Henry VIII (All Is True)
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: The case stalls until Katherine decides to relent following a visit from Wolsey and Campeius. But a further hold-up occurs when deceitful letters sent from Wolsey to the Pope are revealed to the King. With his career in ruins, Wolsey is replaced as Chancellor by Sir Thomas More – A Man For All Seasons.
If Henry isn’t a spotless hero, it’s fair to say that Wolsey is not an out-and-out villain. Although the plays seems eager to offer up a tale of regal redemption – the kind of tale that Shakespeare’s earlier romances had created a taste for – its commitment to historical ‘truth’ among the web of Tudor politics (even the seemingly unpalatable truth about Henry’s sexual interests), opens up plenty of other options. The play begins with a grim demonstration of the Cardinal’s malevolence: the downfall of the Duke of Buckingham, whose error is to criticize too openly Wolsey’s dominance, and who then shortly afterward pays the price. But as we observe Wolsey’s snarling enemies turn on the former Lord Chancellor himself, Buckingham’s earlier words on the fickleness of power seems more acute than ever. Heading to his execution, Buckingham grimly warns anyone within earshot that the court is a dangerous place to eke out a career. “You that hear me,” he calls,
This from a dying man may receive as certain –
Where you are liberal of your loves and counsels,
Be sure you be not loose; for those that 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.
It is the kind of counsel given weight by the speaker’s proximity to death: like John of Gaunt in Richard II, who, you might recall, insists that “the tongues of dying men/Enforce attention” (2.1.5-6), Buckingham hopes that his stark message will be taken for truth. Power is slippery, he warns: anyone can suffer a fall, and friends inevitably become enemies, “fall[ing] away/Like water” (a vivid and surprising poetic image) before they turn against you. In the treacherous world of the sixteenth-century court – Henry VIII is the only one of Shakespeare’s histories to be set in the Renaissance – the only person you can trust to be true is yourself.
“In architectural elevation there may not be anything very imposing in Henry VIII. It is no towering edifice, based and buttressed, one substructure resting upon another. But everything is meshed, consequential, and more subtly interrelated than one may suspect at first.”
(Kristian Smidt, Unconformities in Shakespeare’s History Plays, 1982)
“Buckingham is soon caught in Wolsey’s ‘net,’ and betrayed by his ‘false’ surveyor. Henry, about whom more later, unquestionably believes the surveyor’s slanderous evidence (that he heard Buckingham say he wanted to kill the King), and we have another of those kingly speeches of horror at the unforeseeable treachery of a trusted subject:
This man so complete,
Who was enrolled ‘mongst wonders…
Hath into monstrous habits put the graces
That once were his, and is become as black
As if besmeared in hell.
Except that it is very far from clear whether Buckingham is guilty of anything approaching treason, while it is clear enough that the surveyor has been put up to his lethal defamations by Wolsey. What is interesting, to me, is that Buckingham doesn’t seem to know whether he is guilty or not (I find this entirely plausible – did I say that? Perhaps I did. But did I mean it? Was I expressing an intention or releasing an anger? I could kill him – how many unmurderous people have not said such a thing. And can a man ever know the full extent of what he harbours in his heart? Even Holinshed is not clear as to Buckingham’s guilt – or innocence.) His last speeches are those of a resigned and quiescent man, rather than a guilty one – indeed, even while accepting the verdict against him, he refers to his ‘guiltless blood’:
I have this day received 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 ax falls, if I be not faithful!
The law I bear no malice for my death:
‘T has done, upon the premises, but justice.
But those that sought it I could wish more Christians.
Be what they will, I heartily forgive ‘em.
This strikes me as mild. But, in this play, finally mildness is all. The description of Buckingham, and his bearing, at the bar when he receives the dread sentence, in a way encapsulates the whole play:
When he was brought again to th’ bar, to hear
His knell rung out, his judgment, he was stirred
With such an agony he sweat extremely
And something spoke in choler, ill and hasty.
But he fell to himself again, and sweetly
In all the rest showed a most noble patience.
From sweat to sweetness; from choler to patience – and seemingly without effort or inner struggle, rather as if it was a miraculous conversion: this is the very stamp of the play. And so this ‘noble ruined man’ goes to ‘the long divorce of steel,’ speaking of ‘sweet sacrifice,’ ‘angels,’ ‘soul,’ ‘heaven’ – his nobility intact, indeed enhanced.
Justice, we feel, has not been done. But another ‘divorce’ is looming – here is the Second Gentleman:
If the Duke [i.e. Buckingham] be guiltless
‘Tis full of woe. Yet I can give you inkling
Of an ensuing evil, if it fall,
Greater than this.
The ‘evil’ (strong word) is the rumor that the King is going to ‘divorce,’ or rather set aside, Katherine, his wife for twenty years. We have already seen Henry helplessly attracted to Anne ‘Bullen’ at the masque, so that, despite the legal and theological debates which follow (concerning the ‘separation’ he clearly both wants and intends to have), we can have no doubts concerning Henry’s real reason for wishing to have this separation somehow legitimized. Katherine’s speeches, both at her ‘trial,’ and thereafter, are the most moving of the play. She appeals to the King with a simple dignity:
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?
But, remembering that she is a queen, she refrains from weeping, and ‘my drops of tears/I’ll turn to sparks of fire’ (II.iv.72-3). It is time for some very justifiable ‘choler,’ and we duly get the ‘sparks,’ or – rather, Wolsey does: ‘your heart/Is crammed with arrogancy, spleen, and pride’ (II.iv.109-110) and more of the spirited same. She sweeps out of the Hall, saying ‘They vest me past my patience’ (II.iv.130). She feels ‘the last fit of my greatness’ (III.i.78). To Wolsey she says ‘Ye turn me into nothing’ (III.i.114), and, while he rebukes her for her anger and stubbornness, she is tenacious of the rightness and justice of her position:
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.
As she fairly complains – ‘And am I thus rewarded? ‘Tis not well, lords’ (III.i.133). Not – it is not well.’ ‘Evil’ was, I think, the Gentleman’s word.
But, after ‘choler’ – ‘Patience, be near me still’ (IV.ii.76). This is addressed to her maid named Patience, but the larger implication is entirely apt. Although she does permit herself a rather tart remark when Griffith brings her ‘commendations’ and ‘comfort’ from the King when she is effectively on her death-bed – ‘Tis like a pardon after execution’ (IV.ii.121) – she dies in a spirit of reconciliation. She has a ‘Vision’ of ‘Spirits of peace,’ in which white-robed figures hold a garland over her head – ‘at which, as it were by inspiration, she makes in her sleep signs of rejoicing, and holdeth up her hands to heaven.’ Her last message to the King is:
In all my humility unto his Highness
Say his long trouble now is passing
Out of this world. Tell him in death I blessed him,
For so I will. Mine eyes grow dim. Farewell,
It is, one feels, somewhat better than Henry deserves. But that is, here, not the point. She has had her vision, her ‘good dreams’ (another touch of miracle), and departs in peace – ‘unqueened,’ yet more royal than ever.
But it is the third fall – the absolutely just one – which is in many ways the greatest, for Wolsey came from almost out of nowhere to reach dizzying heights of power, influence – and a sumptuous way of life. Wolsey is the most marked and distinctive character in the play; evil (or ruthless ambition combined with insatiable pride), as ever, having a more complex and dimensioned physiognomy than simple goodness, or even not-so-simple fortitude and forbearance. He is not ‘propped by ancestry’ (he was a butcher’s son), but, in one of Buckingham’s images, he is a spider who has made his own spectacular career ‘out of his self-drawing web’ (I.i.63). This suggests a ‘self-fashioning’ of a distinctly venomous kind. We catch glimpses of the range of his influence and power – hosting a banquet for the King, commandeering a lord’s horses which he coves (‘He will have all, I think’); and we are given clear indications of his dominance and manipulation of the King:
He dives into the King’s soul, and there scatters
Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,
Fears and despairs…
and – ‘he hath a witchcraft/Over the King in’s tongue’ (III.ii.18-19). The lords both hate and fear him, not least they seem like helpless putty in his scheming hands:
We had need pray,
And heartily, for our deliverance,
Or this imperious man will work us all
From princes into pages. All men’s honors
Lie like one lump before him, to be fashioned
Into what pitch he pleases.
As Buckingham explains, Wolsey’s ascent and mastery effectively proclaim ‘there’s difference in no persons’ (I.i.139). He threatens their rank, status, and distinction – seems, indeed, willing and able to subvert hierarchy itself to serve his purposes, and, more dangerously, to further his influence and alliance with Rome. To this end, he tries to delay the Papal dispensation for divorce which Henry initially seeks – because Wolsey wants Henry to marry, not Anne (‘a spleeny Lutheran’), but his own choice – the Duchess of Alencon. And this is where he overreaches himself, and everything goes wrong.
All his tricks founder, and he brings his physic
After his patient’s death: the King already
Hath married the fair lady.
Henry has already lost patience with the cardinals (‘I abhor/This dilatory sloth and tricks of Rome’ II.iv.236-7) and called back his ‘well-beloved servant Cranmer’ who has duly obliged in providing sound theological justification for the ‘divorce’ (this is the only oblique reference to the great break from Rome, and the Reformation0. But, for Wolsey, it is not just a matter of a foiled plan. His letters to Rome ‘miscarried,/And came to th’ eye o’th’ King’ (III.ii.30-31); even worse, by a slip so disastrous that it begs to be called ‘Freudian,’ Wolsey includes in some state papers he sends to the King a ‘schedule’ of all the ‘treasure’ he has raked and heaped together for himself. ‘What piles of wealth hath he accumulated/To his own portion!…it outspeaks/Possession of a subject’ (III.ii.107-8, 127-8) exclaims the by now angry King. He confronts Wolsey, and gives him the two incriminating papers, adding, grimly enough:
Read o’er this;
And after, this; and then to breakfast with
What appetite you have.
Wolsey knows that the game is up. With something of his old imperious pride, he tries to outface the nobles beginning to gloat over his impending disgrace and ruin. But, left alone, he confronts the truth, in the one powerful soliloquy of the play:
Farewell! A long farewell to all my greatness!
This is the state of man: today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honors thick upon him.
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is aripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do.
This occurs at about the middle of the play, and it may be taken as a central statement of its theme. But, almost immediately, the miraculous transformation or conversion begins:
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye.
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favors!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have.
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again.
He tells his ‘amazed’ servant, Cromwell, that though he is ‘fall’n indeed,’ he was ‘never so truly happy,’ and goes on:
I know myself now, and I feel within me
A peace above all earthly dignities,
A still and quiet conscience. The King hath cured me,
I humbly thank his Grace; and from these shoulders,
These ruined pillars, out of pity, taken
A load would sink a navy – too much honor.
O, ‘tis a burden, Cromwell, ‘tis a burden
Too heavy for a man that hopes for heaven!
From his radically changed perspective, he gives Cromwell advice which runs exactly counter to his own life:
Mark but my fall and that that ruined me.
Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition.
Cromwell’s last advice is ‘Good sir, have patience’; to which Wolsey replies, as do the other falling stars – ‘So I have.’ He dies in ‘peace,’ having ‘found the blessedness of being little’ (IV.ii.66). It is in keeping with the generally benign, charitable, and forgiving atmosphere of the play that, when Griffith brings the news of Wolsey’s death to the dying Katherine, while Katherine understandably recalls his ‘evil manners,’:
He would say untruths and be ever double
Both in his words and meaning. He was never,
But where he meant to ruin, pitiful.
Griffith asks permission to ‘speak his good,’ and proceeds to do so. So the last we hear of Wolsey is an account of his abilities and virtues: it is a moment of imaginative generosity to this detested Catholic not to be found in the Protestant chronicles.”
And to finish with William Hazlitt:
“…the scene of Buckingham led to execution is one of the most affecting and natural in Shakespeare, and one to which there is hardly an approach in any other author. Again, the character of Wolsey, the description of his pride and of his fall, are inimitable, and have, besides their gorgeousness of effect, a pathos, which only the genius of Shakespeare could lend to the distresses of a proud, bad man, like Wolsey. There is a sort of child-like simplicity in the very helplessness of his situation, arising from the recollection of his past overbearing ambition. After the cutting sarcasms of his enemies on his disgrace, against which he bears up with a spirit conscious of his own superiority, he breaks out into that fine apostrophe:
Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man; to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope, to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day, comes a frost, a killing frost;
And—when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a ripening—nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventur’d,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
These many summers in a sea of glory;
But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me; and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must for ever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of the world, I hate ye!
I feel my heart new open’d; O how wretched
Is that poor man, that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and our ruin,
More pangs and fears than war and women have;
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again!—
There is in this passage, as well as in the well-known dialogue with Cromwell which follows, something which stretches beyond commonplace; nor is the account which Griffiths gives of Wolsey’s death less Shakespearian; and the candour with which Queen Katherine listens to the praise of ‘him whom of all men while living she hated most’ adds the last graceful finishing to her character.
Among other images of great individual beauty might be mentioned the description of the effect of Ann Boleyn’s presenting herself to the crowd at her coronation.
—While her grace sat down
To rest awhile, some half an hour or so,
In a rich chair of state, opposing freely
The beauty of her person to the people.
Believe me, sir, she is the goodliest woman
That ever lay by man. Which when the people
Had the full view of, ‘such a noise arose
As the shrouds make at sea in a stiff tempest,
As loud and to as many tunes’.
The character of Henry VIII is drawn with great truth and spirit. It is like a very disagreeable portrait, sketched by the hand of a master. His gross appearance, his blustering demeanour, his vulgarity, his arrogance, his sensuality, his cruelty, his hypocrisy, his want of common decency and common humanity, are marked in strong lines. His traditional peculiarities of expression complete the reality of the picture. The authoritative expletive, ‘Ha!’ with which ne intimates his indignation or surprise, has an effect like the first startling sound that breaks from a thunder-cloud. He is of all the monarchs in our history the most disgusting: for he unites in himself all the vices of barbarism and refinement, without their virtues. Other kings before him (such as Richard III) were tyrants and murderers out of ambition or necessity: they gained or established unjust power by violent means: they destroyed their or made its tenure insecure. But Henry VIII’s power is most fatal to those whom he loves: he is cruel and remorseless to pamper his luxurious appetites: bloody and voluptuous; an amorous murderer; an uxorious debauchee. His hardened insensibility to the feelings of others is strengthened by the most profligate self-indulgence. The religious hypocrisy, under which he masks his cruelty and his lust, is admirably displayed in the speech in which he describes the first misgivings of his conscience and its increasing throes and terrors, which have induced him to divorce his queen. The only thing in his favour in this play is his treatment of Cranmer: there is also another circumstance in his favour, which is his patronage of Hans Holbein.—It has been said of Shakespeare, ‘No maid could live near such a man.’ It might with as good reason be said, ‘No king could live near such a man.’ His eye would have penetrated through the pomp of circumstance and the veil of opinion. As it is, he has represented such persons to the life—his plays are in this respect the glass of history—he has done them the same justice as if he had been a privy counsellor all his life, and in each successive reign. Kings ought never to be seen upon the stage. In the abstract, they are very disagreeable characters: it is only while living that they are ‘the best of kings’. It is their power, their splendour, it is the apprehension of the personal consequences of their favour or their hatred that dazzles the imagination and suspends the judgement of their favourites or their vassals; but death cancels the bond of allegiance and of interest; and seen AS THEY WERE, their power and their pretensions look monstrous and ridiculous. The charge brought against modern philosophy as inimical to loyalty is unjust because it might as well be brought lover of kings. We have often wondered that Henry VIII as he is drawn by Shakespeare, and as we have seen him represented in all the bloated deformity of mind and person, is not hooted from the English stage.”
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning
Our next reading: Act Four of Henry VIII