are devoted to this singular quest to call out his perceived grievances. Ten plays under the names of earlier monarchs, and all of them with a laser focus on Elizabeth. One wonders if he feels like he made a Faustian bargain with his royal patronages in order to bring his plays to the masses and his arguments to God. For a believer, that has to be a level of suffering that maybe he thought he even deserved for not having greater courage. Who can really say? But these are the kinds of thoughts and questions that humanize the playwright and his plays for me, that give historical weight and meaning to them.
This concludes my examination of Shakespeare’s histories, as difficult as that is for me to believe. It’s quite the milestone for me, a most gratifying one at that. But there is so much more to explore in the Bard’s canon, so we’re far from done. From here, I’ll explore the tragedies, and thankfully I need not keep a running argument across multiple plays as I did with the histories. That’ll make things simpler, but by no means easier. I’ll be taking them in order by historical time period as I did with the histories, so next up is King Lear.