Henry VIII on Trial: Confronting Malice and Conscience in Shakespeare's All Is True

By Wegemer, Gerard | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview
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Henry VIII on Trial: Confronting Malice and Conscience in Shakespeare's All Is True


Wegemer, Gerard, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


RECENT studies have shown that Shakespeare's last play, Henry VIII or All Is True, follows the structure of four sequential trials.(1) Yet, as this article will show, two other trials also take place: the famous trial of King Henry's Lord Chancellor Thomas More, and the trial of Henry VIII himself. As will become evident, malice and conscience are invoked in each trial in such a way as to shed light upon King Henry and upon "All Is True."

The presence of Thomas More in this play poses several arresting questions. First, why does the plot have King Henry accusing Lord Chancellor More of the very charge put forth at More's actual trial? And why, just before this accusation, does the play have Thomas More presiding over Cranmer's trial, a trial that occurred eight years after More's death? Or why does the play present More as leading Anne Boleyn's coronation procession when it was well known that, in refusing to do so, he incurred further royal disfavor? And finally, why have More say the exact opposite of what he publicly attested about the relationship of the king and the English law?(2) Since this play dramatizes the most revolutionary period in Shakespeare's vast sweep of English history and since Sir Thomas More represents what is most controversial during that turning point of England's political and religious relocation, his roles as judge and accused invite careful scrutiny. For the purpose of this paper, however, treatment of this issue is restricted to investigating the structural and thematic patterns related to these trials and to the measures of conscience and malice that each invokes.

Any student of the period knows that Thomas More was Henry's onetime close friend and Lord Chancellor. Eventually, however, after continuous opposition to Henry's manipulation of Parliament, More was imprisoned and executed on grounds of treasonous malice for refusing to recognize Henry's claim to an imperial authority, based on divine right, over both church and state.(3) Yet to the surprise of any reader aware of the political and ecclesiastical revolution of that time, Sir Thomas is never directly associated in All Is True with any of these significant issues. Indirectly, however, as we shall see, the structure of the play presents surprising revelations about the relations of law, conscience, and the monarch(4)--the very issues for which Thomas More died. As will be indicated, the anachronisms and distortions of well-known facts regarding Thomas More provide an important key to unlocking some of the drama's structural and thematic enigmas and to assessing the character of Henry himself.

The first and only time Thomas More is mentioned by name(5) in All Is True occurs when Cromwell reports to Wolsey "that Sir Thomas More is chosen Lord Chancellor in your place" (3.2.393-94).(6) Wolsey immediately gives approval, with these telling lines: "[H]e's a learned man. May he continue / Long in his highness' favor and do justice / For truth's sake and his conscience ..." (3.2.395-97). Here, the fallen and humbled Wolsey expresses his hope that the next chancellor will have the integrity necessary to do justice for the sake of truth and conscience. Wolsey then goes on to give his famous lament for being over-zealously dedicated to someone other than God and to something other than truth and conscience (3.2.454-59).

Truth and conscience as the basis of justice--that is not only Wolsey's final hope but also a major issue raised by the play as a whole, and even by the play's alternate title, "All Is True." The prologue claims that the viewer "may find here truth" (9, emphasis added), but with the qualification that only "an understanding friend" will discover "our chosen truth," while making clear that the playwright(s)(7) have not been guilty of "forfeiting / Our own brains and the opinions that we bring" and that they "intend" only to present what is "true" (17-22). Furthermore, this play mentions conscience and truth--and their opposite, malice--more frequently by far than any other play in Shakespeare's canon.

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