History on Display: Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

My Own True Love and I recently went to see Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. As far as I’m concerned, the play isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best,* but the performance was a theatrical tour de force. As always. CST knows how to do it right.

Written in 1613, ten years after the Queen Elizabeth’s death, the play tells the story of Henry VIII’s efforts to dissolve his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, his not-quite-subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, and his break with the Catholic Church. It ends with the baptism of the newly born Elizabeth and Archbishop Cranmer’s triumphant prophesy that the infant princess will be “a pattern to all princes living with her,/And all that shall succeed.” Under her reign,

…every man shall eat in safety,
under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors;
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honor…

 The original audience  would have been even more aware than their modern counterparts of the story that followed: Henry VIII’s later marriages, the religious conflicts of the later Tudor reigns, and the glories and contradictions of Elizabeth’s reign. CST cleverly foreshadows all of it.  (I was particular taken with the use of dance as a visual metaphor that ties the story together.)

Shakespeare (or possibly CST artistic director Barbara Grimes), depicts Henry as dissolute, demanding inconstant, and charismatic, Katherine as fiery and tragic,** and Anne Boleyn as a bit of a floozy. Cardinal Woolsey, who plotted to keep England Catholic, is complicated and slimy; his Protestant rival Cranmer is virtuous and smug. With the possible exception of Katherine, it was hard to warm up to any of them. Instead, the character that caught my attention was the young Thomas Cromwell,*** who transforms himself over the course of the play from Cardinal Woolsey’s devoted secretary to an advocate of the English Reformation.****

Looks like it’s time to learn a little something about Mr. Cromwell, or at least read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

The play runs through June 6. If you’re in the Chicago area, do yourself a favor and see it.

*It is generally believed that Shakespeare wrote the play in collaboration with an up-and-coming young playwright, John Fletcher (1569-1625). Fletcher became one of the most influential playwrights of his time; today he is best remembered for, well, nothing. (Unless you’re a specialist in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, in which case you know him as one of the most influential playwrights of his time.) Proving once again that readers can’t judge which contemporary literary works will become classics and which will become dissertation fodder.
** I’m not sure whether Shakespeare or actress Ora Jones was responsible, but Katherine blows everyone else off the stage in her scenes.
***Not to be confused with Oliver Cromwell, who led the Roundheads during the English Civil War.

****Like pretty much everyone who became involved with Henry VIII, he was later executed when Henry became unhappy with one of his own choices. But not in this play.


  1. Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm on June 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    I keep meaning to read Wolf Hall too!

    • pamela on June 7, 2013 at 7:43 pm

      We may have to make a pact to read and discuss.

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