“It seems the marriage with his brother’s wife/Has crept too near his conscience.” “No, his conscience/Has crept too near another lady.”

Henry VIII (All Is True)

Act Two

By Dennis Abrams


Henry VIII photo act 3 1Act Two:  As Buckingham heads to his execution, rumors begin circulating that Henry plans to divorce his wife Katherine with Wolsey’s approval, and in fact Cardinal Campeius has traveled from Rome to arrange matters. Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn expresses her qualms about queenship to the Old Lady. At the divorce court in Blackfriars Katherine put up strong resistance, however, and refuses to be intimidated by Wolsey and his henchmen.


As I mentioned in my last post, the play was performed at the Blackfriars theater, built directly on the site of the old Dominican monastery where Queen Katherine’s divorce case was tried. But, even if the play’s early audiences were unaware of the location of Katherine’s downfall, the dizzying sense that history was intimately entwined with the present must have inescapable if they paused to “think” about the monastery itself, whose change-of-use was instigated by Henry VIII’s most wide-reaching political act: the split with the Catholic hierarchy, the foundation of the church of England and the dissolution of religious houses. Indeed, the fact that Henry VIII hinges on the momentous events of the English Reformation – a schism instigated by Henry’s wish to divorce Katherine despite being refused by the Pope – has been taken by many to argue that Fletcher and Shakespeare’s play is nothing more than Protestant propaganda dressed up as history. After all, it does climax with the birth of Princess Elizabeth, a Protestant monarch who will preside over a country in which “God shall be truly known,” as Archbishop Cranmer puts it in the play’s closing minutes (5.4.36). Writing a full decade after that same Elizabeth’s death, the playwrights were freed from the Queen’s injunction not to perform plays touching “either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the common weal,” and took the opportunity to retell some of the events of her father’s reign, events that were only just beyond living memory for some of those spectators.

In one sense the play’s overall trajectory does seem to confirm a Protestant message: it also pivots on the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey; the Lord Chancellor historically sacked by Henry as soon as it became clear that he would be unable to broker the King’s “great matter,” and arrange a divorce. During his time as chief royal adviser, many were appalled at Wolsey’s influence over Henry: all-powerful, vainglorious and with a larger household even than the royal one (the magnificent royal palace at Hampton Court was in fact originally his), the Cardinal was seen to embody everything that was wrong with England. By the time that Wolsey had outlasted his usefulness, Protestant commentators rejoiced that he would be rejected alongside the devilish Roman Church he represented. The play itself makes the reason for Wolsey’s downfall more specific, and more ironic. Wolsey’s bitter enemy Suffolk gleefully narrates the ins and outs:

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 judgment o’th’ divorce, for if

It did take place, ‘I do,’ quote he, ‘perceive

My king is tangled in affection to

A creature of the Queen’s, Lady Anne Boleyn.’


And with these words Wolsey signs what will eventually prove his death sentence as well as his ejection from office. The complicating factor is of course that, at least in this instance, he has done absolutely nothing wrong: in fact, Wolsey has simply told the truth. The difficulty of course is that this truth is just a bit too sensitive to be heard – it makes the King’s actions seem somewhat…grubbier than he would prefer. But by this stage, everyone knows that Henry has tired of Katherine and fallen for Anne Boleyn (after dancing with her in Wolsey’s house, ironically enough). Even so, Henry is quick to claim that he desires a divorce not because he has fallen in love with Anne, but because Katherine is unable to give him the male heir he so desperately needs and wants.  It is a curse that has resulted, or so Henry claims, because the marriage between them is actually void: Katherine was initially married to his older brother Arthur, but Arthur died soon afterwards and rather than break the political alliance with Spain, she was handed over to Henry instead. “Hence I took a thought,” Henry heatedly explains to the papal legate Campeius,

This was a judgment on me that my kingdom,

Well worthy the best heir o’th’ world, should not

Be gladded in’t by me.


If Campeius is unimpressed by these arguments (as Henry suspects he is), it is a cynicism only encouraged by the play. The King has often been portrayed as the play’s out-and-out hero, a Protestant monarch who finally banishes the arch-tempter Wolsey (as a previous King Henry banished Falstaff?) and takes control of England for himself. Yet that exemplary image is hardly to be found in Henry VIII.  While in real life Henry married Anne Boleyn some four years after the rift with Katherine, in the play the marriage follows with what seems like indecent haste. Likewise, for all the King’s bluster about his “wounded conscience,” his courtiers (who are always the ones who know) have little doubt as to the reality:

Lord Chamberlain:

It seems the marriage with his brother’s wife

Has crept too near his conscience.


No, his conscience

Has crept too near another lady.


The rib-nudging tone of the exchange – and its unfussy language, somewhat characteristic of the play – speaks volumes. And though Henry publicly undertakes to stay with his wife if the cardinals prove the marriage ‘lawful,’ Katherine sadly reveals that he has long since banished her from his bed.”


From Garber:

Henry VIII photo act 3 2“The cyclicality of structure offered by a play that ends with the birth of Elizabeth is mirrored, as well, by the clever and knowing way that locales within the play are tied to their contemporary (Jacobean) use. Thus York Place, the sumptuous palace that was the home of Cardinal Wolsey, grander than any residence owned by Henry VIII, is taken over by Henry after Wolsey’s fall, renamed Whitehall, and chosen as the place for the celebration after Anne Bullen’s coronation as queen. In act 4 the Second Gentleman says the coronation procession “paced back again/To York Place, where the feast is held,” and the First Gentleman corrects him:


You must no more call it York Place – that’s past,

For since the Cardinal fell, that title’s lost.

‘Tis now the King’s, and called Whitehall.


Whitehall was King James’s palace at the time of the first performance of the play; the audience would have registered the pertinence of this ‘doubling,’ as they would, at the same time, have appreciated that ‘’Tis now the King’s’ was true in their time as in Henry VIII’s.

Likewise in the play the divorce proceedings of King Henry against his first wife, Katherine, takes place at Blackfriars, which had been – before Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries – a residence for Dominican friars (whose black robes gave the building its name). ‘The most convenient place that I can think of/For such receipt in learning is Blackfriars,’ the King declares to the Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius, who are appointed by the Pope as supposedly ‘unpartial’ judges in the divorce case (2.2.137-138). But by 1613 – and in fact, since 1608 – Blackfriars was not a monastery but a private theater leased by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. It is quite possible that All Is True (as the play would then have been known) was first staged there in 1613. So Henry’s mention of Blackfriars, like the First Gentleman’s mention of Whitehall, might well have produced for the Jacobean audience that sense of uncanny déjà vu that is one of the most unsettling and pleasurable sensations of drama.

Although the play begins with an account of Wolsey’s venality and thus in some sense aims, dramatically, at his discomfiture and disgrace, the plight of Katherine is at the center of the action. Katherine herself appears early in the next scene to plead with the King on behalf of the ordinary people who suffer from unjust taxation. (Those afflicted, ‘clothiers all,’ including, in the Duke of Norfolk’s summary, the ‘spinsters, carders, fullers, [and] weavers’ who make up the domestic cloth trade (1.2.32, 34), contrast sharply, in their homely product, with the fancy and affected French fashions that will be deplored in the following scene). This initial introduction to Katherine presents her as well-spoken, and passionate, and the King treats her as a partner (‘You have half our power’ [1.2.12]). His meeting with Anne, and their flirtation, arouses in him some belated qualms of ‘conscience’:


It seems the marriage with his brother’s wife

Has crept too near his conscience.


No, his conscience

Has crept too near another lady.


Henry’s official doubts derive from the fact that he has married his brother’s widow. Katherine, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, had wed Henry’s older brother, Arthur, then Prince of Wales, in 1501. Arthur’s death a year later left Henry the heir to the throne, and he and Katherine were married shortly after he became King in 1509. As she reminds the King – and the audience – Katherine bore Henry many children, but only one lived, the future Mary I (‘Bloody Mary,’ 4. 1553-1558, succeeded by Elizabeth I), and Henry, whether disingenuously or not, takes this as a sign that the marriage was unlawful. (Various biblical injunctions proscribed the marriage of a brother’s widow as a kind of incest.) His request for a papally sanctioned divorce led ultimately to his split with Rome and the founding of the Church of England.

The question of ‘incest,’ and especially Katherine’s long and eloquent speech on her own behalf, invites comparison with the situation of Gertrude in Hamlet, who married her husband’s brother. Hamlet calls the liaison ‘incestuous’ (Hamlet 1.2.157), and the ghost of old Hamlet describes his brother as ‘that incestuous, that adulterate beast’ (Hamlet 1.5.42). In Henry VIII, Henry’s description of Katherine as ‘[s]ometimes our brother’s wife’ (2.4.178) is close to the play’s source in Holinshed, but also, inevitably to modern ears, recalls Claudius’s ‘our sometime sister, now our queen’ (Hamlet 1.2.8). Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, a play written in 1610, close to the time of Henry VIII, is another queen accused in open court, and wrongly; her words of love and self-defense in act 3, scene 2, of that play are often compared to Katherine’s. Hermione is accused of adultery with Polixenes, a man her husband once regarded as his ‘twinned’ brother. Hermione’s defense, like Katherine’s is at once proud and loving, and makes reference to her royal heritage (‘The Emperor of Russia was my father’). Katherine’s ‘We are a queen, or long have dreamed so’ links her with both historical affinity with a story that goes – quite understandably – unmentioned in the play: the fact that Henry VIII had an affair with Anne Bullen’s sister Mary before he met Anne. Leviticus forbade marrying a brother’s wife and was equally firm about not ‘taking a wife to thy sister’ (Leviticus 18:16, 18). Ultimately the King accused Anne of being both adulterous and incestuous. She was sentenced to death together with her brother, with whom, it was claimed, she had had an incestuous affair.

Katherine’s refusal of Wolsey as her judge allows for a magnificent exit, as she storms out of the consistory, to the admiration of the King, who is moved to an expression of familiar affection: ‘Go thy ways, Kate’ (2.4.130). Nowhere else in the play does he use this affectionate nickname, and to this point the audience may not have associated the royal, and Spanish, Katherine with her Shakespearean namesakes, from Kate in The Taming of the Shrew to Hotspur’s wife in Henry IV Part I, nor to that French Princess Catherine whom an earlier King Henry also suddenly called ‘Kate’ (Henry V 5.2). The King’s subsequent speech in her praise (‘That man i’th’ world who shall report she has/A better wife, let him in naught be trusted’ (2.4.131-132), however reluctantly delivered, rings true.”


From Bloom:

Henry VIII photo act 3 3“The puzzle of the play is the king, who is not the Holbein-Charles Laughton Henry VIII, and always remains ambiguous. Shakespeare, with his customary political caution, avoids any suggestion that Henry is particularly culpable when his favorites fall, though the playwright also never quite exonerates the king. Even the Catholic-Protestant confrontation is so muted that Shakespeare hardly appears to take sides. The play is eloquently plangent, though it purports to conclude with a celebratory patriotism when Cranmer prophesies the glorious reign of the just-born Queen Elizabeth. The audience has to reflect that queen Anne Bullen (Boleyn) joined Cromwell and Thomas More (mentioned in the play as replacing Wolsey) in being beheaded, and that Cranmer is spared by Henry only to be burned alive at a later time. No one in the drama is endowed with any inwardness; they are heraldic pictures with beautiful voices, which is all that Shakespeare wants them to be. Only the king is not a speaking portrait; whether he is more or less than that is beyond judgment, because of Shakespeare’s evasiveness. Henry, with all-but-absolute power, somehow escapes responsibility for the evil he has sanctioned in Wolsey, and perpetrated against Buckingham and Katherine. We are not even offered conflicting perspectives on the king; he lacks the nasty consistency that might have made him interesting. A director and an actor can do about anything they wish with the part; every staging I’ve seen did not abandon the Holbein-Laughton archetype, though there is little in the text to support it.

Why did Shakespeare write Henry VIII? The alternating title, All Is True, is capable of various interpretations, none of them particularly persuasive. Some is true, some isn’t, as Shakespeare probably realized. The representation of the king would be unlikely, except that it scarcely exists. Henry at first is not at all clever; he is Wolsey’s gull, and is enlightened only when the wicked Cardinal-Chamberlain gets careless in correspondence. A different Henry saves Cranmer late in the play, but we are told nothing about why the king’s judgment has improved. We cannot even know whether Henry discards Katherine because of his insatiable temperament, though blaming it on Wolsey is implausible. Shakespeare accepts everything. ‘All is true’ translates into: Don’t make moral judgments; they are neither safe nor helpful. Look at this grand pageant; listen to these elegiac laments; share the nostalgia for the glory that was Elizabeth.

Henry VIII is a processional, a reversion to pre-Shakespearean theater. Shakespeare, weary of his own genius, here undoes most of what he had invented. We are not upon the stage in Henry VIII, except insofar as any of us believes that she or he has fallen from greatness. A dramatic poem of things-in-their-farewell, this is a performance piece, perhaps a last hurrah (though Fletcher and Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen followed it). Russell Fraser, commending Shakespeare for having ‘mastered the noblest rhetoric ever fashioned in English,’ wryly also notes that the protagonists of Henry VIII ‘dance to the same tune when the last fit of their greatness is on them.’ Going down, everyone indeed is equally noble in this play; Shakespeare’s ‘distincts’ are gone. Dr. Johnson thought that ‘the genius of Shakespeare comes in and goes out with Katherine,’ a judgment that surprises me, since the last fits of Buckingham and of Wolsey remarkably resemble the laments of Katherine. Still, Johnson, the great moralist, was moved by ‘the meek sorrows and virtuous distress’ of the cast-off queen, and Buckingham is hardly meek or Wolsey virtuous. This dramatic poem went a little to one side of Johnson, who loved Cordelia best of Shakespeare’s heroines. And yet Henry VIII, considered for its poetry alone, deserves more aesthetic esteem than it has been accorded. Like The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII marks a new and original style, one that transcends the stage images who chant it. We hear its first culmination when Buckingham goes to his ‘long divorce of steel,’ and compares his fate to his father’s, murdered by Richard III’s command:

When I came hither I was Lord High Constable

And Duke of Buckingham: now poor Edward Bohun;

Yet I am richer than any base accusers,

That never knew what truth meant: I now seal it,

And with that blood will make ‘em one day groan for’t.

My noble father Henry of Buckingham,

Who first rais’d head against usurping Richard,

Flying for succor to his servant Banister.

Being distress’d, was by that wretch betry’d,

And without trial feel; God’s peace be with him.

Henry the Seventh succeeding, truly pitying

My father’s loss, like a most royal prince

Restor’d me to my honours; and out of ruins

Made my name once more noble. Now his son,

Henry the Eighth, life, honour, name and all

That made me happy, at one stroke has taken

For ever from the world. I had my trial,

And must needs say a noble one; which makes me

A little happier than my wretched father:

Yet thus far we are one in fortunes; both

Fell by our servants, by those men we lov’d most:

A most unnatural and faithless service.

Heaven has an end in all; yet you that hear me,

This from a dying man receive as certain:

Where you are liberal of your loves and counsels,

Be sure you be not loose; for those you make friends

And give your hearts to, when they once perceive

The least rub in your fortunes, fall away

Like water from ye, never found again

But where they mean to sink ye. All good people

Pray for me; I must now forsake ye; that last hour

Of my long weary life is come upon me:


And when you would say something that is said,

Speak how I fell. I have done, and God forgive me.


Shakespeare’s own obsession with betrayal by a friend seems very strong in this, reminding us of the situation of the Sonnets, and of the Player King’s speech on the contrariness of wills and fates in Hamlet. There is also an affinity with the Funeral Elegy for Will Peter, composed just before Henry VIII, where the poet’s bitterness at having been slandered is pungently conveyed, with several anticipations of the play’s laments. Perhaps Shakespeare himself felt that he was only ‘a little happier than his wretched father.’ We do not know, nor are we at all certain whether the Blatant Beast of gossip had impugned the poet with regard to Will Peter, perhaps for a relationship like that conveyed by the Sonnets. There is a spiritual music in the formal complaints of Henry VIII that carries an undersong of personal sorrow, at least to my ear.”


And from Frank Kermode:

Henry VIII photo act 3 5Henry VIII, or, to give it its alternative title, All Is True, displays, in the parts of it that seem certainly to be Shakespeare’s, what the Oxford editors call ‘grammatical muscularity.’ It is an episodic history play, beginning with the fall of the Duke of Buckingham as contrived by Cardinal Wolsey; the King’s divorce and his preference for Anne Bullen over his first wife, Katherine; Wolsey’s disgrace; the coronation of Anne and the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth; the King’s promotion of Thomas Cranmer and the new favorite’s escape from a plot to overthrow him; and, finally, the baptism of Elizabeth, with a prophecy of her glorious future.

These events are enacted with notable energy and strong characterization. Shakespeare’s earlier history plays ended with the accession of Henry VII, but this one, in describing the reign of his son, was presenting to an audience all of whom had lived under Elizabeth I – dead only ten years or so – an account of the circumstances of her birth. Her very existence was a defiance of Rome, and her long reign, though full of religious conflict, saw the end of the Marian Catholic persecutions and the establishment of the Church of England. The early part of the reign of James I was marked by a revival of interest in the dead Queen’s achievements; she had presided over the establishment of England as an imperial power and won a victory over the Pope, now seen as Antichrist. King Henry VIII’s divorce was a happy one (though not for Katherine) in that it made possible the birth of this incomparable Queen.

King James liked to be thought a peace-maker, and he wanted peace with Spain, the great Catholic enemy; so the Spanish Katherine is treated tenderly, with much attention to the sadness of her fate. The King’s theological scruples concerning the legality of his marriage to the widow of his brother are given their place, but so is his imperious passion for Anne Above all, the play is a vindication of Protestantism, and its conception is plausibly related to the marriage celebration, in February 1613, of James’s daughter Elizabeth to the Protestant Elector of Bohemia. It would seem that at the time of its writing the play had a more acute historical and political interest than any of the earlier history plays.

The opening passages are beyond doubt Shakespearian. Norfolk’s description of the ceremonies at the Field of the Cloth of Gold may bring to mind some passages of Antony and Cleopatra, and certainly do not lack ‘muscularity:’

   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 wonders its. To-day the French,

All clinquant, all in gold, like heathen gods,

Shone down the English; and, to-morrow, they

Made Britain India: every man that stood

Show’d like a mine. Their dwarfish pages were

As cherubins, all gilt; the madams too,

Not us’d to toil, did almost sweat to bear

The pride upon them, that their very labor

Was to them as a painting. Now this masque

Was cried incomparable; and th’ ensuing night

Made it a fool and beggar.


Norfolk is an enemy of Wolsey, who ‘set the body and limbs’/Of this great sport together’ (46-47), and a touch of irony contributes to his excess, but the verse has that tortured, involuted quality I have noted elsewhere.  The idea is of pomp marrying pomp and being the stronger for it, or, as Johnson put it, ‘Pomp is only married to pomp, but the new pomp is greater than the old.’ He calls the passage ‘a noisy periphrase.’ One single pomp seems to be greater than the other, its nationality not specified (and presumably changing from day to day). The complexity of this idea seems much beyond its value; nothing much is gained by the introduction of the notion that one day married another ‘above itself,’ and little by adding that ‘Each following day/Became the next day’s master’ (where ‘next’ means ‘the one before’ and the culminating point is that the last day owned all the others). The awkward terminal possessive reinforces the sense that nothing above the ordinary is being said, though it seems to cultivate an appearance of meeting exceptional lexical and metaphorical demands.

The point about the gilded pages and sweating ladies is better made and amusing. But Norfolk continues in the knotty vein, so that as one reads one is always pausing (as audiences cannot) to work out what he is saying and to wonder why he is doing it so obscurely:

As I belong to worship and affect

In honor honesty, the tract of ev’ry thing

Would by a good discourser lose some life,

Which action’s self was tongue to.


These lines mean that he is prepared to swear that even an expert raconteur could not, in his description of it, equal the thing itself as it was. The personification of actions, the redundant affirmation of his honor and honesty, the affected ‘tract’ – all this is typical of the muscle-bound contortions of the late Shakespeare’s language. The remainder of the opening scene carries a load of explanation and is more business-like, though the style is heavily parenthetical, as if, even in simple exposition, there was always some justification or second thought one had better not leave unsaid.

The fine second scene contains the Queen’s protest against Wolsey and the King’s response to the accuser of Buckingham, strongly written though occasionally obscure. Before Buckingham’s trial there is comment on new fashions, and a prime example of what this play offers more than any other, spectacle – the feast given by Wolsey, and the masque.

The opening of Act II is the first scene in which the tone and quality of the verse are distinctly different. Its centerpiece is the farewell speech of Buckingham, which, from its opening lines, announces the change of key:

    All good people,

You that thus far have come to pity me,

Here what I say, and then go home and lose me.

I have this day receiv’d a traitor’s judgment,

And by that name must die; yet, heaven bear witness,

And if I have a conscience, let it sink me,

Even as the axe falls, if I be not faithful!

The characteristic feminine endings, giving each line a sort of dying fall at the end, are already established, their elegiac quality contrasted with the rough ‘masculine’ force of that opening scene (or of Coriolanus or indeed of Prospero’s expository speeches in The Tempest). This is a manner normally associated with Fletcher, though I suppose it would not have been beyond Shakespeare to achieve, if he wanted, a softly elegiac tone, such as is required here and in the later scenes of Wolsey’s disgrace. The transition from one manner to the other is particularly marked in III.ii, where Shakespeare is commonly credited with the first 203 lines, the remainder being left to Fletcher. The scene describes the King’s reaction to the discovery that Wolsey has been lavishly lining his pockets as well as working secretly against his master’s matrimonial plans. It is most lively and effective narrative. Not knowing that the King has been given written evidence of his treachery, Wolsey mediates, aside, against the presumption of Anne Bullen and her friends:

The late Queen’s gentlewoman? a knight’s daughter?

To be her mistress’ mistress? the Queen’s queen?

This candle burns not clear, ‘tis I must snuff it,

Then out it goes. What though I know her virtuous

And well deserving? yet I know her for

A spleeny Lutheran, and not wholesome to

Our cause, that she should lie i’th’ bosom of

Our hard-rul’d king. Again, there is sprung up

An heretic, an arch-one, Cranmer; one

Hath crawled into the favor of the King,

And is his oracle.


This is serviceable Shakespeare of the late period, not the kind of excited meditation we find in Aufidius or Prospero but a persuasive representation of thoughts turned over in the mind. The run-ons between 98 and 99, and more particularly from 99 to 100 and from 100 to 101, almost give the effect of prose divided as verse, of a marked, easy informality. All four lines, 98-101, end in prepositions, which hardly permit more than the slightest pause.”


Thoughts?  Enjoying the play?

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

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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