You know those directors/authors who go into retirement (or even sporting heroes, but this is book website so I don't think sports stars quite cut it) and then a few years later decided to make a comeback with another movie/book and despite all of the hype it ends out being little more than rubbish? Well, this is one of those books. Yes, I know, it was written by William Shakespeare, and yes, I know, I have given it one and a half stars, so I guess you probably think I am some sort of heathen, but I must admit that I really didn't enjoy this play. Okay, maybe I should fall back onto the argument that it is a play and it is meant to be performed, not read, but to be honest with you I'm not all that willing to fork out my hard earned money to go and see a production of this play.
I guess the first problem that I had with this play was that one of the main characters had the name Wolsley and every time he appeared in a scene I simply could not help but picture him looking like this:
Yeah, I know, I've watched too much Stargate, but seriously that was one awesome science-fiction series and it is very rare that a science-fiction series of that calibure not only comes along, let alone lasts fifteen seasons. Anyway, while it is really tempting to write about how awesome Stargate is this review is of a less than ordinary Shakespeare play so I better remain on topic (not that that has stopped me in the past).
Anyway, as you can tell, the play is about King Henry VIII – you know, the one that was famous for removing his wive's heads from their body. It seemed as if divorce wasn't good enough, so when he got sick and tired of Anne Boylen instead of paying her off and dumping her in some remote castle he decided to make sure that she couldn't come back and haunt him. Okay, removing Kathrine of Aragon's head probably wouldn't have endeared him all that much to the King of Spain, but then again I'm sure the King of Spain, upon hearing that Henry had divorced Katherine, didn't sit back and say something along the lines of 'she probably deserved it'.
Despite Henry having more than just two wives this play focuses only on the transition between Katherine and Anne. The problem with Katherine was that she didn't produce an heir, but the fact that all of the women that he married had the same problem sort of makes me wonder whether the problem didn't rest with his wives, but with him – but then again he was king of England and any suggestion that the king was shooting blanks probably wouldn't go down all that well. Actually, come to think of it, that is probably why poor Anne ended up losing her head.
It goes without saying that the events in this play are incredibly significant in the history of England. We all know the story: Katherine wasn't producing an heir (because Henry was shooting blanks) and one day at a party he meets this ravishing young lady named Anne. Anyway, he decided that he wants to get rid of Katherine (through no fault of her own) and marry Anne. However, he can't annul the marriage so instead he goes and asks the Pope for a divorce. The Pope say's no, so Henry throws a tanty and says 'hey, I'm King of England, I don't have to take orders from you' and then proceeds to make himself the head of the church (as you do when you are king and you're not getting your own way).
The play itself ends with the baptism of Princess Elizabeth, who goes on to become a pretty competent monarch in her own right. I guess this is Shakespeare's tribute to a woman, and a ruler, who managed to pull England out of the chaos that ensured under the reign of Bloody Mary (the queen, not the drink) and established it as the Protestant nation that we know today. It wasn't as if Elizabeth's reign was easy – it wasn't. She had to deal with Spanish Armadas and internal plots, but then again how many rulers don't have to deal with intrigue – behind every ruler is a person with a knife that wants the job. However, as we see from many of Shakespeare's earlier plays there is a strong message that pretty much says that removing a monarch only brings about disorder and chaos.
This is probably why I really didn't like this play. Okay, there was intrigue and political manoeuvrings, but it wasn't anywhere near the complexity as the likes of King Lear or the other history plays. In fact I don't even think anybody dies (though I could be wrong). While one could argue that it is a tragedy of sorts – the tragedy of Katherine of Aragon, it isn't as if she has a fatal flaw that causes the world around her to crash. Rather it is just that she happened to marry some guy that simply couldn't have children, and in those days, especially when your husband is the king, you can't actually accuse him of being the problem, simply because it will mean that he would lose face (and the person with the knife will then make their move).
Anyway, I can now say that I have read this play, even though it isn't strictly a Shakespearean play because it is generally accepted that he wrote it in collaboration with some guy named John Fletcher. However, of note, as far as I am aware, the only play that Fletcher has any credit for, and is still performed, is the one he wrote with Shakespeare – this one. In the end, he generally isn't remembered as a playwright but rather the guy that helped Shakespeare write his final play (even though I still consider The Tempest to be Shakespeare's final play).