Friday, July 07, 2023

37 Days of Shakespeare, Day 6: Henry VIII

The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII, first broadcast February 25th, 1979
  • Possibly written: 1613, making it the 37th play Shakespeare had a hand in (and the latest the BBC adapts)
  • What’s it about? Henry VIII divorces his wife Catherine of Aragon, arrests his no good Cardinal Wolsey, marries Anne Bolyn (called Bullen here), and has a daughter named Elizabeth. Seemingly, he and Anne and Elizabeth live happily ever after.
  • Most famous dialogue: Not much, but Wolsey, when lamenting his downfall, gives us the phrase “a killing frost”:
  • Sources: This play is sometimes described as a History, sometimes as just a Tragedy, and sometimes left out of Shakespeare’s canon altogether. Like the Histories it’s based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
  • Interesting fact about the play: Shakespeare had seemingly retired with The Tempest, and indeed that’s the last play for which he has solo writing credit, but a year later, his successor as the principle playwright of The King’s Men, John Fletcher, convinced him to come out of retirement long enough to co-write this play. Oddly, the BBC decided that this counted as a Shakespeare play and ended their first season with it, but declined to adapt the second play credited to both Shakespeare and Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen, decreeing that to not be real Shakespeare. This play is most infamous for being the one that burned down the original Globe theater, when a cannon set the thatched roof on fire.
  • Best insult: (after listing many condemnations against Wolsey) Many more there are, which, since they are of you, and odious, I will not taint my mouth with.
  • Best word: None stood out to me.
  • Best production of this play I’ve seen: I have never seen or read this play before now.
  • Notable Names in the BBC Adaptation: Julian Glover (The only man to play the main villain in a Bond movie, an Indiana Jones movie, and a Doctor Who serial) as Buckingham, Claire Bloom as Catherine of Aragon, John Rhys-Davies in a small role as Capucius.
How’s the cast?
  • Bloom is excellent and totally steals the play, making this a play about Catherine’s mistreatment by both Wolsey and Henry. Timothy West is great at both Wolsey’s arrogance and his bitter regret when he gets his comeuppance. John Stride plays Henry as a total cypher. He seems to have no opinion about the rightness or wrongness of Henry’s actions, which greatly harms the production.
How’s the direction by Kevin Billington?
  • Obviously, we have to blame Billington for not coaxing more out of Stride, but other than that this is excellent. As with As You Like It, we leave the studio again and shoot in actual castles. Billington tried to shoot in as many of the actual historical locations as possible, which is very cool. The result is a gorgeous production. We’re reminded how drafty those medieval castles were, because we can see their breath both in outdoor wintry scenes and in indoor scenes in the old halls. The bad news: This was the production that convinced the BBC that it wasn’t worth it shooting on location, so the entire rest of the series will be studio-bound, greatly upsetting some future directors.
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Any Story Can Have a Happy Ending If You End It in the Right Spot

We have good evidence that the play was written in 1613, but 19th century scholars were sure the play must have been written before 1602, because it’s so ridiculously complimentary towards Elizabeth, so surely, they figured, it must have been written while she was alive. The play ends with baby Elizabeth’s christening, and the Archbishop suddenly divines that she will be a great queen one day (and even divines that she will die a virgin). Don’t worry though, he also can see so far ahead that he knows she’ll have a great successor, too, so James (no great fan of Elizabeth), need not feel too threatened.

Of course, this brings us to the ridiculousness of the ending. It is shown that Wolsey was behind the ousting of Catherine. He is eventually revealed to be plotting with Rome and exiled (Both he and Catherine die of natural causes very quickly after being shunned). In the end, Henry, Anne, and Elizabeth live happily ever after.

“But… but…” the audience splutters, “the story doesn’t end there!” Henry has Anne beheaded and Elizabeth banished! And he marries three more times (one more divorced, one more beheaded, one survived). If you know the full story, it’s ridiculous to end the story here, but Shakespeare and Fletcher’s goal seems to be simply to legitimize Elizabeth. (One way they did this was to rearrange history to have Catherine die before she was born) Having Elizabeth was, in the playwrights’ view, the one good thing Henry did, so with her birth, his story ends, happily. Never mind what came next.

Is real life a tragedy or a comedy? Well, every life ends tragically, in that the hero always dies in the end, but every life also has some spot where things seem to be going well, so any story, true or fiction, can have a happy ending if you just pick that spot.

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