“I come no more to make you laugh. Things now/That bear a weighty and serious brow,/Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe…”

Henry VIII (All Is True)

Act One

By Dennis Abrams




King Henry VIII of England

Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s wife, soon to be divorced

Anne Boleyn, Katherine’s maid-of-honor and Henry’s soon to be second wife

Cardinal Wolsey

Thomas Cranmer, later Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleague, Bishop of Lincoln

Stephen Gardiner, Henry’s new secretary, later Bishop of Winchester

Cardinal Campeius, ambassador of the Pope

Lord Caputius, ambassador of Emperor Charles V

Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s advisor

Duke of Buckingham

Lord Abergavenny and the Earl of Surrey, Buckingham’s sons-in-law

Nobles, gentlemen and officials at the English court: Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, Lord Sands, Sir Thomas Lovell, Sir Anthony Denny, Sir Henry Guildford, Sir Nicholas Vaux, the Lord Chamberlain and the Lord Chancellor

Three Gentlemen at the court

Buckingham’s Surveyor

Griffith, Katherine’s usher

Patience, Katherine’s waiting woman

Old Lady, Anne Boleyn’s companion

Doctor Butts, Henry’s physician


henry viii photo act one 1Act One:  The English court is abuzz with news from the Field of Cloth of Gold, a spectacular peace conference between England and France. But the influence wielded by Cardinal Wolsey (Lord Chancellor and the mastermind behind the event) is the source of much jealousy among certain lords. Sneering at his ambition and low birth, Buckingham, Abergavenny and Norfolk grumble that the peace deal with the French is already falling apart. But Wolsey is one step ahead of his enemies, and Buckingham is arrested. The Cardinal seems unstoppable: no sooner are they repealed than Wolsey cunningly puts out word that it is he who has called for the changes. Though suspicions run high, the King has other matters to attend to: namely the beautiful Anne Boleyn, his wife’s maid-of-honor, whom he dances with and kisses at the Cardinal’s palace.

Apparently, one reason that the Globe burnt down so quickly was that its audience was too engrossed in the play to notice. While their eyes were “more attentive to the show,” wrote the diplomat Sir Henry Wotton to his nephew, the flames “kindled inwardly, and ran around like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.” The authors may thus have had cause to rue the success of Henry VIII, only in its third or fourth performance (or first, according to Marjorie Garber) at the time: perhaps if some of the spectators had allowed their attention to wander, the theater might have been saved. The very fact that a cannon was being fired to welcome King Henry – not as the more usual shorthand for a battle scene – speaks volumes. Henry VIII was written to astound its first audiences.

Even in its four-hundred-year-old play script, Henry VIII gives a vivid impression of its visual punch. Many of the play’s pivotal moments are attended by grand theatrical set pieces, all described with unusually detailed (for Shakespeare) stage directions. The first big moment, Wolsey’s banquet in Act One – the first scene that hints that the King, dancing with Anne Boleyn, will stray from his marriage – requires several tables on stage, copious guests and plenty of music. In Act Two (as you shall see), the aftermath of the Duke of Buckingham’s trial is designed to seize our attention with his ignominious entrance, flanked by ‘halberdiers’ (armed soldiers) and a throng of noblemen and commoners.

But these pale in comparison to the visual splendors later in that same Act when Queen Katherine herself is put on trial. As scene four begins, both “trumpets” and “cornetts” sound as the court proceeds, ever so majestically into session, led by a train of twenty-four names personnel, ranging from functionaries, such as “two vergers with silver wands” and “two gentlemen bearing two great silver pillars,” all the way up to a gang of some five bishops – not to mention the estranged King and Queen themselves, each attended by numerous flunkies (2.4.0.SD). As is attested by the extravagant 1520 peace conference between England and France known as the Field of Cloth of Gold (with which the play begins), Henry VIII’s real-life court was acutely aware of the political value of majestic ceremonial trappings – and Henry VIII does it best to reproduce them. Following that court scene, three other spectacular events map out the course of the rest of the play: Anne’s coronation, represented by an extensive “royal train”; Queen Katherine’s dream vision, featuring “six personages in white robes” who dance around her to the accompaniment of music; and finally the christening of the young Princess Elizabeth (Anne Boleyn’s daughter and the future Queen) that brings the play to its conclusion.

The play itself urges audiences to take this kind of realism seriously. From Wotton’s letter describing the fire we get the impression that “The Life of King Henry the Eight,” as it was printed in the 1623 First Folio, was more usually known by a jaunty alternative title, All Is True. There was also a brief Jacobean fad for colloquial, playful titles – Samuel Rowley’s play When You See Me, You Know Me (which was revived in 1613) was also about King Henry, while Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (1605) appears to have been a source for Shakespeare and Fletcher. Shakespeare’s own taste for tongue-in-cheek names appears in the comedies as Much Ado About Nothing and What You Will, the latter being better known, of course, as Twelfth Night. But “All is True” is more outrageously daring than any of those: it seems to suggest not merely that “all” will be “true” in the end, but insists that what the playwright (or playwrights) are putting on stage really did happen. As I mentioned, the play’s taste for spectacular staging makes it quite apparent that reproducing the visual realities of Henry’s court is a major concern. And as the Prologue himself puts it,

To rank our chosen truth with such a show

As fool and fight is, beside forfeiting

Our own brains, and the opinion that we bring

To make that only true we now intend,

Will leave us never an understanding friend,

Therefore, for goodness’ sake, and as you are known

The first and happiest hearers of the town,

Be sad as we would make ye. Think ye see

The very persons of our noble story

As they were living; think you see them great,

And followed with the general throng and sweat

Of thousand friends; then, in a moment, see

How soon this mightiness meets misery.

(Prologue, 17-30)

This is no knockabout farce, no “fool and fight” show, but a drama to feed the mind. Furthermore, it is drama intended to be indistinguishable from the “truth” of real life: unlike Henry V’s Chorus, who urges spectators to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” (Prologue, 23), there is no apology here for the limitations of the Globe. And there would have been an even more heightened sense of “truth” at the King’s Men’s new venue, where the play may have transferred after the fire. Located in the upmarket Blackfriars area north of the river, their recently refurbished indoor theater sat on the site of an old Dominican monastery, and contained the very hall in which Queen Katherine’s divorce case was tried, eighty-odd years earlier. When the trial occurs on stage in Act Two, it must have been difficult to avoid a sense that events were being played out as, once upon a time, they had been for real. “The very persons of our noble story,” it seems had stood almost on the same spot as the actors.


From Garber:

henry viii photo act one 2“As for onstage/offstage reports, among the key scenes in this last category are the discussion by Norfolk and Buckingham of the (offstage) meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (I.1); a comically dismissive account of the deleterious effects of French fashion at the English court, in which the sartorial style is discussed as a kind of heretical religion (returned travelers are imagined as ‘renouncing clean/The faith they have in tennis and tall stockings,/Short blistered breeches, and those types of travel’ in order to ‘understand again like honest men (1.3.29-32)); the conversation between two gentlemen in act 2, scene I, in which they describe the dignified bearing of Buckingham when accused of high treason, and later in the scene, after Buckingham has entered, spoken, and gone off to his death, the same gentlemen’s court gossip about the impending divorce (‘Did you not of late days hear/A buzzing of a separation/Between the King and Katherine?’ (2.1.148-150)); and the remarkable description by the Third Gentleman, who has been to the Abbey to see Anne’s coronation (4.1)

The discussion of the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold is a particularly effective example of a Shakespearean ‘unscene,’ closely resembling the scene (5.2) in The Winter’s Tale in which various gentlemen report on the offstage ‘wonder’ of Perdita’s return, and also Encobarbus’s account of the meeting of the lovers at the Cydnus in Antony and Cleopatra (2.2). In The Winter’s Tale one gentleman asks, ‘Did you see the meeting of the two kings?’ and, receiving a negative answer, launches into a panegyric: ‘Then have you lost a sight which was to be seen, cannot be spoken of. There might you have beheld one joy crown another (Winter’s Tale 5.2.36, 38-40). The rhetorical ‘inexpressibility topos’ of narrative poetry (the idea that words cannot do justice to this event) here comes to life on the stage. The Duke of Norfolk in Henry VIII offers similar report – Buckingham has missed the events, kept home by an ‘untimely ague’ – with the key difference that Norfolk’s report of offstage marvels is deeply ironic:


     Then you lost

The view of earthly glory. Men might say

Till this time pomp was single, but now married

To one above itself. Each following day

Became the next day’s master, till the last

Made former wonder its. Today the French,

All clinquant all in gold, like heathen gods

Shone down the English; and tomorrow they

Made Britain India. Every man that stood

Showed like a mine. Their dwarfish pages were

As cherubim, all gilt; the Mesdames too,

Not used to toil, did almost sweat to bear

The pride upon them, that their very labor

Was to them a painting…


      The two kings

Equal in lustre, were now best, now worst,

As presence did present them…

     When these suns –

For so they phrase ‘em – by their heralds challenged

The noble spirits to arms, they did perform

Beyond thought’s compass, that former fabulous story

Being now seen possible enough, got credit

That Bevis was believed.


O, you go far!


The similarities to Enobarbus’s description of Cleopatra are worth noting. The gilt cherubim and almost-sweating ladies, whose ‘very labour/Was to them as a painting,’ are close relatives to Cleopatra and her Cupid-like fanning boys:


The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne

Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them. The oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,

It beggared all description. She did lie

In her pavilion – cloth of gold, of tissue –

O’er-picturing that Venus where we see

The fancy outwork nature. On each side her

Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,

With diver’s coloured fans whose wind did seem

To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,

And what they undid did.


O, rare for Antony!

(Antony and Cleopatra, 2.2.197-212)

But even the skeptical Enobarbus was, for the moment, enraptured by the Egyptian queen. Norfolk is far less enchanted by the ‘masque’ at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, especially when it comes time to identify the master of ceremonies for these expensive entertainments. Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey:


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.

(Henry VIII. I.1.50-53)

Wolsey, the lowborn son of a butcher, is in Buckingham’s view ‘a keech,’ or lump of fat (I.1.55) and a ‘butcher’s cur…venom mouthed’ (120). The Cardinal is his enemy, and ‘the private difference’ between the two men will present the first of the play’s several one-on-one rivalries.

What is also established, very clearly, in this scene is Wolsey’s profligacy, or rather his willingness to spend others’ money for political effect. The costs of the French adventure have, for several noble families, ‘sickened their estates,’ and ‘many/Have broke their backs with laying manors on ‘em’ (1.1. 82, 84-85). The familiar metaphor of sickness in the state afflicts the nobility. Shortly King Henry will take up a version of the same theme for his own purposes, blaming the absence of a male heir on his ‘incestuous’ marriage to Katherine.”


And from Tony Tanner:

henry viii photo act one 3“The play starts with a description of the famous meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520) – a vast Renaissance tournament at which the kings vied to show off their magnificence. It ends with an extended depiction of the baptism of Elizabeth (1533), accompanied by a rapturous ‘prophecy’ by Cranmer of the glories she will bring to England (not so difficult to write, one might think, with the hindsight of 1613);

This royal infant – heaven still move about her! –

Though in her cradle,  yet now promises

Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,

Which time shall bring to ripeness.


‘Thou speakest wonders’ says the happy father-king, and that is the note the play ends on, a climax very suitable for a dramatic epithalamion in honor of the just-married Princess Elizabeth, as Bullough points out. In between we have, primarily, the trial, fall, and death of, in turn, Buckingham, Katherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Wolsey; plus the (thwarted) trial and rise of Archbishop Cranmer. Then – the ground clear – Henry’s happy marriage to Anne Boleyn and the rapidly ensuing (historically, somewhat too rapidly!) birth of Elizabeth. As usual, Shakespeare does some selecting and rearranging and chronological collapsing. Henry did not marry Anne until 1532, but his meeting with her is placed before Buckingham’s condemnation in 1521; while his marriage to Anne is placed before Wolsey’s fall and death, which in fact took place in 1530. Katherine of Aragon died in 1536, but in the play this is made to occur before Princess Elizabeth is born (1533), as is the plot against Cranmer, which probably took place in 1540. My details are, as usual, from Bullough, who gives his opinion that the reasons for the changes were ‘to give some illusion of enchantment or interconnection to the incidents, and to suggest dramatic parallels or contrasts emergent in a survey of the whole reign.’ Cutting the action off where he does means that Shakespeare does not oblige himself to (avoids having to) address the darker and more problematical aspects of Henry’s reign, and allows him his triumphant, not to say triumphalist, conclusion, packed with happy auguries under a cloudless sky.

But whatever we make of this conclusion (and truncation), the predominant mood is one of sadness, as indeed the Prologue anticipates:

I come no more to make you laugh. Things now

That bear a weighty and serious brow,

Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe,

Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow,

We now present. Those that can pity, here

May, if they think it well, let fall a tear:

The subject will deserve it…

Be sad, as we would make ye. Think ye see

The very persons of our noble story

As they were living. Think you see them great,

And followed with the general throng and sweat

Of thousand friends. Then, in a moment, see

How soon this mightiness meets misery;

And if you can be merry then, I’ll say

A man may weep upon his wedding day.

(1-7, 25-32)

Sad – not tragic. Sad, rather in the way Hardy describes sadness. ‘It is the ongoing – i.e. the becoming – of the world that produces its sadness. If the world stood still at a felicitous moment, there would be no sadness in it.’ ‘Becoming’ also involves ‘Be-going’ (if I may be allowed the word), just as ‘ongoing’ must end in ‘off-going,’ and it is the going off of greatness which produces the sadness of this play. ‘My soul grows sad with troubles’ (III.i.1), says Queen Katherine, foreseeing her displacement and demise. ‘And when you would say something that is sad,/Speak how I fell’ (II.i.135-6) – these are, effectively, Buckingham’s last words. The word ‘fall’ tolls throughout the play. The Cardinal/will have his will, and she must fall’ (II.i.167).

     I shall fall

Like a bright exhalation in the evening.

And no man see me more.


Wolsey rightly predicts. ‘Press not a falling man too far’ (III.ii.333), says the compassionate Lord Chamberlain, echoed later by Cromwell – ‘tis a cruelty/To load a falling m an’ (V.iii.76-7). ‘These are stars indeed,’ says the Second Gentleman, watching the Coronation process of Henry and Anne. ‘And sometimes falling ones,’ rejoins the First Gentleman. He may intend a slight joke about the royal ladies’ virtue; but, more generally, the play is, indeed, full of falling stars. ‘No more of that,’ adds the well-mannered Second gentleman; and indeed, the play now puts the ‘falls’ behind, and concentrates on ‘ongoing’ and ‘becoming’ – marriage and birth. But the play as a whole has, unmistakably and inexpugnably, a dying fall. (The falls, incidentally, are more fully elaborated, and the ‘stars’ made more noble in their falling, than they are in Shakespeare’s sources. Frank Kermode once described the play as ‘an anthology of falls,’ and thought it represented a return to the medieval conception of history as found in The Mirror for Magistrates).

One of the falls is fully deserved; one is singularly unjust; and one is curiously indeterminate – but they have one feature in common. The one who falls is, initially, in some way ‘chafed’ – angry, rebellious, resistant: but they all come to accept their doom with dignity, ‘patience,’ and forgiveness. And they approach their deaths in a state of ‘calm of mind, all passion spent.’ Reconciliation, both to one’s lot, and with former enemies, accusers, opponents, is the order of the day. It is this that has led some critics to see the play as fully consonant with, even a continuation of, Shakespeare’s more famous ‘last plays.’ I will come back to this view with which, while I understand it, I ultimately strongly disagree. But let us consider the fallen in their falling, for these are undoubtedly the most powerful moments, or scenes, in the play.

The play effectively starts with Buckingham in a temper about Wolsey’s devious manipulations and ruthless self-advancement. Norfolk warns him against Wolsey’s malice, potency, and ‘high hatred’:

And let your reason with your choler question

What ‘tis you go about…

   Anger is like

A full hot horse who, being allowed his way,

Self-mettle tires him…

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?

(I.i.130-34, 140-45)

This sort of compression of thought and vigor of image is characteristic of parts, but only parts, of the play (and, of course, claimed for Shakespeare by those who want to give the somewhat more soft-focused, languid, even sentimental parts to Fletcher.) This power often shows in Buckingham’s angry speech; as, for instance, when he is blaming Wolsey for arranging the ruinously pompous expensive Field of the Cloth of Gold show –

That swallowed so much treasure, and like a glass

Did break i’ th’ wrenching.


‘Wrenching’ is a dialect word for ‘rinsing,’ and more strongly suggests a powerful, even violent, physical act. In this, it is characteristic of many of the images in the play which, as Caroline Spurgeon noted, evoke ‘bodily action of almost every kind: walking, stepping, marching, running and leaping; crawling, hobbling, falling, carrying, climbing and perspiring; swimming, diving, flinging and peeping; crushing, shaking, trembling, sleeping, stirring, and – especially and repeatedly – the picture of the body or back bent and weighed down under a heavy burden.’ At one point, after a distressed Cranmer has left the King, Henry comments:

    He has strangled

His language in his tears.


That is a line, I venture to say, that only Shakespeare could have written.



Our next reading:  Act two of Henry VIII (All Is True)

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning.


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