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henry viii

14 december 2015

I watched the mini-series version of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall earlier this year. It was colorful and atmospheric, but most of the time I didn't have the remotest idea what was going on. Reviewers, and my partner (an avid Mantel fan) noted that Wolf Hall was the kind of show you had to have read the book to appreciate – or keep remote in hand to pause while you Google whichever of the thousand-and-one characters was onscreen at the moment. That was fine, but I hadn't read Mantel and we were watching on broadcast TV, which is unamenable to pausing.

It had also been a while since I'd read or seen Shakespeare's play Henry VIII. Now that I've come to the end of my swing through Shakespeare's history plays, I can see how Mantel and her dramatic adaptors (for both stage and screen) had to work with Shakespeare's treatment looming over them. The central character in Henry VIII is Cardinal Wolsey. In the Mantel mini-series, Wolsey, played thinner than Shakespeare's butcher's son by Jonathan Pryce, sees his power wither early in the going, and his role in government gravitates to Mark Rylance's Cromwell. In Shakespeare, Wolsey's power grows, reaches its apex in the third act – and then he falls, he falls like Lucifer.

The rest of the play is episodic. Before and after Wolsey's ascent and crash, we see other favorites of Henry VIII implode or avoid implosion randomly, including one of the many Buckinghams in the history plays and one of the many Katherines. Both come to sticky ends, but Cranmer the archbishop somehow survives when all seems lost. The thing is, none of them is much better or worse than any of the others. The one character who truly wins in the play is Anne Bullen, but we know how that will turn out. (Cranmer himself managed to survive Henry, and Henry's son Edward VI, only to get himself fried by Katherine's daughter Queen Mary.)

Our theme is thus the ups and downs of those riding Fortune's wheel, and this tried-and-true topos worked for Shakespeare just as it would much later work for Hilary Mantel. Her protagonist shows up in Shakespeare just long enough to hear some of Wolsey's best lines.

My robe,
And my integrity to heaven, is all
I dare now call mine own. O Cromwell, Cromwell,
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies. (Act 3, Scene 2)
John Margeson, editing the play for Cambridge in 1990, notes that every scene is sharply dramatic, even if the overall structure is sort of one thing after another (including pageants, songs, and dream visions). He mentions this by way of contrasting Shakespeare's drama to that of John Fletcher, who is a more static playwright – but often seen as the co-author of Henry VIII. The evidence for Fletcher's collaboration in this play is entirely internal and inferential – there is no contemporary indication that anyone but Shakespeare worked on it.

Margeson sounds mildly frustrated, in fact – as frustrated as editors of Shakespeare get – by the undue critical attention given to the authorship of Henry VIII, at the expense of its drama and poetry. He considers the latter to be substantial. The play, like King John, was once fairly popular onstage and now infrequently performed. As the success of Wolf Hall has shown, the political infighting of the Tudor court still appeals, but the spectacle and triumphalism of Shakespeare's version no longer thrills audiences.

One of the better of the BBC Shakespeare series of the late 1970s was its Henry VIII, with John Stride as Henry, Timothy West as Wolsey, and Claire Bloom as Katherine. There was more dross than gold in the BBC's completist series, but they could sometimes succeed with a less-popular play that didn't have to compete with one's memories of important stage or screen versions, and their H8 was consistently interesting. But I've never seen the play live and am unlikely to at this point. I mean, I'm not moribund, but it's not coming to a playhouse near me.

Shakespeare, William. King Henry VIII. 1623. Edited by John Margeson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. PR 2817 .A2M27