Queen Katherine (Tamara Hickey), Cardinal Wolsey (Robert Walsh), and Cardinal Campeius (Craig Mathers) in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s 2013 production of Henry VIII.

Ah, Henry VIII. Famed wife-murderer of England. Henry VIII is so well-known that I would consider him a part of popular culture. England capitalizes on his notoriety to the point where the Tower of London almost exclusively caters to his fans.  When I was in London in 2012, I found this to be a bit frustrating – I mean, what about all of the kings before Henry VIII? Those are the kings that I’m invested in. Reading Henry VIII hasn’t really changed that.

This isn’t a good play, and I say that as someone who adores Shakespeare’s histories. I desperately turned to The Meaning of Shakespeare, and all I found was a measly two pages pretty much saying what I already knew: that this play sucks, and Katherine is its only saving grace. Goddard even quotes Johnson, who apparently said that “the genius of Shakespeare comes in and goes out with Katherine.”

It is probably worth noting that Henry VIII wasn’t written only by Shakespeare. I suppose that means we can blame the overall weakness of this play on John Fletcher, the alleged co-playwright. This blog is exclusively about Shakespeare, but I decided to put Henry VIII on my list so I could round out the history section of this blog, and also because it is often considered part of the canon.

Before we really go into this disaster of a play, maybe we should talk about Henry himself. In reading about this play, I came across a major criticism that I want to address. There seems to be this expectation that the Henry VIII in this play is the Henry VIII we see in the popular painting we’ve all laid eyes on at some point on our lives. But it isn’t. Theaters are not casting fit, attractive actors just for fun, they’re casting Henry like that because that is who he was at the time of this particular set of incidents. Henry VIII was known to be exceptionally attractive and, due to his love for tennis, was actually very fit. A terrible jousting accident left him with a bad leg, which swiftly ended his tennis-playing days. The weight gain we associate with Henry VIII probably came about as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. That, and the fact that he allegedly used to consume around 5,000 calories a meal.

But this is before all of that. This Henry is a young, attractive Henry. This Henry was written to be charming and good at heart. Unfortunately, I could not fool myself into playing along. It’s pretty hard to pretend to like Henry when I know about his life. This play doesn’t discuss any of that, of course. For the title character, Henry isn’t really in this play very much. And the story we are told represents a blip during his reign. Both Fletcher and Shakespeare knew better than to write a gory story about the jealous, murderous, lustful Henry VIII. Although that would have been a much better play, this particular show was being put on for James I, Queen Elizabeth’s successor. As in, Queen- Elizabeth-daughter-of-Henry VIII’s successor. So, all in all, making this play incredibly boring was a smart choice.

We open in England (of course), where the Duke of Buckingham is vexed by a recent incredibly expensive and fruitless meeting between the English and the French.

Who did guide,
I mean who set the body and the limbs
Of this great sport together, as you guess?

One, certes, that promises no element
In such a business.

I pray you who, my lord?

All this was ordered by the good discretion
Of the right reverend Cardinal of York.

The devil speed him! No man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger. What had he
To do in these fierce vanities? I wonder
That such a keech can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’ th’ beneficial sun
And keep it from the earth.

Buckingham has pretty much had it with Cardinal Wolsey’s meddling and is prepared to call him out for treason. This really isn’t an overreaction – the Cardinal seems to be involved in things that shouldn’t concern him. He has far, far too much power for someone in his position.

But, unfortunately for Buckingham, the King really likes Wolsey.

I’ll to the King,
And from a mouth of honor quite cry down
This Ipswich fellow’s insolence, or proclaim
There’s difference in no persons.

Be advised.
Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot
That it do singe yourself. We may outrun
By violent swiftness that which we run at
And lose by overrunning. Know you not
The fire that mounts the liquor till ‘t run o’er
In seeming to augment it wastes it? Be advised.
I say again there is no English soul
More stronger to direct you than yourself,
If with the sap of reason you would quench
Or but allay the fire of passion.

Buckingham takes Norfolk’s warning seriously, but is determined to expose Wolsey for who he is. But before he can act, he is arrested for treason.

SERGEANT, [to Buckingham]
My lord the Duke of Buckingham and Earl
Of Hertford, Stafford, and Northampton, I
Arrest thee of most high treason, in the name
Of our most sovereign king.

BUCKINGHAM, [to Norfolk]
Lo you, my lord,
The net has fall’n upon me. I shall perish
Under device and practice.

It looks like Wolsey is two steps ahead of poor Buckingham. But the Duke isn’t the only one who isn’t a fan of Wolsey – Queen Katherine has a problem with him too. She goes to Henry to tell him that Wolsey has been taxing the English in the king’s name. Wolsey, of course, tries to play dumb.

Please you, sir,
I know but of a single part in aught
Pertains to th’ state, and front but in that file
Where others tell steps with me.

No, my lord?
You know no more than others? But you frame
Things that are known alike, which are not wholesome
To those which would not know them, and yet must
Perforce be their acquaintance. These exactions
Most pestilent to th’ hearing, and to bear ’em
The back is sacrifice to th’ load. They say
They are devised by you, or else you suffer
Too hard an exclamation.

Katherine is a force, and she is the only thing keeping this play alive. I love the firmness and confidence of her response to Wolsey. He may be powerful, but she isn’t afraid of him.

Anyway, Henry decides to pardon commoners who have refused to pay the tax. He should be much, much angrier with Wolsey than he is, but there isn’t time for that. The subject is immediately changed and they begin to discuss poor Buckingham.

Wolsey has a surveyor tell the King what exactly it was that was so treasonous about Buckingham.

First, it was usual with him – every day
If would infect his speech – that if the King
Should without issue die, he’ll carry it so
To make the scepter his. These very words
I’ve heard him utter to his son-in-law,
Lord Abergavenny, to whom by oath he menaced
Revenge upon the Cardinal.

Please your Highness, note
This dangerous conception in this point:
Not friended by his wish to your high person,
His will is most malignant, and it stretches
Beyond you to your friends.

Give me a break! There is no way Buckingham has ever said any of this. Wolsey is just threatened by him, and is desperate to keep Henry on his side. The surveyor continues to make accusations against Buckingham – but Katherine has something to say about it.

If I know you well,
You were the Duke’s surveyor, and lost your office
On the complaint o’ th’ tenants. Take good heed
You charge not in your spleen a noble person
And spoil your nobler soul. I say, take heed –
Yes, heartily beseech you.

Katherine’s suspicion isn’t unfounded in the least. I’m sure she knows enough about Buckingham to smell a rat – and she’s sharp enough to immediately recognize that the surveyor would have reason to harbor bitter feelings toward Buckingham. Henry decides to ignore this little detail, and is incredibly shocked by the story he’s hearing.

There’s his period,
To sheathe his knife in us! He is attached.
Call him to present trial. If he may
Find mercy in the law, ’tis his; if none,
Let him not seek ‘t of us. By day and night,
He’s traitor to th’ height!

So now Buckingham will be called to trial. Cardinal Wolsey has Henry wrapped around his little finger for sure.

In the evening, the Cardinal throws a fancy supper. Henry and his men show up disguised as courtiers, and Henry meets a figure who is known to us all.

[The masquers choose Ladies. The King chooses Anne Bullen.]

The fairest hand I ever touched! O beauty
Till now I never knew thee.

Sounds a bit like Romeo’s declaration in Romeo and Juliet, doesn’t it? Anyway, you now know the plot of this play. We all know the story of Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII may have ingrained himself in popular culture, but so has Anne. You’ve probably noticed that this play uses the unpopular spelling of ‘Bullen,’ for Anne’s last name. The Tudors didn’t know how to spell, so Anne’s family name has been spelled in a number of different ways. The more you know!

The day after the supper (presumably), Buckingham is led to execution. He declares his loyalty to Henry, which is kind of pointless given that he’s on his way to the block. But Buckingham is old news. There’s new gossip going around town.

I am confident;
You shall, sir. Did you not of late days hear
A buzzing of a separation
Between the King and Katherine?

Yes, but it held not;
For when the King once heard it, out of anger
He sent command to the Lord Mayor straight
To stop the rumor and allay those tongues
That durst disperse it.

It is interesting to me that Henry tries to put a stop to the rumors because, well, he knows there’s some truth to them. There is nothing surprising about the way this play pans out, because we know he divorces Katherine and marries Anne. I will say that I think this is incredibly unfair to poor Katherine, who has proven herself to be a good wife and an excellent queen.

The nobles are upset with all of this, and they blame Wolsey for the divide between Katherine and Henry. Wolsey, apparently, has plans to marry Henry to the French king’s sister. Sadly for him, Henry has other ideas. The nobles try their best to discuss this with the king, but he shoos them away. Wolsey and Campeius, the papal legate, approach him with better conversation: they tell him that his divorce proceedings can start.

Anne, meanwhile, is busy feeling sorry for Katherine. She doesn’t know what Henry has in store for her, but she probably suspects something when she is suddenly named marchioness of Pembroke. Her lady finds this pretty suspicious.

With your theme, I could
O’ermount the lark. The Marchioness of Pembroke?
A thousand pounds a year for pure respect?
No other obligation? By my life,
That promises more thousands; honor’s train
Is longer than his foreskirt. By this time
I know your back will bear a duchess. Say,
Are you not stronger than you were?

Well, when she puts it like that, it does sound like a ton of bullshit. A thousand pounds a year just because he respects her? Sure.

Poor Katherine, meanwhile, refuses to have the validity of her marriage questioned.

Sir, I desire you do me right and justice,
And to bestow your pity on me; for
I am a most poor woman and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions, having here
No judge indifferent nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? What cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure
That thus you should proceed to put me off
And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will comfortable,
Ever in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance, glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined. When was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire,
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? What friend of mine
That had to him derived your anger did I
Continue in my liking? Nay, gave notice
He was from thence discharged? Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife in this obedience
Upward of twenty years, and have been blessed
With many children by you. If, in the course
And process of this time, you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honor aught,
My bond to wedlock or my love and duty
Against your sacred person, in God’s name
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp’st kind of judgement.

She continues, but I think we get the point. Poor Katherine. There is something incredibly strong about her, sure, but she also possesses a very unique kind of fragility. She hasn’t done anything wrong – her husband is just immature and foolish. He clearly isn’t thinking in the long term here. He isn’t thinking with the right organ either, if you know what I mean.

Wolsey tries to interfere, but Katherine has none of it.

Be patient yet.

I will, when you are humble; nay, before,
Or by God will punish me. I do believe,
Induced by potent circumstances, that
You are mine enemy, and make my challenge
You shall not be my judge; for it is you
Have blown this coal betwixt my lord and me –
Which God’s dew quench! Therefore I say again,
I utterly abhor, yea, from my soul
Refuse you for my judge, whom, yet once more,
I hold my most malicious foe and think not
At all a friend to truth.

Go Katherine! She knows Wolsey has some ulterior motive in all of this, and she has no problem laying it all out on the table. Nothing is decided upon by the time Katherine storms out of the room. All Henry does is deny that Wolsey had anything to do with his decision to divorce Katherine. He says it was his own decision, fueled by the fact that Katherine had not given him any sons.

If only reproductive biology had been a thing back in 1533.

In any case, Henry also decides that he’s a bit annoyed with Wolsey and Campeius, because all of this is taking much too long. The man wants a divorce, and he wants it now.

Wolsey and Campeius decide to try to talk Katherine out of contesting the divorce. She has holed herself away with her ladies.

Put your main cause into the King’s protection.
He’s loving and most gracious. ‘Twill be much
Both for your honor better and your cause,
For if the trial of the law o’ertake you,
You’ll part away disgraced.

He tells you rightly.

You tell me what you wish for both: my ruin.
Is this your Christian counsel? Out upon you!
Heaven is above all yet; there sits a judge
That no king can corrupt.

Katherine’s words are bold, and I think she has every right to lash out like this. Henry’s “reason” for divorcing her is bullshit, and I think she knows it.

Madam, you wander from the good we aim at.

My lord, I dare not make myself so guilty
To give up willingly that noble title
Your master wed me to. Nothing but death
Shall e’er divorce my dignities.

Katherine is very emotional and angry in this scene, and I find her to be a very sympathetic character overall. But I can’t help but wonder what King James thought about all of this. I’m assuming that Katherine wasn’t written to appeal to royalty, or even to the commoners. They probably saw her as too emotional and stubborn. There certainly is a stark contrast between her and the pure, sweet, calm qualities we see in Anne. But a modern audience wouldn’t care for Anne, I think. All of us would attach ourselves quite quickly to Katherine, and we all feel the sting of her words. Her anger is righteous, and reminds me of the anger we see from Isabella in Measure for Measure.

Katherine keeps fighting, but suddenly she decides to stop. She agrees to do whatever Wolsey and Campeius want, and goes quietly. I was very startled by this sudden change in character. Maybe she knows that all of this is a lost cause. Maybe, suddenly, she realizes that she can be without Henry and still be Katherine of Aragon. She doesn’t need him. Or maybe she knows that allowing the divorce to proceed will reveal certain things about Wolsey…

In the grand scheme of things, she gets off easy compared to his other (future) wives.

Although this trouble with Katherine has been resolved, Wolsey finds himself in a different sort of trouble. The kind of trouble Buckingham was trying to get him into in the first place.

O, fear him not.
His spell in that is out. The King hath found
Matter against him that forever mars
The honey of his language. No, he’s settled.
Not to come off, in his displeasure.

Sir, I should be glad to hear such news as this
Once every hour.

Believe it, this is true.
In the divorce his contrary proceedings
Are all unfolded, wherein he appears
As I would wish mine enemy.

How came
His practices to light?

Most strangely.

O, how, how?

The Cardinal’s letters to the Pope miscarried
And came to th’ eye o’ th’ King, wherein was read
How that the Cardinal did entreat his Holiness
To stay the judgement o’ th’ divorce; for if
It did take place, “I do,” quoth he, “perceive
My king is tangled in affection to
A creature of the Queen’s, Lady Anne Bullen.”

I love how much the nobles love their gossip. It seems that Henry’s suspicion that the divorce was being held up wasn’t unfounded.  Henry actually knows much worse things about Wolsey – and instead of confronting him about it, he simply hands him a paper outlining all of his crimes and leaves.

The nobles are gleefully watching the entire time.

‘Tis so.
This paper has undone me. ‘Tis th’ accompt
Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together
For mine own ends – indeed, to gain the popedom
And fee my friends in Rome. O, negligence,
Fit for a fool to fall by! What cross devil
Made me put this main secret in the packet
I sent the King? 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 I take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again.

[He looks at another paper.]

What’s this? “To th’ Pope”?
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to ‘s Holiness. 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.

Goodbye, you meddling fool. The nobles are super excited to (a) roast Wolsey to his face, and (b) take his seal from him. Cromwell, Wolsey’s servant, is the only one who is sad about this whole thing. What can I say? Bad people don’t deserve good things, and Wolsey was nothing if not a bad egg.

He does seem remorseful, though, but it’s too little too late. He advises Cromwell on how to get into Henry’s good graces. I feel like Henry shouldn’t trust anyone related to Wolsey, but he hasn’t exactly been the brightest tool in the shed so far. The fact that it took him this long to see Wolsey for what he is is very telling.

Anne is crowned Queen, and Katherine dies shortly after. Before she does, she expresses her distaste for Wolsey once again, and sees a vision of herself being led into paradise. She is fine dying because she knows there’s something better out there than the life of disgrace Henry has forced onto her. Poor Katherine.

Since Wolsey’s seat is open, a new archbishop of Canterbury is named. He is called Cranmer – not to be confused with Cromwell, which I did constantly. After Katherine’s death, the rest of this play is pretty much Tudor propaganda. I didn’t care for it at all.

The nobles didn’t like Wolsey, but they don’t like Cranmer either. They see his views as heretical.

My lord, because we have business of more moment,
We will be short with you. ‘Tis his Highness’ pleasure,
And our consent, for better trial of you
From hence you be committed to the Tower,
Where, being but a private man again,
You shall know many dare accuse you boldly –
More than, I fear, you are provided for.

It actually isn’t his Highness’ pleasure, but still. Cranmer is a bit of a whiny crybaby, and wails until Henry presents him with a ring. He is to show this to the council members so that they may know of Henry’s favor. Hilariously, the council members just choose to shut the door on Cranmer during their meeting. Henry furiously intervenes.

May it please your Grace –

No, sir, it does not please me.
I had thought I had men of some understanding
And wisdom of my Council, but I find none.
Was it discretion, lords, to let this man,
This good man – few of you deserve that title –
This honest man, wait like a lousy footboy
At chamber door? And one as great as you are?
Why, what a shame was this! Did my commission
Bid you so far forget yourselves? I gave you
Power as he was a councillor to try him,
Not as a groom. There’s some of you, I see,
More out of malice than integrity,
Would try him to the utmost, had you mean,
Which you shall never have while I live.

I genuinely do not trust Henry’s judgement here. I think if the nobles are suspicious of Cranmer, then there must be some reason. Henry clung onto Wolsey until things fell apart. He refuses to hear people out, and always insists on marching to the beat of his own drum. But that doesn’t make a good ruler. He should listen to the others.

During all of this ruckus, Anne gives birth.

To a girl.

What was Henry’s reason for divorcing Katherine again? Ah, irony.

The play ends nonsensically – Cranmer predicts that Elizabeth will have a spectacular reign, and that James I will have an equally magnificent one as well. Rubbish, all done to please the royalty of the time. If you’re going to shill out propaganda, at least make it good à la Richard III.

This play was incredibly disjointed, and only Katherine shone throughout it all. Something in her speech suggests (to me, at least) that Shakespeare had a heavy hand in writing her, but I may be biased. All I know is that this play, as it is, is very weak. For something that followed The Tempest, it is a massive disappointment.

Cymbeline is next! And after that, we’re done! I can’t believe I managed to get this far, especially with all that’s happened to me this past year or so. Hopefully I can squeeze enough out of Cymbeline to bring this Shakespeare extravaganza to a satisfying close. And after that, the highly anticipated (to me, obviously) ranking of all the plays…!


  1. One of the only Shakespeare plays that I just don’t get.

    The whole thing is just laughable with any sort of knowledge about the actual history. And even as it’s own thing, it’s not internally consistent. The play sets up Katharine as the most sympathetic character and Wolsey as the ‘bad guy’. Wolsey is the one who first instigates the mistreatment of Katharine. And Wolsey is ultimately discredited. Yet Henry still continues to mistreat Katharine and one of the reasons why he is pissed at Wolsey is because the divorce is not going along fast enough. And we are supposed to go along with this? Thematically speaking, if Katharine is set up as ‘good’ and Wolsey as ‘bad’, wouldn’t it be more apt for the rejection of Wolsey to lead to a reconciliation with Katharine. But of course, that can never be, given the actual history, so we are somehow supposed to accept Henry’s hanky panky with Anne as a good thing, as him breaking free from Wolsey’s influence.

    And the celebration of Elizabeth’s birth at the end also makes no internal sense, given that the play has both mentioned Henry’s desire for a son and the existence of Katharine’s daughter (Mary).

    1. I wish there were more to this play, but I genuinely think there isn’t much for us to get. It is propaganda, plain and simple.

      I see what you are saying, and I agree with you completely. That is why I wondered how Katherine was received by audiences, and even by James I. I can confidently say that a modern audience would see her as a sympathetic figure, but I’m not so sure about the audiences of days past. They may have seen her as overemotional, and as a nuisance who refuses to bend to her sovereign’s will. Anne, though we only see her for a hot second, comes off as very serene and delicate in her speech. So perhaps audiences would have preferred Anne to Katherine simply because the former exhibits more “acceptable” qualities for a woman.

      Although Wolsey is heavily involved in Katherine’s plight, Henry does take responsibility for all of it. Henry’s choice to ditch Wolsey becomes an instance of him being an intelligent and competent king, with none of it being related to Katherine. This resistance to connect the dots between Wolsey and Katherine and accept what is true is a result of Henry knowing that he isn’t supposed to be putty in anybody’s hand, least of all the Cardinal’s.

      And yes, the celebration at the end is pure nonsense. It makes Henry come off as a fool more than anything, given that he allegedly divorces Katherine due to her inability to give him a son. The irony is strong here, especially since he has Anne beheaded two-and-a-half years later, and has Elizabeth declared as illegitimate shortly after. Some king!

  2. I finally took the time to read this 37th and final Shakespeare play on my list. I avoided reading your review until afterward. I think I liked the play even less than you did, and you captured the reason perfectly in the comment above. It is propaganda, and to me it feels like a sort of betrayal by Shakespeare.

    One of the really powerful things about so many of his history plays, and especially a play like King Lear, is they show royal rulers for what they are – flawed humans trying to do jobs that are beyond their – or anyone’s – wisdom. While a close reading of history certainly shows this to be true, I have to believe it was the the current events and the recent history of Shakespeare’s own time that led him to this view in the first place. There are no better examples of flawed royalty than Henry VIII and his offspring, and to paper over this history feels like Shakespeare undoing all the good he did with Richard II, the Henry plays, and Richard III. I mean, for goodness’ sake, Henry VIII recreated an entire religion, and it barely gets mentioned.

    I get the argument that it wouldn’t have been safe to criticize so recent rulers, but I’d have preferred if Shakespeare hadn’t said anything at all. Maybe he had no choice – this has the feel of a sponsored project, don’t you think?

    1. Oh, I absolutely see this as a sponsored project. I’m sure Shakespeare was paid a pretty penny to write this, and I definitely believe that he was specifically sought out for this play. That probably put him in between a rock and a hard place.

      As you said, Shakespeare is well known for writing royalty as humans, rather than as gods. You really don’t realize how much freedom he had with his writing until you read Henry VIII. There is so much about Henry VIII that could have been touched upon, and so much potential wasted. It’s like you’re saying – there wasn’t even mention of the Anglican Church, despite it fitting well into the timeline Shakespeare was writing about. It really is such a shame.

      On the bright side, Shakespeare didn’t write this by himself. So maybe all the especially bad parts weren’t his!

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