The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014


Another BBC Shakespeare review from 2006, and another play that’s risen in my estimation since after seeing it at the Globe, where Ian McChin was a very funny Cardinal Wosley and there was a really cool nightmare sequence in Act IV instead of the song-and-dance dream. It’s available on DVD.


If you knew someone who didn't know anything about Shakespeare, and for your own cruel reasons wanted to put them off Shakespeare for life, you should show them this play. (Or The Merry Wives Of Windsor)

Because Henry VIII is all of those misconceptions about Shakespeare made real. It is mind-manglingly tedious. It is parchingly dry. It is tortuously stagy. It is hopelessly archaic.. It is, and I'm not going to beat around the bush, pretty f*cking dreadful. It is about as exciting as listening to a song by James Blunt.

It's that for reason, largely, that I don't believe Willy-Willy-I'm-So-Quilly had anything to do with it, beyond maybe checking John Fletcher's spelling and adding a couple of frills and flourishes here and there. He may have been a script doctor, but his medication was merely palliative, because this play should have been marked 'do not resuscitate'.

I say 'play'. It's not really. As Robert Shearman has so adroitly pointed out, it's a pageant. Or, rather, it's a succession of scenes from Henry VIII's life. There's a rather contrived dream sequence in Act IV (which is otherwise an incredibly short Act, the shortest ever - presumably when it was staged it would have been padded out with a full song and dance number). It is, essentially, an excuse for lots of dressing-up and some impressive cannon work.

I mean, it's nothing like Shakespeare's other histories. In Henry VIII virtually all of the speech is either soliloquy or exposition. They always make the distinction between blank verse and prose in the Bard books but the real distinction should be between 'dialogue' and 'recitation'. Because Henry VIII contains almost no dialogue whatsoever. It is all people either explaining the plot or giving long, preprepared speeches about stuff. There's no back-and-forth. No character development. No thought processes or conflict. No real drama at all. It’s a procession of puppets reenacting history - and a rather sanitized and clinical and formal version of history at that.

The other histories have battles. Arguments. Jokes. Characters. Fights. Insight. Excitement. Adventure. Romance. People falling off the sides of castles.

Henry VIII, on the hand, just has unrelenting tedium.

It has been the hardest of all these plays to get through. Part of the problem with it becomes clear when you consider that its subtitle (or possibly its real title) was All Is True. It's not a dramatisation - or, to be more precise, a fictionalisation - like the other history plays. It's a piece of research, it's an acted-out documentary. Its selling point is not that it is entertaining but that it is Good For You. It's educational - well, instructional. It’s not a play about what happened if re-imagined by Shakespeare, but a play claiming to be about what really did happen.

And in those terms it's not unsuccessful. It's pretty accurate as far as I can gauge these things. Certainly in terms of contemporary thought, it would have been as close-as-you-could-have-possibly-got. The only inaccuracies are not really inaccuracies as such but glaring omissions - stuff left out because it was still 'don't-go-there' like the schism with Rome, the dissolution of the monasteries. Still a touchy subject at the time, best skirted. That whole Catholic-burning bag of biscuits, best left unopened.

Though, that said, the play is unequivocally Protestant at the end, where Cranmer says that under Elizabeth 'God shall be truly known'; implication being, as opposed to not being truly known under the last regime.

But, oh, the ineptness! The plotting is a dull, episodic plod. Character A falls out with King and dies. Character B falls out with King and dies. Character C falls out with King and dies. The end. And all the exposition! F*ck me! Never before has information been imparted so clunkily. Here's an example:

SECOND GENTLEMAN. May I be bold to ask what that contains that paper in your hand?

FIRST GENTLEMAN. Yes; 'tis the list of those that claim their offices this day, by custom of the coronation. The Duke of Suffolk is the first, and claims to be High Steward; next, the Duke of Norfolk, he to be Earl Marshal. You may read the rest-

SECOND GENTLEMAN. I thank you, sir; had I not known those customs, I should have been beholding to your paper.

So what we have is Character B telling Character A stuff that Character A already knows but which he has asked about for the sake of the audience. And does this information have any relevance? No. It's just some shoehorned in 'look, we've done our research'. For goodness' sake, it's like a novel by REDACTED!

Another aspect of its strange formality is that the characters always address each other by their full names. In the other histories they are known by their towns; you know, Hastings, Richmond and so forth. Maybe the theatrical convention of the characters wearing explanatory name badges had been abandoned.

Due to this play's unremitting dullness, I don't have that much to say. I don't know enough history to know whether the business with Cardinal Wolsey being incriminated by letters getting mis-sorted in the post is correct or not. It comes across as very unlikely and contrived in the play, but that might not be the play's fault.

There is, as is so occasionally the case, some conjecture about whether Shakespeare actually wrote it. John Fletcher seems a more likely candidate; I suspect Shakespeare's name was attached in much the same way that Steven Spielberg's name was appended to Back To The Future i.e. 'in a produced but not actually written by' capacity. 'William Shakespeare Presents'. Because, by this point, he was a brand name, like Coco Pops, or Volkswagen.

Its main claim to fame - because, let's face it, it’s f*cking obscure and best kept that way - is that when it was first performed at the Globe the cannons fired during Act I accidentally set fire to the theatre and burned it down. Given how dull the rest of it is, I suspect it may have been one of the play's more enjoyable performances.

The story? Simple. It's the same as Carry On Henry, only twice as long and half as funny!

Act I. Buckingham is worried that Cardinal Wolsey has too greater influence on the King. Cardinal Wolsey gets the King to order Buckingham's execution. The King decides to have a knees-up - and at that knees up who should he meet but pretty young Anne Bullen. Wahey, he says, I would really like to give her a delivery of my salami.

Act II. Buckingham is on the way to be executed. Blimey he goes on a bit. After about twenty minutes I was shouting out 'For f*ck's sake, just kill the f*cker!'. Basically, he believes he acted out of honour and loyalty to the King, he forgives all those people who have wronged him and says he wants posterity to remember him well. WELL MAYBE HE SHOULD STOP F*CKING GOING ON THEN.

Act III. The King wants a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragorn. Here today, Aragorn tomorrow. Cardinal Wolsey helps arrange this - he thinks the Pope will agree to the divorce due to a 'marrying your brother's widow doesn't count as marriage' papal loophole. The King then immediately (or, quite possibly, overlappingly) marries and impregnates Anne Bullen. This really annoys Cardinal Wolsey who writes to the Pope saying he shouldn't agree to the divorce. The King's people find the letter and Cardinal Wolsey is fired and replaced by Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. On hearing the news, Cardinal Wolsey is well pissed off - but he believes he acted out of honour and loyalty to the king, he forgives all of those who have wronged him and wants posterity to remember him well. WHATEVS.

Act IV. Catherine of Aragorn is also annoyed. She believes she acted out of honour and loyalty blah blah blah you get the drift. She goes to sleep and dreams of pixies doing a lavishly-choreographed song and dance number.

Act V. The King suspects his Lords won't be totally keen on the appointment of Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury so he gives Cranmer his ring as a sign of his patronage. True enough, the Lords aren't too keen on the appointment of Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury and try to have him sent to the Tower. However, Cranmer reveals that he is wearing a ring given to him by the King as a sign of patronage. The Lords then spontaneously and entirely without equivocation change their minds and decide that appointing Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury was a really, really, really good idea that they all agree with wholeheartedly.

Anne Bullen meanwhile has dropped a sprog. A nurse rushes in. 'It's a baby boy, I mean, girl!'

Thomas Cranmer christens the baby Elizabeth, then goes a bit 'wooaah!' and begins a long prophecy about what her future life will be, how England will unite and do really well under her, and how she will probably die a virgin but that whoever comes after her will be equally as good, if not better.

Essentially he tells the King that Elizabeth is going to be Queen.. which doesn't quite square with historical fact, because after the play's 'happy ending' Henry VIII rather turned against the young Elizabeth due to her mother Anne Bullen miscarrying a male child for which he, of course, famously had her executed and replaced with Jane Live and Let Die Seymour who he did let live but who died giving birth to Edward VI, and then he got fixed up by a dating agency with Anne of Cleves who looked ABSOLUTELY NOTHING LIKE HER HOLBEIN so he divorced her and married Catherine Howard who shagged around or so he was told so he had her executed and then there was the last one Catherine Parr, who I can't remember much about but she was the only one to outlive him which was nice.

In terms of word coinage, Henry VIII gives us 'for goodness' sake' (as in the audience shouting out 'for goodness sake f*cking get on with it' throughout much of the play). Plus 'killing frost' and 'the makings of' (as in 'this will be the making of me, John Fletcher, top playwrighter'). Famous quotes? None.

As for the BBC production... well, they do their best. It's all on location, filmed at Castle Gracht, and I'm sure all the costumes and scenery are very authentic. It all feels terribly tired, though, but that's because the play is all talk talk talk and no drama, or action, or anything which might give the actors something to actually do.

The cast is almost all people who have been in Doctor Who, though. It stars Scaroth, Tryst, Lumic, Hardin, Amelia Ducat, King Peladon, Barclay, Miseus, Hermack, Reverend Ernest Matthews, Physician, Krimpton, and Kai. Plus Grouty out of Porridge and Gimli the Gnome out of Lord of the Rings.

And that's it.


It's time for Jonny's Most Pukka Shakespeare list once again!

Those plays marked with a * are essential. You have been recommended.

Those plays marked with a + are for completists only. You have been warned.


In reverse order.

10 Henry VIII +
9 Richard II +
8 Henry VI Part I
7 Henry VI Part III
6 King John
5 Henry V
4 Henry VI Part II *
3 Henry IV Part II *
2 Henry IV Part I *

and, the most pukka Shakespeare history is...

1 Richard III *


Next up: Hot potato, pass it on, Puck will make amends, hoi! Yes, it's... THE SCOTTISH PLAY!!!

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