Tuesday 21 February 2023

Pericles, Prince of Tyre and the themes recycled in The Winter’s Tale

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is one of the late romances in the Shakespeare canon. However, unlike Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, it is a collaboration, possibly between Shakespeare and George Wilkins; it also wasn’t included in the First Folio. 

1/ My first impression was that it didn’t sound like Shakespeare. 

“PERICLES […] Who has a book of all that monarchs do,

He’s more secure to keep it shut than shown, 

For vice repeated is like the wand’ring wind

Blows dust in others’ eyes to spread itself;

And yet the end of all is bought thus dear: 

The breath is gone, and the sore eyes see clear

To stop the air would hurt them. The blind mole casts

Copped hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is thronged 

By man’s oppression; and the poor worm doth die for’it. 

Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s their will; 

And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?...” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

I can’t be the only one who read the first scene of Pericles and thought about The Merchant of Venice: Pericles wants to marry Antiochus’s (unnamed) daughter and, like other men, has to solve a riddle—if he gets it right, he can have her; if wrong, he has to die. 

However, the similarity ends there. The riddle is designed so that nobody can “win”: Pericles understands the meaning and realises that Antiochus and his daughter are having an incestuous relationship (I know, sick), so he flees.

I won’t recount the entire plot—there’s lots of plot—but not long after and in another kingdom, named Pentapolis, there’s another contest for a princess (Thaisa, daughter of Simonides) and Pericles also shows up. They’re nothing like the father and daughter in Antioch though.

2/ In Act 2, the language is still clearly not Shakespeare, i.e. not great. But once in a while there’s an interesting bit, such as when Pericles looks at Simonides and thinks about his late father: 

“PERICLES [Aside] Yon king’s to me like to my father’s picture, 

Which tells me in that glory once he was; 

Had princes sit like stars about his throne, 

And he the sun for them to reverence; 

None that beheld him but, like lesser lights, 

Did vail their crown to his supremacy; 

Where now his son’s a glowworm in the night, 

The which hath fire in darkness, none in light. 

Whereby I see that Time’s the king of men; 

He’s both their parent and he is their grave, 

And gives them what he will, not what they crave.” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

There are also some jokes that sound like the kind of jokes Shakespeare makes (probably the kind of things that appeal to Jacobean audiences). For example: 

“THIRD FISHERMAN […] Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea. 

FIRST FISHERMAN Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale: ’a plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful: Such whales have I heard on a’ th’ land, who never leave gaping till they have swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

Or this one: 

“SIMONIDES […] I will not have excuse with saying this: 

Loud music is too harsh for ladies’ heads, 

Since they love men in arms as well as beds.” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

3/ There are many words in this play I’ve never seen before. Some of them look strange.

Like y-slacked (meaning: reduced to inactivity). 

Or y-ravished (meaning: enraptured). 

4/ Act 3 (probably after Gower’s part) is where the play starts to sound more like Shakespeare:

“PERICLES The god of this great vast rebuke these surges, 

Which wash both heaven and hell, and thou that hast 

Upon the winds command, bind them in brass, 

Having called them from the deep! O, still

Thy deaf’ning dreadful thunders; gently quench

Thy nimble sulphurous flashes! O, how, Lychorida, 

How does my queen? Thou stormiest venomously; 

Wilt thou spit all thyself? The seaman’s whistle

Is as a whisper in the ears of death, 


(Act 3 scene 1) 

That does sound more like Shakespeare. Compare it to the unimaginative description of the famine in Act 1, or the shipwreck in Act 2—very different. 

I don’t think Pericles particularly cares for Thaisa—she seems to love him a lot more than he loves her—but his speech after her death is moving: 

“PERICLES A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear; 

No light, on fire. Th’ unfriendly elements 

Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time

To give thee hallowed to thy grave, but straight 

Must cast thee, scarcely coffined, in the ooze; 

Where, for a monument upon thy bones, 

And e’er-remaining lamps, the belching whale

And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse, 

Lying with simple shells…” 


There’s a shipwreck in The Winter’s Tale, and a shipwreck in The Tempest, but two in Pericles

“CERIMON […] If the sea’s stomach be o’ercharged with gold, 

’Tis a good constraint of fortune 

It belches upon us.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

What does that make me think of? 

“ARIEL You are three men of sin, whom destiny—

That hath to instrument this lower world 

And what is in’t—the never-surfeited sea

Hath caused to belch up you and on this island, 

Where man doth not inhabit…” 

(The Tempest, Act 3 scene 3) 

5/ In Pericles, Boult is a servant to a Pander and a Bawd, and for a couple of scenes, he’s no more than one of the people trying to get Marina to lose “her maidenhead”. Then comes the exchange between Boult and Marina: 

“BOULT What would you have me do? Go to the wars, would you? Where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one?” 

(Act 4 scene 6) 

Shakespeare is brilliant at getting you to see a character differently and care for them, with just a few strokes (the best is “I was adored once too” in Twelfth Night).  

6/ Tony Tanner’s essay, as usual, is very good. I like the King Lear comparison:

“So what brings about the miraculous denouement—has the harsh old Wheel of Fortune ameliorated into a benign Wheel of Providence, as some suggest? Do they gods finally intervene as they so conspicuously did not in King Lear?” (Introduction) 

I also like his idea about the reunion scene: 

“… there is possibly a shadow of the story not told, or avoided—the Oedipal story of a man who sets out on his travels to avoid incest, only to discover that that has been his destination.” (ibid.) 

Pericles may have fallen for his daughter Marina but Shakespeare avoids it, the same way he avoids it in The Winter’s Tale (whereas in the original Pandosto by Robert Greene, that is what happens). 

7/ The plot of Pericles is frankly very silly: there are 2 husband contests, 2 tempests and shipwrecks, 2 killing orders; there are a bad king and a bad queen; there are even pirates and bawds. Both are like fairytales, though it’s much sillier than Cymbeline, and less neat. 

But it’s a fun play and I do like it. I can’t help thinking that as Shakespeare was writing (part of) Pericles, he found a few things of interest that he recycled in later romance plays, especially in The Winter’s Tale: shipwreck, separation and reunion, and return from death.

In both plays, a man reunites with his wife and daughter after a long time, but if the scenes in Pericles are filled with rapture and happiness, the joy in The Winter’s Tale is more subdued—nothing can undo the pain, the separation, and the lost years.

As Shakespeare recycles ideas in the later play, he also improves on them. Firstly, in Pericles, nothing explains why Pericles doesn’t return to Tharsus to find Marina, nothing explains the separation of 14 years, and nothing explains why Pericles, after a brief marriage to Thaisa, doesn’t marry again; whereas in The Winter’s Tale, Leontes doesn’t know where Perdita is, and Shakespeare creates the character of Paulina to act as the voice of conscience and make sure that Leontes doesn’t remarry. 

Secondly, even though it should be extraordinary, the scene of Thaisa’s revival doesn’t quite have the magical quality of the scene in The Winter’s Tale, which, whether you read it in the fairytale way or the realistic way, is a vision of resurrection. And it is miraculous. 

The reunion scenes in Pericles are satisfying though. 

Saturday 18 February 2023

Macbeth revisited

Macbeth was the play that helped me rediscover Shakespeare in 2021, but I never blogged about the play itself, only about the four screen versions I saw—why not reread it now?—so here we go.  

1/ I note that Macbeth’s thoughts, very soon after the predictions from the weird sisters, turn to violence. The ambition is already in him.   

“MACBETH […] This supernatural soliciting 

Cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill, 

Why hath it given me earnest of success, 

Commencing in a truth? I am Thane of Cawdor:

If good, why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair 

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs, 

Against the use of nature? Present fears

Are less than horrible imaginings. 

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of man that function 

Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is 

But what is not.” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

I especially like the image “my seated heart knock at my ribs”. 

“MACBETH […] Stars, hide your fires; 

Let not light see my black and deep desires…” 

(Act 1 scene 4) 

Interestingly, Hamlet has many reasons to kill the king but (for a long time) can’t do so; Macbeth knows all the arguments not to kill the king but can’t help himself.  

Tony Tanner says: 

“What Macbeth is trying to do as he goes faster and faster, is perfectly summed up in one of his own phrases: he is trying to ‘outrun the pauser, reason’ (II, iii, 113) […] The ‘pauser’ as I have said before, is that within us which gives us ‘pause’; —conscience, reflection, reason, judgement. Hamlet is, effectively, one long pause, and it is very long. Macbeth is trying to get rid of that ‘pause’, trying to close the gap of conscience, to ‘outrun’ his own judgement—and his play is breathlessly short (almost exactly half the length of Hamlet).” (Introduction)

People usually say Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most intelligent character—and he is—but Macbeth is also intelligent. Macbeth knows exactly what he is doing, why he shouldn’t do it, what the consequences would be, what a murder would lead to, and so on and so forth, he just can’t help himself. He chooses to only act and not think. 

“MACBETH […] Strange things I have in head that will to hand, 

Which must be acted ere they may be scanned.” 

(Act 3 scene 5) 

He chooses not to know himself. Whereas Lear’s journey is one towards self-knowledge, Macbeth’s is away from it. 

2/ When Macbeth wavers, Lady Macbeth taunts him. 

“MACBETH […] I dare do all that may become a man; 

Who dares do more is none.

LADY MACBETH What beast was’t then 

That made you break this enterprise to me? 

When you durst do it, then you were a man; 

And to be more than what you were, you would 

Be so much more the man…” 

(Act 1 scene 7) 

The contrast here refers to man vs beast, but Lady Macbeth then moves on to imply the man vs woman contrast when saying “I have given suck, and know/ How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me…”. The idea also recurs throughout the play: Lady Macbeth, when she invokes the spirits, says “unsex me here” and “Come to my woman’s breasts/ And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers/ Wherever in your sightless substances/ You wait on nature’s mischief!” (Act 1 scene 5). 

When Macbeth has a breakdown and makes a fool of himself at court, his wife says “Are you a man?” and “What, quite unmanned in folly!” (Act 3 scene 4). 

Near the end of the play, when Macduff hears the painful news that his entire family has been killed: 

“MALCOLM Dispute it like a man.

MACDUFF I shall do so; 

But I must also feel it as a man….” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

I love that exchange. Throughout the play, Shakespeare forces us to think about the idea of manliness. 

3/ I love the way Shakespeare paints a picture of chaos and fear and dark omens with words: 

“OLD MAN Threescore and ten I can remember well; 

Within the volume of which time I have seen 

Hours dreadful and things strange, but this sore night 

Hath trifled former knowings.

ROSS Ha, good father, 

Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act, 

Threatens his bloody stage. By th’ clock ’tis day, 

And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp: 

Is ’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame, 

That darkness does the face of earth entomb, 

When living light should kiss it?”

(Act 2 scene 4)

This reminds me of G. Wilson Knight’s argument in The Wheel of Fire that the atmospheres of Macbeth and King Lear reflect and support the mental universes of Macbeth and Lear, but that’s not the case with Hamlet

On a side note, the prettiest, most magnificent things I’ve created on DALL-E Mini are with Shakespeare’s words. Shakespeare creates magic on this app. 

4/ When does Lady Macbeth’s mind start to fall apart? 

“LADY MACBETH Nought’s had, all’s spent, 

Where our desire is got without content:

’Tis safer to be that which we destroy 

Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Is it when she realises that Macbeth’s mind is “full of scorpions” and keeps getting “these terrible dreams/ That shake us nightly”? Is it when she realises that he cannot stop, and must kill Banquo and Fleance? Is it when she sees him fall apart before her very eyes, and break down in front of others? 

Or does it start before?

I have always had the interpretation, strengthened by Judi Dench’s performance, that Lady Macbeth isn’t as strong as she thinks she is. That’s why she has to invoke the spirits “unsex me here/ And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direct cruelty! Make thick my blood/ Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse/ That no compunctious visitings of nature/ Shake my fell purpose…” (Act 1 scene 5). That’s why she cannot commit the murder herself, and tells herself the weak excuse “Had he not resembled/ My father as he slept, I had done’t.” (Act 2 scene 2) That’s why she descends into madness. 

She thinks of killing in the abstract, and collapses when she realises what she has done. 

And when she faints, it may be an act to distract others as they’re questioning Macbeth, or perhaps she actually faints upon seeing the corpses, and seeing what she and Macbeth have done. As Shakespeare doesn’t include many stage directions, I think there can be different ways of staging the scene. 

Lady Macbeth is not as evil as Goneril and Regan, and the character of Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood is much more like Lear’s bad daughters than Macbeth’s wife. 

5/ Macbeth is, shall we say, not a good king.  

“MACDUFF […] Each new morn 

New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows 

Strike heaven on the face, that it resounds 

As it it felt with Scotland and yelled out 

Like syllable of dolor.” 

(Act 4 scene 3) 

“MALCOLM […] I think our country sinks beneath the yoke;

It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash 

Is added to her wounds…” 


Macbeth is I think often compared to Richard III, sometimes Brutus (at least G. Wilson Knight makes the comparison), but I can’t help thinking of the contrast with Claudius: both usurp the throne after murdering the king, but Claudius turns out to be a good king, or at least nobody seems unhappy about him except Hamlet. 

Claudius in a few ways is worse than Macbeth, because he kills his own brother then marries his wife, but isn’t tortured by guilt—not to the point of getting nightmares and losing his sanity. 

6/ Everyone knows about Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech, but this is also an interesting speech:

“MACBETH […] I have lived long enough. My way of life 

Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf, 

And that which should accompany old age, 

As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, 

I must not look to have; but, in their stead, 

Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath, 

Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not…” 

(Act 5 scene 3) 

Macbeth has chosen to only act and not think, but he still knows what he has lost. 


See my blog posts about the Ian McKellen – Judi Dench productionJoel Coen’s The Tragedy of MacbethOrson Welles’s Macbethand Throne of Blood


Consider the timeline: Shakespeare wrote Othello and Measure for Measure around 1604, King Lear around 1605-1606, Macbeth in 1606, then Antony and Cleopatra around 1606-1607. 

It is incredible.

Thursday 9 February 2023

King John

1/ Unlike Henry VIII, King John got my interest right away. It’s more dynamic, the characters have a stronger presence. 

I note the parallels when King John and his mother Queen Elinor looks at Philip the Bastard, and when they and the French king look at Arthur:  

“ELINOR He hath a trick of Cordelion’s face; 

The accent of his tongue affecteth him:

Do you not read some tokens of my son

In the large composition of this man? 

KING JOHN Mine eye hath well examinèd his parts, 

And finds them perfect Richard…” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

Now see: 

“KING PHILIP […] Look here upon thy brother Geoffrey’s face: 

These eyes, these brows, were molded out of his; 

This little abstract doth contain that large

Which died in Geoffrey, and the hand of time

Shall draw this brief into as huge a volume…


CONSTANCE My bed was ever to thy son as true 

As thine was to thy husband, and this boy 

Like in feature to his father Geoffrey

Than thou and John in manners, being as like 

As rain to water, or devil to his dam…” 

(Act 2 scene 1)

Ah life before DNA. 

As a note: Philip the Bastard is in paper son of Sir Robert Falconbridge, but actually an illegitimate son of Richard Plantagenet, often called Cordelion; Arthur is son of Geoffrey Plantagenet and nephew of King John, and King Philip of France wages war against England because he says Arthur should be king. Constance is Arthur’s mother. 

Compared to Henry VIII, King John feels more Shakespearean—it’s packed with metaphors and metaphors. 

“KING JOHN […] And now, instead of bullets wrapped in fire, 

To make a shaking fever in your walls, 

They shoot but calm words folded up in smoke, 

To make a faithless error in your ears…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

This makes me think of the theatre of war motif in War and Peace: 

“BASTARD By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,

And stand securely on their battlements

As in a theater, whence they gape and point

At your industrious scenes and acts of death…” 


The battle scene lasts rather long, then ends with a humiliating peace, which leads to a great rant from Philip the Bastard (note that the word “commodity” here means “interest”, “self-interest”, or “expediency”): 

“BASTARD […] that same purpose-changer, that sly devil, 

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith, 

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all, 

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,

Who, having no external thing to lose 

But the word “maid”, cheats the poor maid of that, 

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity, 

Commodity, the bias of the world, 

The world, who of itself is peisèd well, 

Made to run even upon even ground, 

Till this advantage, this vile drawing bias, 

This sway of motion, this commodity, 

Makes it take head from all indifferency, 

From all direction, purpose, course, intent. 

And this same bias, this commodity, 

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word, 

Clapped on the outward eye of fickle France, 

Hath drawn him from his own determined aid, 

From a resolved and honorable war, 

To a most base and vile-concluded peace…” 


I like the way Shakespeare gets hold of a word and clings to it, repeating it multiple times, as he expands on the concept.

In some later scenes, Philip the Bastard clings to the word “calfskin” and keeps taunting Austria with it.  

2/ I know it is not news but Shakespeare is so good at writing women. Constance is a vivid character, I love her reaction upon hearing the news that Lewis the Dauphin (son of King Philip) is to marry Blanch, King John’s niece—for the price of peace and a few territories, and at the cost of Constance and her son Arthur. In her first speech, she repeats the word “fears” 4 times. 

I also love her final speech in the scene: 

“CONSTANCE […] I will instruct my sorrows to be proud, 

For grief is proud and makes his owner stoop. 

To me and to the state of my great grief 

Let kings assemble, for my grief’s so great 

That no supporter but the huge firm earth 

Can hold it up: here I and sorrows sit; 

Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it.” 

(Act 2 scene 2)

I especially love the scene of Constance grieving (Act 3 scene 3). Magnificent scene. 

It’s quite hard to explain, but in King John (which is all Shakespeare), there is conflict and there is drama—I can’t say the same about Henry VIII (which is a collaboration), which lacks tension despite the intrigue and the downfall of 3 characters. 

Act 3 scene 1 of King John is a fantastic scene: Shakespeare builds up the drama as Constance is shouting at King Philip for joining with King John and betraying her and Arthur, then Pandulph comes in and excommunicates King John, forcing King Philip to choose between England and Rome. In the middle of that conflict between England and France, we have the new marriage between Lewis and Blanch, and Constance in the background is also dependent on King Philip’s decision. 

“BLANCH The sun’s o’ercast with blood: fair day, adieu! 

Which is the side that I must go withal? 

I am with both: each army hath a hand, 

And in their rage, I having hold of both, 

They whirl asunder and dismember me…”

(Act 3 scene 1)

Most interesting in the scene is that long speech from Pandulph, when King Philip talks about the vows between Lewis and Blanch, thus between himself and King John, and Pandulph tries to persuade him to turn against England: 

“PANDULPH […] What since thou swor’st is sworn against thyself 

And may not be performèd by thyself, 

For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss 

Is not amiss when it is truly done; 

And being not done, where doing tends to ill, 

The truth is then most done not doing it, 

The better act of purposes mistook 

Is to mistake again; though indirect, 

Yet indirection thereby grows direct, 

And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire

Within the scorchèd veins of one new burned.

It is religion that doth make vows kept, 

But thou hast sworn against religion 

(By what thou swear’st against the thing thou swear’st)

And mak’st an oath the surety for thy truth 

(Against an oath the truth): thou art unsure 

To swear—swears only not to be forsworn,

Else what a mockery should it be to swear! 

But thou dost swear only to be forsworn,

And most forsworn, to keep what thou dost swear; 

Therefore thy later vows against thy first

Is in thyself rebellion to thyself…” 


What is this doublespeak? Shakespeare has always been fond of this technique (“Lesser than Macbeth, and greater”, “Not so happy, yet much happier”), but I think in this speech he pushes it further than anywhere else. 

3/ I must save this line for the next heatwave:  

“BASTARD Now, by my life, this day grows wondrous hot 

Some airy devil hovers in the sky

And pours down mischief…” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

The play is full of interesting things. 

“KING JOHN […] the fat ribs of peace

Must by the hungry now be fed upon!...” 


4/ As I was reading King John, I kept thinking: why was the play neglected? why did nobody talk about it? 

But at about Act 4, I understood. King John is a weak character, both in the sense that he gives way under pressure (he twice chooses an inglorious peace over fighting, and orders Hubert to kill Arthur but later blames him for his “abhorred aspect” and for following order without objection), and in the sense that he lacks the power to hold our interest and hold the play together (compared to Macbeth, Lear, Othello and Iago, Richard III, Hal and Falstaff, and so on).

He is, as Tony Tanner says, treacherous, but I don’t think he’s particularly cruel, bloodthirsty, or vindictive, but at the same time he also doesn’t struggle with doubt or conscience, except the brief moment when he realises that the killing of Arthur has made him unpopular among his subjects. He comes across as weak and ineffectual and rather pale. 

I still think there’s great drama in Act 3, and there are lots of good things in the play. 

The death scene of King John however has some good lines: 

“KING JOHN Ay, marry, now my soul hath elbow-room,

It would not out at windows, nor at doors; 

There is so hot a summer in my bosom

That all my bowels crumble up to dust! 

I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen

Upon a parchment, and against this fire

Do I shrink up.” 

(Act 5 scene 7) 

I should probably steal these lines for when I have a fever. 

5/ The most interesting character in the play is Philip the Bastard. 

Tony Tanner says: 

“… we have a de facto king who turns out not to have the qualities to make a good ruler, and we have a de jure ‘king’ who would clearly prove hopeless and disastrous were he to be installed on the throne. This leaves the way clear for the appearance of a character who, though having neither ‘right’ nor ‘possession’, manifests the desirable, requisite kingly characteristics. And this, indeed, is one of the Bastard’s roles. He develops and holds onto a true concept of ‘honour’; he renews the proper meaning of ‘loyalty’ and ‘duty’ by remaining unflaggingly steadfast in his support of king and country; he doesn’t turn his coat or change his side, and he never ‘plays fast and loose with faith’ or, indeed, anything else.” (Introduction) 

In a play full of treachery (people “changing sides, yielding to shifting solicitations and pressures, breaking oaths as soon as they have made them, abandoning sworn loyalties as the wind changes”), Philip the Bastard is the main one who is loyal and honourable. But as Tony Tanner says, he’s not a type, a simple embodiment of patriotism. Philip the Bastard is clear-eyed about everyone including himself; he sees through it all “Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!”; he does right as he can, and his loyalty comes from honour and integrity, not blind conformity. 

Brilliant, complex character. And he is Shakespeare’s creation. 

If you read King John, you must also read Tony Tanner’s essay. 

Thursday 2 February 2023

Henry VIII

As scholars generally believe the play to have been written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it’s perhaps best to refer to the authors as the playwrights. 

1/ Henry VIII is one of the weakest plays in the Shakespeare canon, but I will (try to) resist complaining about it—what’s the point? There are interesting bits in it, such as Norfolk’s warning to Buckingham: 

“NORFOLK Be advised. 

Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot

That it do singe yourself. We may outrun 

By violent swiftness that which we run at, 

And lose by overrunning. Know you not

The fire that mounts the liquor till’t run o’er 

In seeming to augment it wastes it? Be advised. 

I say again there is no English soul 

More stronger to direct you than yourself, 

If with the sap of reason you would quench, 

Or but allay, the fire of passion.” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

Even more interesting is Buckingham’s speech before his execution. The man who has had to be told to calm down is now calm the moment before death: he understands that friends “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” (Act 2 scene 1), and accepts it.

G. Wilson Knight says: 

“… no earlier hero has left such scalding tears on Shakespeare's page as Buckingham's, the more burning for that universal forgiveness we had thought established in his soul, and the religious faith that still lights it…” (The Crown of Life


“Buckingham is successor to many past heroes, their aura is on him, in him they are all but lifted to a nobler status; and yet in him they are, for the first time, accused. Timon scorns to forgive; Prospero forgives, coldly, knowing it 'the rarer action' (The Tempest, v. i. 27). But Buckingham, I think, fingers in his convulsive passion a cross worn on his breast; and it is this that accuses not only him, but all his predecessors in passion, Richard II, Hamlet, Troilus, Lear, Othello, Timon, Prospero of what? Of wounded pride. There is silence, as he realizes his new, and deeper, fall. Then, after a pause:

All good people 

Pray for me. (n. i. 131)

There is now no fine Christian posture, no spiritual pride, left; but merely the humility of a broken, and ordinary, man:

I must now forsake ye: the last hour 

Of my long weary life is come upon me. 


And when you would say something that is sad, 

Speak how I fell. I have done; and God forgive me. (n. i. 132)” (ibid.) 

I don’t get much out of Buckingham’s final speech but that’s to be expected: I’m no G. Wilson Knight. I would however say that I think the speech’s written by Fletcher. 

2/ I’m just going to poke at the play from different angles. 

“ANNE […] Verily, 

I swear, ’tis better to be lowly born 

And range with humble livers in content

Than to be perked up in a glist’ring grief 

And wear a golden sorrow.” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

I like that. 

Anne, despite the old lady’s entreaties, refuses to marry the King. And yet a few scenes later, we’re told about the marriage, and some time afterwards the coronation takes place—what happened between the scenes? 

The play is about the downfall of Buckingham, then Queen Katherine, then Cardinal Wolsey. 

“WOLSEY […] I do beseech 

You, gracious madam, to unthink your speaking 

And to say so no more.” 

(Act 2 scene 4) 

That’s the scene of her trial. Katherine in the scene and in a later one with the cardinals has a dignity that reminds me of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, though the poetry isn’t as good. I like the “unthink your speaking” bit. 

Cardinal Wolsey’s speech before (or during?) his downfall is one of the best, if not the best speech, in the play.

“WOLSEY […] This is the state of man: today he puts forth 

The tender leaves of hopes; tomorrow blossoms, 

And bears his blushing honors thick upon him. 

The third day comes a frost, a killing frost, 

And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely 

His greatness is aripening, nips his root, 

And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured, 

Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, 

This many summers in a sea of glory, 

But far beyond my depth. My high-blown pride 

At length broke under me and now has left me, 

Weary and old with service, to the mercy 

Of a rude stream that must forever hide me…” 

(Act 3 scene 2) 

I’m leaving a long passage because it’s packed with metaphors: moving from tree imagery (“leaves”, “blossoms”, “frost”, “aripening”, “root”…) to water imagery (“swim”, “sea of glory”, “beyond my depth”, “stream”…). The poetry in Henry VIII, generally speaking, doesn’t often have metaphors. 

It’s also impossible not to notice “little wanton boys”: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods/ They kill us for their sport.” 

I however don’t like Cardinal Wolsey’s “conversion” speech at the end of the scene. It feels contrived. 

“WOLSEY […] Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition. 

By that sin fell the angels. How can man then, 

The image of his Maker, hope to win by it? 

Love thyself last; cherish those hearts that hate thee; 

Corruption wins not more than honesty. 

Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace

To silence envious tongues. By just, and fear not. 

Let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy country’s, 

Thy God’s, and truth’s…” 


When you look at Buckingham’s final speech and then this one from Wolsey, Henry VIII appears to be a very Christian play, perhaps the most Christian play in the Shakespeare canon. 

3/ The trial of Cranmer in the council chamber has some good bits in it. 

“CHANCELLOR […] But we are all men, 

In our own natures frail and capable 

Of our flesh; few are angels; out of which frailty 

And want of wisdom, you, that best should teach us, 

Have misdemeaned yourself…” 

(Act 5 scene 3)

“Capable of our flesh”, according to my notes, means “susceptible to the weaknesses of [our flesh]”.

“GARDINER […] My noble lords; for those that tame wild horses

Pace ’em not in their hands to make ’em gentle, 

But stop their mouths with stubborn bits and spur ’em

Till they obey the manage…” 


The rhetoric, the metaphor sounds Shakespearean? 

“CRANMER […] Men that make 

Envy and crookèd malice nourishment

Dare bite the best…” 


King Henry VII didn’t lift his hand to help Buckingham, nor Queen Katherine, nor Cardinal Wolsey, but in the end helps Cranmer. That perhaps is the only thing I can say about the King. 

The final scene is propaganda. 

4/ Why does Jane Austen have Henry Crawford read out loud Henry VIII in Mansfield Park? It is the only time in her novels when the characters discuss Shakespeare, and she picks this play—is it only because the King divorces Katherine to marry Anne? 

5/ I like that Tony Tanner picks out this line: 

“KING […] He has strangled 

His language in his tears.” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 

And says: 

“That is a line, I venture to say, that only Shakespeare could have written.” (Introduction) 

Overall, I don’t quite understand the enthusiasm of William Hazlitt and G. Wilson Knight—I think I share Tony Tanner’s confusion about the play: 

“There is simply no real drama in the play. So what is it? Festivity, celebration, nostalgia—a dream of history as it might-have-been, as it ought-to-be? Or is there a deep sadness and irony running inerasably through it all? I, myself, tend to register the sadness and irony; but there will always be individual variation (predisposition?), and presumably a Hazlitt and a Foakes would never agree. And why Shakespeare wrote it—to the extent that he did write it—is simply beyond the reach of informed conjecture.” (ibid.)