Thursday, May 01, 2008

Shakespeare’s Religion

[First Things] 1 May 2008--In 1613, at the end of his career, Shakespeare joined John Fletcher to dramatize the reign of Henry VIII—the king who broke with Rome and started the Protestant revolution in England. The play ends with Thomas Cranmer’s rhapsodic paean to the once and future queen, Elizabeth, who would consolidate the Anglican settlement:

This royal infant—heaven still move about her!— Though in her cradle, yet now promises Upon this land a thousand, thousand blessings, Which time shall bring to ripeness. She shall be— But few now living can behold that goodness— A pattern to all princes living with her, And all that shall succeed.

Elizabeth’s foes, Cranmer predicts, will shake like a field of beaten corn; and, since those foes included the Catholics whom Elizabeth relentlessly persecuted, imprisoned, and executed, readers have traditionally seen the play as Protestant propaganda.

And yet Henry VIII is also the tale of another queen: Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s discarded, staunchly Catholic wife. Katherine courageously endures the trial, stands by her “honour,” her “bond to wedlock,” and her “love and duty.” She assails Wolsey for his “arrogancy, spleen, and pride” and wishes to make appeal “unto the Pope,” to bring her case before “His Holiness.” Onstage she has a vision of angelic spirits dancing and welcoming her to heaven before she dies. Shakespeare and Fletcher portray Katherine as a wronged, heroic, and saintly queen.

Henry VIII, in other words, is hot ice and wondrous strange snow, as Theseus says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Does the play extol the Protestant Reformation or the Protestant Deformation? How shall we find the concord of this discord?

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