Henry the Eighth

[This review ran in the Denver Post on July 17th. It has since been annotated and edited for Oxfordian references.]

When a monarch's legitimacy is questioned, history is rewritten to bend the facts to jibe with the myth. At the time of Elizabeth I, most of England was illiterate, and the theatre, more than the pulpit, was the most effective means of delivering propaganda with dramatic and patriotic effect. To this end, the queen commissioned ten plays to "educate" her subjects and legitimize her royal lineage, the house of Tudor.1

Left to Right: Megan Pearl Smith as Anne Bullen (Boleyn) and Anne Sandoe as Anne Bullen's Lady Companion
L to R: Megan Pearl Smith
as Anne Bullen (Boleyn) and
Anne Sandoe as
Anne Bullen's Lady Companion
Photo: Casey A. Cass,
CU Communications
The most rarely performed of these histories is Henry the Eighth, which opened last Saturday after an absence of 37 years at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. In this installment, the playwright astutely concentrates on sanctioning the annulment of Henry's marriage to Katherine of Aragon (the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain), the king's subsequent marriage to Anne Bullen (Boleyn),2 and the birth of their daughter, Elizabeth, the future Queen.

Director James Symons further focuses the storyline by dressing all his players in white, except from the chest up, where symbols of their class and office are worn or displayed, turning a potentially lavish "costumer" into a game of chess. The efficacy of this strategy is muted by Henry's anachronistic white Keds, which cause greater distraction than the brocades and satins that are sorely absent. After all, when are we ever going to see this again? Only the priests' costume communicate any subtext.

Left to Right: Julian López-Morillas as Cardinal Wolsey and Sean Tarrant as King Henry the Eighth
L to R: Julian López-Morillas
as Cardinal Wolsey
and Sean Tarrant
as King Henry the Eighth
Photo: Casey A. Cass,
CU Communications
The production is impressive nevertheless. Sean Tarrant, in the title role, gives us an intelligent and decisive Henry, who, after being fooled by the court intrigues of Cardinal Wolsey (Julian López-Morrillas) as a young man, grows into a savvy and ruthless monarch (he executed at least 72,000 people, including two of his wives).

The Cardinal's arc is the reverse of the King's: the power and wealth he so cunningly accumulates during Henry's apprenticeship are forfeited entirely to the mature monarch. As the play opens, López-Morrillas' assured and imperious Wolsey sets the tone for the blind ambitions that follow. (Congratulations to López-Morrillas. With this production he completes the rare feat of performing in all 37 Shakespearean titles. Congratulations!)

When the Cardinal gets caught for seeking to subvert Henry's request for annulment of his marriage to Catherine, the King uses this and other evidence of Wolsey's treachery to strip him of his government office (Lord Chancellor), thus setting up Henry's eventually break with Rome. Henry's son (by Jane Seymour), Edward VI, was primarily responsible for converting the Church of England from a Catholic denomination to a Protestant religion. This was reversed temporarily by his older half-sister, Catherine's daughter, Mary. The festival's revival of the play is timely, as the Church of England grapples with a possible schism over the ordination of women.

Left to Right: Julian López-Morillas as Cardinal Wolsey and Mare Trevathan as Queen Katherine
L to R: Julian López-Morillas
as Cardinal Wolsey and
Mare Trevathan
as Queen Katherine
Photo: Casey A. Cass,
CU Communications
The reverential center of the story is Katherine (Mare Trevathan), who stands up to both the King and the Cardinal when they scheme to remove her from the throne. Trevathan alternately imbues Katherine with loyalty, honesty, strength, and charity, culminating in a transfixing spiritual dream/visitation that lends an aura of providence to the playwright's message.

Fred M. Duer's multi-tiered stage and facsimile tower provide a strong sense of period and plenty of opportunities for Symons' subtext on the vicissitudes of power, which he shades by juxtaposing his players in the scenic tableaux. Symons' insightful interpretive touch in the final scene underscores Elizabeth's intention in commissioning this work. Other than the costumes, this is much as the great lady would like to have seen it. She died in the spring of 1603, before it could be performed for her 70th birthday.3

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Henry the Eighth runs in repertory with Macbeth, Love's Labour's Lost, The Three Musketeers, and Woody Guthrie's American Song through August 12th on the University of Colorado–Boulder campus. 303-492-0554 or at

Bob Bows


1 Queen Elizabeth granted her once-estranged favorite playwright, Edward de Vere (alias "William Shake-speare"), a salary of £1,000 a year (over $300,000 today). The quid pro quo: Use his talent to bolster his monarch's legacy, as he notes a couple of times in the canon, most notably in A Comedy of Errors:

... buy thou a rope and bring it home to me.

I buy a thousand pound a year: I buy a rope.

2 The 15th Earl of Oxford supported Henry's divorce from Katherine and carried crown for Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth's mother). The 17th Earl, Edward, was named after Henry's only son, Edward VI. The 15 year-old monarch sent a gilded chalice for de Vere's christening.

3 The play certainly dates prior to de Vere's death in 1604, since it is a Tudor apologist play, and King James, who succeeded Elizabeth, never forgave the Tudors for beheading his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.


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