... 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...
No wars are fought in this history, one of Shakespeare's last plays, and the ending is full of hopeful prophecies about the infant princess Elizabeth, daughter of the new queen, Anne Boleyn. Yet the action of the play largely concerns a succession of people at court who fall from grace and must reconcile themselves to death. They include the unscrupulous and innocent alike, from nobles and clergy to Henry's first queen, Katherine of Aragon.
Quotations and synopsis follow the logistics section.
LOCATION & LOGISTICS: See above for map of spot in Volunteer Park - I'll try for the picnic tables across the road from the wading pool / restrooms at the NE end of the park (east of the conservatory, which is a Victorian glass greenhouse). The tables tend to migrate, but there are usually some near a big silvery conifer, or the staked dahlia plantings, or a bit east of there (nearer 15th Ave E). You can call (206)[masked] if you can't find us. Bring lawn chairs if you like. Volunteer Park is right on the #10 busline from downtown.
If the weather seems likely to rain, I will look for an available library. Any location change will be announced by the day before.
Bring a copy of the text if you have one, if not we usually have an extra and can share. It's not necessary to read the play before hand, but some familiarity with the plot is helpful. This is a medium-long play. With intros, dividing out the (many) parts, reading, break, and optional discussion afterwards, expect this to take much of the afternoon.
For text, synopsis and "character circles", see http://www.shakespeareswords.com/Henry-VIII
Synopsis and Quotations
As the play begins, nobles are exclaiming over the sumptuous display of the King's visit to France, and complaining of the heavy expense of it, which had been ordered by Cardinal Wolsey, the King's most trusted administrator. The Duke of Buckingham regards Wolsey as a low-born upstart :
The devil speed him! No man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger. What had he
To do in these fierce vanities?
The Duke of Norfolk warns Buckingham to be careful:
I advise you .... that you read
The cardinal's malice and his potency
Together; to consider further that
What his high hatred would effect wants not
A minister in his power.
Buckingham, still incensed, intends to denounce Wolsey as a traitor, but is too late, as Wolsey has contrived the same charge against him. Queen Katherine speaks up against the heavy taxation that burdens the subjects, reproaching the cardinal, and also attempts to defend Buckingham, but the King believes the charges of treason and Buckingham is executed.
The king, encouraged by Wolsey, begins to question his marriage to Katherine, who was the widow of Henry's older brother. Permission from the pope had been needed, since a passage in Leviticus forbids such marriages; now Henry argues that the lack of a living male heir is a sign of God's displeasure, and seeks a divorce. Katherine pleads that she has been obedient and faithful throughout twenty years of marriage, but she is finally driven to rebuke Wolsey:
I am about to weep; but thinking that
We are a queen, or long have dreamed so, certain
The daughter of a king, my drops of tears
I'll turn to sparks of fire.... I say again,
I utterly abhor, yea, from my soul
Refuse you for my judge....
Katherine goes into seclusion, refusing to return for the debate over the divorce, and the king's wishes prevail. Wolsey wants him to make a strategic marriage with the French king's sister, but Henry has his eye on a vivacious young lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. Anne, hearing of Katherine's griefs, claims:
’T is better to be lowly born...
Than to be perked up in a glistering grief
And wear a golden sorrow....
I swear, I would not be a queen
For all the world.
Her Old Lady companion calls her out as a hypocrite:
In faith, for little England
You'd venture an emballing: I myself
Would for Caernarvonshire, although there longed
No more to the crown than that.
In any event, Henry and Anne do marry and there is a splendid coronation. Wolsey's various machinations and financial misdealings are discovered, leading Henry to divest him of all his offices and goods.
I have touched the highest point of all my greatness;
And from that full meridian of my glory
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more.
Sobered, Wolsey finds peace in finally letting go of ambition, and does his best to counsel his protege Cromwell. Soon after, he falls ill and dies. Katherine, hearing of it, remembers him as arrogant and dishonest, but her attendant reconciles her to his memory by speaking of his good points, noting:
Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues
We write in water.
Katherine herself, weak and isolated, has a vision of joy awaiting her in heaven, and after sending the king an appeal to care for her daughter Mary and household staff, passes away.
Intrigue continues at court, with religious overtones, as some consider Anne and Archbishop Cranmer to be heretics. Henry intercedes to warn a naive Cranmer about his enemies.
Queen Anne bears a daughter, Elizabeth, and the play ends with her baptism, with joyous crowds and prophecies that she shall reign in a golden time:
She shall be loved and fear'd: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours.