Thoughts on “King Henry the Eighth”

So this is the last of the plays in my collection, which means that it’s the last of the official plays and is arguably the last one written.  Of course, it’s a historical, and aside from “Julius Caesar” I haven’t cared that much for the historicals.  At least part of that is because the historicals really are a dramatic rendition of the historical events, and as such there’s not really any kind of direct plot.  The plot is really a bare bones outline of the events, and so these plays move from event to event as we follow through the history, but the plays tend to end hinting at events to come and there’s no real overall theme to these plays.  This means that unless you know and care about the history is can be easy to get lost and even easier to not feel any emotional connection to the events or the characters and so have nothing to grasp onto to make us want to see what happens next (or how those events are portrayed).

The play focuses on Henry the Eighth as he ends up concerned about not having a son as heir and so divorces his first wife Katherine and marries Anne Boleyn.  It also includes a number of machinations from an ambitious bishop and then later a challenge against the new Archbishop of Canterbury at the end that is preempted by the king himself, and it ends with the birth of Elizabeth.  So as you might guess, there isn’t really much of a plot joining these events together, other than history itself.  So I’m not going to be able to use the plot to form a connection to the play.

However, the play works because it does a really good job of connecting use to the characters.  “Julius Caesar” escaped the bubble of being an uninteresting historical because it focused on and developed the character of Brutus, but here the play gives pretty much all the characters the same treatment.  As is par for the course for the historicals, Henry and even Anne get less of this that we see for other characters, but they are prominent enough and we are privy to enough of their internal thoughts that we can understand why they do what they do.  Henry’s first wife gets quite a bit of characterization, enough that we feel sad at her being put aside and sad at her death.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is given enough characterization that we can feel happy at the end when he is exonerated but it is ambiguous enough that we can wonder if he is as ambitious and is playing the games that he’s accused of.  And more importantly, this ambiguity carries over to the main antagonist, which is the bishop.  We can see that he is manipulating things and doing so unfairly, but he protests that it isn’t him doing which, obviously, seems hollow, but when his schemes are foiled and he is sent away from court he claims to have reformed and one of Katherine’s servants comments on his good points so that she — and thus we, since she is sympathetic and was one of his strongest opponents — can see that he is a more ambiguous character than he might have seemed.

With all of this, we have an oddity:  a historical that I actually enjoyed.  It doesn’t rise to the level of the great tragedies or even comedies, and I don’t think it is as good as “Julius Caesar”, but the connection it forms to the characters finally hits what a historical should be focusing on and creates a play that actually can indeed stand the test of time.  You don’t need to know these events in detail or have an emotional connection to them to feel for the characters and so be interested in how it all works out, which is rare for the historicals.  Henry also plays a bigger role in the play that is titled with his name which happened in “Antony and Cleopatra”, but the difference there is that the title characters aren’t sympathetic while Henry is more so and so far less annoying.  So the last play is, for me, a surprisingly interesting and enjoyable play, even more so because it is in a category that I haven’t enjoyed throughout this process.

Which leads into the last set of things to read:  the poetry.  I am not a fan of poetry, but I will read all the poems and talk about what I thought of them next time.


2 Responses to “Thoughts on “King Henry the Eighth””

  1. verbosestoic Says:

    The reason I made the “mostly agree” comment on “The Tempest” was because I rather liked this one as well, and it wasn’t obvious to me in thinking about it which one I liked better.

  2. Final Thoughts on “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] miss on the comedies, and in general didn’t care much for the historicals … with some exceptions.  So, after all of that, a question that was raised a bit earlier turns out to still be relevant […]

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