Leaving The Henriad: The Famous History of The Life of King Henry the Eighth

After commenting on King Henry VIII, I’ll leave Henryland, and traveling back to ancient Rome to visit Julius Caesar. While I’ve enjoyed my stay, I can’t say I’ll miss it all that much. I’m aching to get out of the histories and into history.

And that’s the truth. But what is the truth? I think of truth as veracity (honesty, reality) and loyalty (fidelity, constancy). At first glance, truth seems a pretty objective concept; but apparently many characters (in this play and elsewhere) view it as more fungible. If King Henry VIII shows us anything, it’s that truth, like beauty, is actually in the eye of the beholder. And further, that the beholder carries more weight (literally in the case of the turkey-leg-wielding KHVIII) the closer they are with the reigning omnipotent monarch who, himself, is the absolute arbiter of truth. His truth is whatever he wants it to be. True truth, in King Henry VIII is often “an inconvenient truth.”

This play includes both a prologue and an epilogue. These bookends frame the play as only a representation of the truth. The prologue warns us that it’s quite serious and not amusing, but that we “May find here a truth” (Prologue, 9)and further tells us:

“For,gentle hearers, know,/To rank our chosen truth with such a show/As fool and fight is, beside forfeiting/Our own brains and the opinion that we bring/To make that only true we now intend,/Will leave us never and understanding friend.” (Prologue, 17-22) In fact, it’s believed that Shakespeare subtitled this play All is True.

He presents us with conflicting statements: This is truth, but it’s only a play about what’s true and you’re likely not to enjoy it. How ironic that he went so far as to include “True” in the title of a play which so challenges the concept of what that even means. And as we know, he himself took artistic license with “truth” in all the Histories.

The epilogue – a Shakespearean CYA – dissembles: ‘well, you probably didn’t like that so much anyway…” would bring the audience right back to the Globe (which, by the way, burned to the ground after cannon fire during this very play). It’s ironic that a History, which ought to be rooted in truth as much as any of the plays, leaves us so in the lurch about the nature of truth.

The characters in the play portray different versions and levels of truth: Buckingham and Queen Katherine embody its essence. They stand by and suffer for their adherence to it. They martyr themselves for it. Queen Anne tries to hold on to hers but gets swept along on the stronger current of her king’s version. Cardinal Wolsey, ironically representing the church, twists and turns the truth to his personal benefit and gets bit in the ass for it. KHVIII just makes his own. He creates his own reality.

Buckingham, falsely accused and convicted of treason for political convenience, accepts his fate circumspectly. He acquiesces to the reality others have created for him gracefully: “It will help me nothing/To plead mine innocence; for that dye is on me/Which makes my whitest part black.” (I,i,207-9) He understands that real truth has no value in this world. It is molded to fit whim, will, and wishes. He must be eliminated because his accurate truth shines a light on his foes’ sketchy version.

He goes out with quiet dignity, and foreshadows QK’s fate by calling his end a “divorce of steel.” (II,i,76) His parting words both serve as a warning to those around him and elucidate the other aspect of truth missing in these parts: loyalty.

“This from a dying man receive as certain:/Where you are liberal of your loves and counsels, Be sure you be not loose; for those you make friends/And give your hearts to, when they once perceive/the least rub in your fortunes, fall away/like water from ye, never found again/But where they mean to sink ye.” (II,i,125-131)

QK, too, suffers for her adherence to truth and other’s lack of fidelity. Everyone, including her soon-to-be-ex-husband and his mistress (and soon-to-be-usurping-queen), hold her up as a paragon of virtue and fealty. She has the king’s best interests at heart as she risks his scorn by holding up a mirror to truth in front of his face — about his subjects, the deceitful Cardinal Wolsey, and even her own virtues. But KHVII averts his eyes and refuses to look at the ‘man in the mirror’. No ‘asking him to change his ways’ here.

My Middlebury English Professor Bertolini recently pointed out to me that Shakespearean women often endure disdain and disaster because they constantly remind the men of their mortality. So, too, for QK. No matter how good, she is a truth-bringer and thus KHVIII must eliminate her and make her another martyr to the cause. She is at once a treasure and a burden to him: “like a jewel, has hung twenty years/About his neck, yet never lost her lustre,” (II,ii,3102) says Norfolk as he laments the prospect of their divorce.

Anne Bullen says of QK, “so good a lady that no tongue could ever/Pronounce dishonor of her.” (II,iii,3-4) The king himself claims, as he endearingly calls her Kate, “That man i’th’ world who shall report he has/A better wife, let him in nought be trusted/For speaking false in that.” (II,iv,135-7) This as he summarily sends her on her not-so-merry way.

Even she speaks of truth in her own defense: “i have been a true and humble wife,” (II,iv,23) and “a wife, a true one.” (III,i,126) Her veracity and faithfulness earn her, like Buckingham, an early dismissal and untimely death. But even in that she seeks no glory. She requests “No other speaker of my living actions/To keep mine honor from corruption.” (IV,ii,70-1) She knows she cannot trust anyone around her to speak her truth and prefers to let her actions vouch for her reputation.

In contrast, Anne Bullen, is sort of the transitional character between truth and falsehood. She is not actively deceptive but is passively untrue. Four times she avows that “I would not be a queen” (II,iii,24) “not for all the riches under heaven” (II,iii, 35) “No, in truth” (II,iii,24) and “I swear again , I would not be a queen.” (II,iii,45)

Well, she eats her words quickly. By the end of the play she has transitioned from lady-in-waiting to mistress, wife, queen, and mother in head-spinning succession. And then she disappears. We do not see or hear from her after her canopied coronation cortège, even at her own daughter’s christening. Her epitaph, as we can virtually see her drifting off to her fate in the Tower, is as “The goodliest woman/That ever lay by man.” (IV,ii,69-70). Not virtuous so much as pretty. QA’s sad fate provides the segue between Buckingham and QK’s true virtue and Wolsey and KHVIII’s manipulative dissembling and distortion.

QA provides the bridge over which Buckingham and QK’s beacons travel to illuminate the mud pit of ‘what not to wear’-as-a-model-of-truth in which Wolsey and KHVIII slosh. Buckingham tells us what to expect from Cardinal Wolsey and expostulates the play’s theme in introducing him:

“My surveyor is false; the o’er-great Cardinal/Hath show’d him gold; my life is spann’d already./I am the shadow of poor Buckingham,/Whose figure even this instant cloud puts on/By dark’ning my clear sun.” (I,i,222-6) Lies, as he notes earlier, stain truth. The false eclipses reality.

We first see KHVIII in Act I, scene ii, literally “leaning on the CARDINAL’S shoulder” (stage direction). He relies on Wolsey’s version of the truth to create his own until he discovers that Wolsey has betrayed him when he uncovers the letters he wrote to the Pope about his impending divorce and nuptials. KHVIII confronts him, and Wolsey, who has until then seamlessly manipulated the truth to satisfy his own needs, falls apart. His house of cards folds and he falls back on mere “words, words, words.” (Hamlet, II,ii,192) “This paper has undone me.” (III,ii,210) He does not apologize, but rather beats himself up for the stupidity of his carelessness in getting caught. “I shall fall.” (III,ii,225) Yup. Ye shall. Unlike Buckingham and QK, he denies, deflects, and defends. He bandies the words truth and honor about in his bumbling explanation twelve times. He has a false epiphany and remains tangled up in his ego, blames everyone else, and asks his successor Cromwell to cover for him in his PR campaign: “say I taught thee,/Say Wolsey, that once trod the way of glory,/And sounded all the depths and shoals of honor.” (IV,i,434-36) He asks Cromwell to be his own personal spin doctor.

So all fall down. Except the King. KHVIII undoubtedly has earned a place in the pantheon of reality-molders. He unilaterally discards marriages and religions like so much dryer lint, until he settles on the combination that best serves him. He forsakes true love and loyalty for lust. As rumors of divorce swirl, the ‘gentlemen,’ who populate the play to share actual facts with the audience reveal “But that slander, sir,/Is found a truth now.” (II,i,54) Just like that, with the snap of a finger, what was false a moment before is now true. Suffolk sees through the monarch’s moaning about his marriage as he tries to justify the divorce as he notes: “his conscience/Has kept too near another lady.” (II,ii,18) And KHVIII himself cannot wipe the slate clean quickly enough. As Wolsey begins to read the divorce decree, KHVIII says “What’s the need?/It hath already publicly been read,/And on all sides th’ authority allow’d;/You may then spare the time.” (II,iv,2-4). Again, he seems to have a tough time facing the truth – even the one he’s created himself.

It seems at first glance, then, ironic, that KHVIII busts and dismisses Cardinal Wolsey for lying. But of course it makes sense that it’s ok for Wolsey to lie as long as it supports KHVIII’s version of the truth. But once he crosses the line by crossing the king, he’s committed an intolerable violation. In his own defense he claims that all will be resolved once the KHVIII “knows my truth.” (III,ii,302). But this is precisely the problem in this play. There are too many versions of the truth, and in this case, Wolsey’s own truth is incompatible with KHVIII’s.

The play ends with QA’s coronation and Princess Elizabeth’s christening. Two rites that help to solidify and bring to life, literally, KHVIII’s new truths. The three wise (gentle)men again confirm this, revealing that QK “was divorc’d,/And the late marriage made of none effect.” (IV,i,32-3) Poof, just like that. The king can change not only reality, but history. The entourage rolls right into the christening, where the newly appointed Cardinal Cromwell, anxious to do a better job than his predecessor, paints a picture of the new world reality, fit, well, for a king. He claims that “Truth shall nurse her” (V,iv,28) referring to the newborn princess, although I’m uncertain how that might happen with such a dearth of it in the palace. He extolls her virtues and predicts, oracle-like, her future, including producing a male heir to whom “truth” will be a “servant” (V,iv,47-8) as it was to his mother.

KHVIII couldn’t be more pleased: “Thou speakest wonders.” (V,iv,56) He has finally gotten everyone around him to cooperate and play in his game of truth by his rules. “This oracle of comfort has so pleas’d me/That when I am in heaven I shall desire/To see what this child does” (V,iv,66-8). And of course, she will go on to do great things as QEI. But in the meantime KHVIII will change his truth as often as the new baby’s diapers.

Truth is a touchy subject, and I have no intention of standing on a soap box and purporting to get it right all the time. It is a broad subject, ripe for a lengthy, red-wine-feueled discussion. It is subjective and elusive. As with all morals and ethics, we each one of us have our own thoughts, beliefs, and parameters for what it is and how we should adhere to it in our day-to-day lives. And certainly, we all create our own. KHVIII provides a great platform from which to dive in to both self-reflection and stimulating debate. And that’s the truth. Or at least my version of it.

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