‘”Henry VIII’ is an elegy for Shakespeare’s world-altering achievement in poetic drama, and consciously bids farewell to the playwright’s highest powers.”

Henry VIII (All Is True)

Act Five

By Dennis Abrams


Henry VIII photo act 5 1Act Five:  The new Queen is soon pregnant, but the news only antagonizes the King’s secretary Gardiner, who vows to attack her and Cranmer, Henry’s virtuous Archbishop of Canterbury (and latest confidant). But the King is not to be outplayed; when Gardiner and his cronies turn against Cranmer in council, Henry’s support is steadfast. Amid scenes of wild public rejoicing, Anne’s newborn daughter Elizabeth – the future queen (as we and the audience well know) is christened. Cranmer predicts that her reign, and that of her successor, will be blessed.

Katherine’s decidedly unlovely fate makes it difficult to accept in simple terms, I think, the role of her successor as Queen, Anne Boleyn, who is crowned even before Katherine’s death. The play decidedly leaves Anne’s motives and experiences largely in shadow, and although it ends with yet another spectacular occasion celebrating the birth of Elizabeth (a daughter Henry is desperate to avoid – he wants a male heir), the Queen’s silent presence at the ceremony of thanksgiving seems almost foreboding. Though everyone else present looks towards the future, to the ‘thousand thousand blessings’ of Elizabeth’s reign as Queen (5.4.19), from the perspectives enabled by the play it is difficult to avoid the sense that before that comes to pass, Anne herself will be accused of adultery and beheaded, Henry will have remarried another four times and England will have been plunged into bitter religious turmoil. Anne’s own words on the subject much earlier in the play, though they dissolve and are forgotten during the pomp and ceremony of the closing scene, seem uncannily accurate. Discussing the sorry state of Katherine with her companion the Old Lady, Anne’s opinion is strongly – truthfully – held. “Verily, I swear,” she declares,

     ‘tis better to be lowly born

And range with humble livers in content

Than to be perked up in a glist’ring grief

And wear a golden sorrow.


“Our content/Is our best having,” the Old Lady agrees; wanting any more is incalculably dangerous. That message is one of the truest things that Henry VIII, or All Is True, contains.


From Tanner:

Henry VIII photo act 5 2“The play ends with the dazzling Elizabethan sunrise. But that sun had set ten years before this play was put on. So what was it? An exercise in patriotic nostalgia? Larger claims have been made for it. ‘Henry VIII is a resplendent Finale, ritualistically expanding through conflict into grace and happy augury…there is suffering in the play, but the movement on the whole is towards the triumph of goodness, not through physical battle, as in Richard II and Henry V, but by dignified acceptance, by the strength of its own nature’ (Bullough). Foakes sees the play as ‘a whole of visionary power, culminating in a mood of joy and reconciliation, and a prospect of lasting peace and well-being. Wilson Knight (another Henry as Prospero man0 makes the largest possible claims for the play. ‘The play is rich with both a grand royalism and a thrilling but solemn Christianity; orthodox religious colouring being present and powerful throughout far in excess of any previous play.’ He admires its ‘blending of national and religious colouring being present and powerful throughout far in excess of any previous play.’ He admires its ‘blending of national and religious prophecy,’ saying ‘it is as though time and eternity were seen converging as the play unfurls.’ His final verdict is: ‘If in The Tempest  Shakespeare gives us a comprehensive and inclusive statement of his furthest spiritual adventures, in Henry VIII he has gone yet further, directly relating those adventures to the religion of his day and the nation of his birth.’ I think all these men are describing, not without some material justification, the play they would like it to be. But, despite the themes of reconciliation, resignation, and even miraculous conversion which are undoubtedly there, this is not, finally, assimilable to Shakespeare’s other ‘last plays’ (one small piece of overlooked evidence, which would work for such critics, is the curiously frequent use of ‘strange’ in the play – ‘strange’ is a very ‘last play’ word). For we must bear in mind the truth claims of the play. The Prologue claims that the audience ‘may here find truth too’; and Sir Henry Wotton, who described the burning of the globe theater during one performance, tells us that the play was called All is True (possibly an alternative title). But, an audience of 1613, invited to watch the play as ‘real’ history and ‘truth,’ would know very well that the truth included the following historical facts:

that Henry was bitterly disappointed that Elizabeth was not a

            male heir, and that, when Anne miscarried a deformed son, he

            was convinced God had damned his second marriage, so he

            destroyed Anne in a palace coup in 1536;

that Henry went on to have a series of other wives, some also

            violently removed;

that Henry had Sir Thomas More beheaded in 1535, and Thomas

            Cromwell beheaded in 1540;

that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was burnt at the stake by

            Henry’s daughter, Mary, in 1556.

You might keep all such matters out of the play, but there is no way you could keep them out of a 1613 audience’s mind. It is hard to imagine that Shakespeare was unaware of the sheer irony of what was being depicted on stage. And certainly, he does not give us a drama of the reign of Henry VIII, as he had done, one way or another, for his previous kingly subjects. There is simply no real drama in the play. So what is it? Festivity, celebration, nostalgia – a dream of history as it might-have-been, as it ought-to-be? Or is there a deep sadness and irony running inerasably through it all? I, myself, tend to register the sadness and irony [MY NOTE:  So do I]; but there will always be a individual variation (predisposition?), and presumably a Hazlitt and a Foakes would never agree. And why Shakespeare wrote it – to the extent that he did write it – is simply beyond the reach of informed conjecture.”


From Frank Kermode:

Miniature of Anne Boleyn“The voice of the opening scene of Act I is heard again at the beginning of Act V; muscularity characterizes the words even of the Old Lady who comes to announce the birth of the Princess. But the play ends with Cranmer’s encomium of the child and his prophecy of her greatness. This speech (V.iv.14-55) is not surprisingly thought by some to lay it on too thick as a compliment to the Virgin Queen Elizabeth and also to James:

   …as when

The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,

Her ashes new create another heir

As great in admiration as herself,

So shall we leave her blessedness to one

(When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness)

Who from the sacred ashes of her honor

Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was,

And so stand fix’d.

The effect is of a sermon preached before the monarch by his archbishop, and properly so; Cranmer, as we know, was a master of style and of occasion. The speech is full of appropriately biblical references and has a quasi-liturgical grandeur, which is after all in character.

Henry VIII is an odd play, very skilful. The character of the King is strongly drawn, the pathos and dignity of Katherine is understandably celebrated, the farewells of Buckingham and Wolsey can please a crowd. There are valuable tensions in the structure; between the King’s conscience and his desires, between the two Queens (Anne represented as innocent and without ambition; Katherine as regal, abused, and unhappy). And the contrasts between the moods of the verse, whether or not the differences arise from differences in authorship, reflect that structural tension. But in so far as Shakespeare was involved, he was writing with muscularity, but also, it is possible to think, carelessly, writing far too many of those passages censured by Dr. Johnson – as if he had no more time to bestow upon them. If anybody was going to sort them out it would not be himself; the job was left to his careworn editors.”


From Garber:

Henry VIII photo act 5 4Henry VIII ends with a double epitaph on Cardinal Wolsey (Katherine’s bitter estimate then revised and gentled by her gentleman usher Griffith), with Katherine’s dream vision and her death, with Henry’s gift of the ring to Archbishop Cranmer, and with the birth of Elizabeth. Katherine’s dying petition to Henry on behalf of their daughter and her own faithful attendants ends with her request for a seemly burial, in tones that again recall the spirit of the romances and tragicomedies for which both Shakespeare and Fletcher were known:

     Strew me over

With maiden flowers, that all the world may know

I was a chaste wife to my grave. Embalm me,

Then lay me forth. Although unqueened, yet like

A queen and daughter to a king inter me.


In the course of the next act the new Queen, Anne, is brought to bed with a daughter, the announcement made to the King by the Old Lady in an exchange that is more comic than sublime.

The play’s last and climactic scene – probably not written by Shakespeare – presents the baptism of the infant Elizabeth and a stirring prophecy, by Cranmer, that predicts with exemplary accuracy Elizabeth’s reign, her lifelong virginity, and the succession of King James, unnamed but clearly identifiable (‘She shall be, to the happiness of England/An aged princes’; a virgin,/A most unspotted lily shall she pass/To th’ ground’; a ‘maiden phoenix,’ she will from her ashes ‘new create another heir/As great in admiration as herself’; she will rise ‘star-like,’ ‘great in fame,’ flourishing ‘like a mountain cedar,’ and ‘make new nations’ [5.4.56-57, 60-62, 40, 41-42, 46, 46, 53, 52]). Like all such prophecies embedded in the history plays (the Bishop of Carlisle in Richard II; Queen Margaret’s curse in Richard III), this theatrical prediction has the benefit of perfect hindsight, since it is written and performed long after the historical events it ‘foretells.’”


And finally, from Bloom:

Henry VIII photo act 5 5“Wolsey’s great orations of loss are almost too magnificent for so venal a person; their sonority again hints at a private grief:

So farewell, to the little good you bear me.

Farewell? a long farewell to all my greatness.

This is the state of man; to-day he puts forth

The tender leaves of hopes, to-morrow blossoms,

And bears his blushing honours thick upon him:

The third day comes a frost, a killig 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,

This 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 this 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 betwist 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.


It is not possible for the auditor or reader to care about Wolsey, a mean-souled cleric who deserves anything that exposure and humiliation bring to him. Again like the Funeral Elegy, the melody of disgrace seems intensely close. Is the prince here truly not Henry VIII but Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton? The question, though unanswerable, has its critical use, if only because the poetry of Wolsey’s fall is so grandly in excess of what so mean a role merits. The problem is not Wolsey’s wickedness but his littleness. This is no Iago or Macbeth, just a crooked administrator, an archetypal politician. Wolsey cannot fall like Lucifer; he is no morning star gone down to perdition. And yet the astonishing resources of Shakespeare’s most mature style are summoned up to hymn a mere hypocrite’s discomfiture. A pageant is a pageant, however, commercially speaking, and the strongest style in the language might lavish its exuberance where it would. Wolsey, addressing his aide, Cromwell, urges this loyal servant to abandon him, in accents enormously beyond the decorum of a politician’s fall:

Let’s dry our eyes, and thus far her me Cromwell,

And when I am forgotten, as I shall be,

And sleep in dull cold marble, where no mention

Of me must be heard of, say I taught thee;

Say Wolsey, that once trod the ways of glory,

And sounded all the depths and shoals of honour,

Found thee a way (out of his wrack) to rise in,

A sure and safe one, though thy master miss’d it.

Mark but my fall, and that that ruin’d me:

Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition,

By that sin fell the angels, how can man then,

The image of his maker, hope to win by it?

Love thyself last, cherish those hearts that hate thee;

Corruption wins not more than honesty.

Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace

To silence envious tongues. Be just, and fear not;

Let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy country’s,

Thy God’s and truth’s: then if thou fall’st, O Cromwell,

Thou fall’st a blessed martyr.

Serve the king: and prithee lead me in:

There take an inventory of all I have,

To the last penny, ‘tis the king’s. My robe,

And my integrity to heaven, is all

I dare not call mine own. O Cromwell, Cromwell,

Had I but serv’d my God with half the zeal

I serv’d my king, he would not in mine age

Have left me naked to mine enemies.


Eloquent beyond eloquence, this sublimity certainly is not applicable to Shakespeare himself, whose worldly ambitions did not exceed the renewal of a gentleman’s coat of arms and the comfortable affluence of his final return to Stratford. Nor does the godly zeal suit Shakespeare, though there is a curious medley of defensive piety and skeptical doubt of resurrection in the Funeral Elegy for William Peter. The playwright perhaps felt ‘naked to mine enemies’ in 1612-13, since that is the aura of the Funeral Elegy, but if those enemies existed at all, we again do not know who they were. Shakespeare, nearing his fiftieth birthday, may have been physically ill, or somewhat traumatized by slander, or both. We reflect that, unlike Marlowe or Ben Jonson, he always in his right hand had carried ‘gentle peace/To silence envious tongues.’ One need not be the great and good Dr. Samuel Johnson to be immensely moved by Queen Katherine’s final lines:

     When I am dead, good wench,

Let me be us’d with honour, strew me over

With maiden flowers, that all the world may know

I was a chaste wife to my grave: embalm me,

Then lay me forth; although unqueen’d, yet like

A queen, and daughter to a king inter me.

I can no more.


And yet it is the lines that touch us; poor Katherine is too pathetic to sustain this hushed harmony, and we can wonder again why Shakespeare should be so inspired. Paradoxically, he had attained a condition in which drama, from which he had become estranged, still kindled his powers, while the sincere grief of the Funeral Elegy provoked a poem so frequently banal (though not always) that many scholars reject the authorship as not being good enough for him.

I cannot solve the puzzle of Henry VIII, and I have trouble responding to the rapture and exultation of Cranmer’s concluding prophecy concerning the infant Elizabeth. Dead at fifty-two, Shakespeare never experienced old age, and yet the style of old age dominates Henry VIII. Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s prime surrogates – more so, perhaps, than Hamlet – refused to acknowledge his years and is all the more heroically funny for it. The world seems very old in Henry VIII, and in the scenes Shakespeare wrote for The Two Noble Kinsmen. Through his uncanniness, Shakespeare knew the end of his era, whatever we now choose to call that time. Henry VIII is an elegy for Shakespeare’s world-altering achievement in poetic drama, and consciously bids farewell to the playwright’s highest powers.”


For those of you who are interested, you can read Funeral Elegy here.


So what did you think?  I was more impressed by the play than I thought I was going to be, and definitely found in it Tanner’s “sadness and irony.”  It’s interesting that while Shakespeare’s ability to create characters – life – has been throughout our reading perhaps the thing that most defines his greatness, here, where characterization is pretty much thrown out the window, the play itself and the power of his language (especially in Wolsey and Katherine’s speeches) is more than enough to sustain our interest.


My next posts: Sunday evening/Monday morning, Sonnet #147; Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, my introduction to our last play, full of “magnificent poetry,” The Two Noble Kinsmen.

Enjoy your weekend.

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