Spies and Traitors: A Review of Henry VIII

Three events took place the week before last. I have been writing about the least significant, our trip to Stratford (Ontario) to see three plays: Henry VIII, Nathan the Wise and Birds of a Kind; I have already reviewed the latter two. The second big event: President Donald Trump is finally headed towards his impeachment (though not necessarily conviction) for evidently trying to blackmail the President of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, by holding back a very large military aid package authorized by Congress and needed desperately to fight the Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Trump wanted to get Zelensky to search for possible dirt on one of the leading candidates for the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden and his son. By association, Biden would be besmirched, not because any evidence will be found, but because Trump will claim that, because he is being investigated, Hunter Biden must have done some terrible things. “Of course, Hunter Biden discussed his nefarious business with his father,” The Donald opined, as usual projecting his own way of behaving as universal in the world at large.

But this blog is not about that contemporary most notorious and perhaps most incompetent traitor who uses foreign policy to advance his personal political agenda. I am interested in traitors who insinuate themselves in a regime to serve the foreign policy of another regime, but who maintain their disguise for a lengthy period. More generally, I am interested in the dramatization of historically very significant and able traitors as dramatized on stage and in films.

But first, the most notable event of the week previous to the last, the celebration of Brian Urquhart’s hundredth birthday. Actually, he turned one hundred years of age on 28 February 2019, but his birthday was celebrated as the UN General session opening. Brian Urquhart was hailed as one of last century’s greatest diplomats for his forty years of service to the United Nations covering both its inception and its trajectory during the Cold War. “Urquhart always brought a high level of idealism, courage, geniality, genuine warmth and sly British wit over humankind’s foibles and, most importantly, a love for the UN, to his postings.”

But the most startling credit noted in the many accolades he received was recognition as a very accomplished spy. Brian Urquhart a spy!!! Of course, as a diplomat at the UN in the immediate aftermath of WWII, he had to be a chameleon both to do his job and to serve the UN, for his boss was a Soviet apparatchik who kept instructing him to misrepresent events in service of the USSR. He did not do as he was told but as his integrity dictated, always in a way clever enough to get away with it. The reality was that he had actually been a spy, but a spy, not in the poseur mold, but as an intelligence officer in the 1st Airborne Corp of the British Army. He became famous for analyzing the incoming signals intelligence to forecast that Operation Market Garden to seize the Dutch bridges over the Rhine River was headed towards disaster. And the operation was an overwhelming catastrophe, perhaps setting back the allied victory for as much as six months. The incident, and his role in it, were portrayed in the film, A Bridge Too Far.

That is not the kind of spy who interests me, as estimable as signals intelligence is, but rather spies who are poseurs, spies who operate within one state to serve a foreign power. The play Henry VIII has as its central mover of action, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a spy in the court of Henry VIII on behalf of the pope while claiming to be a spy on the pope for the king. The disguise is deliberate; the character presents himself as an extreme loyalist to the regime. In reality, he served to undermine rather than enhance national interests. Poseur spy narratives share a common motif with a play about identity politics – Birds of a Kind and Nathan the Wise – hiding one’s true character from others. The drama in both is the reveal.

A note first on Henry VIII himself and the play. For 36 years, from 1509 until his death in 1547, Henry ruled England during the dawning of the English Renaissance and the English Reformation. He was only 17 when he was crowned king and married off to his recently deceased brother’s widow, who was six years older. Henry was a very bright and quite a dashing young man, over six feet tall and very well-built – a dramatic contrast to the very fat and ill man that he was in his older years and as we most often see him portrayed. He was athletic, energetic, and exceedingly well read for a member of the aristocracy. He was also very innovative – but often in the wrong direction:

  • Insinuated the divine right of kings in the English constitution
  • Centralized and expanded his power
  • Appointed himself head of the Church of England
  • Used charges of treason on those who fell out of favour, sometimes justly (Cardinal Thomas Wolsey), but mostly unjustly (others also named Thomas – More and Crammer)
  • Used extra-judicial means to dispose of them – bills of attainder

Though renowned for having six wives, in particular for getting his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in Spain annulled so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, in fact he deeply loved his first wife.  Martha Henry in her production understood this and conveyed it well. “Henry obviously adored Katherine. He admired her intelligence and her feistiness. When abroad, he named her regent “as he knew she had the fortitude to control the nobles and to run the country while he was away.” Martha Henry takes this insight to create in the role of Katherine, executed with a superb dramatic performance by Irene Poole, an unforgettable performance.

This king in love with his first wife is the one we meet in Shakespeare’s play, Henry VIII. He had, however, three deep flaws. He enjoyed extravagance, at great cost to the national treasury. He ventured into military adventures abroad, at even much greater cost to the national treasury, and did so mostly unsuccessfully. But most of all, in spite of his brilliance, his wilfulness and his intelligence, he was initially very naïve. By 1515, Thomas Wolsey had risen to become archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor of England and a cardinal of the church. He was easily Henry’s equal, saw himself as such, but always presented himself as Henry’s most loyal servant. He was Henry’s close friend.

The two presumably schemed together for Wolsey to acquire the papal tiara. Little did Henry know that this was a guise to hide the fact that all along Wolsey was a spy on the throne of England in service to the pope. Further, Sir Thomas More, perhaps the most brilliant of the triumvirate of Henry, Wolsey and himself, entered into the forefront of the political fray as a new councillor in 1517, but is not included in the play in a period dominated by the machinations of Wolsey. (For a drama centering in good part on the interaction of More and Wolsey, see A Man for All Seasons. Wolsey says to More, “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see the facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint; with just a little common sense, you could have been a statesman.” Wolsey was characterized by an extravagant immoral squint.)

The play Henry VIII comes to a climax over two key events – Henry’s affair with Anne Boleyn and Henry’s rescinding of the 1524 tax that Wolsey tried to take the credit for even though it had been imposed upon his urging. Henry VIII, the most promising of monarchs, was now very unpopular for his unsuccessful military adventurism abroad and the fiscal disaster at home. The play is not about the rise in power of More or Henry’s break with the pope over his annulment of his marriage to Katherine, but about the discovery that Wolsey had been a mole for the pope. The play at its core is a spy story.

Martha Henry is perhaps even more brilliant a director than she was as an actor. The performance of Irene Poole as Katherine, as I indicated above, is a work of art to behold. Through Shakespeare’s brilliant words and Jonathan Goad’s exuberant Henry VIII, the play that is really a tour de force of pomp and ceremony, that cannot be realized on the tiny stage and in a small theatre, is nevertheless carried off by a combination of the most wonderful costuming and organized movements of the actors even though the drama is ultimately an episodic connection of scenes and acts that succeed more than lead into one another. And the ending has a great deal to do with history but virtually nothing to do with the dramatic action of the play. From Tim Campbell as Duke of Buckingham at the beginning of the play, who is initially an independent voice quickly squashed by Wolsey, to the host of other lords (and ladies), it is hard to find a flaw.

Except, and it is a big except, in the most important role in play in my estimation, that of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, performed by veteran Stratford actor, Rod Beattie. The performance is a disaster. Why is it a disaster and who is at fault?

Rod plays Wolsey as an example of the banality of evil. He is bland. He is unassuming. He manipulates and maneuvers in scenes “behind the scene.” He is a schemer and plotter, but comes across as a plodder. Henry VIII is enthralled by him, but by watching Rod Beattie play Wolsey, a member of the audience would never be able to figure out why a smart guy would be taken in by this overweight bore. Other than in his words and in his role, where is the demonstration of shrewdness? The suggestion is, I believe, that he used his calm and understated exterior to manage and control a mercurial Henry VIII.

However, look at the words Shakespeare puts in his mouth; they betray that characterization. Even before that, listen or re-read the Prologue addressed to the audience. For the pomp and ceremony is but a cover for a different play.

Be sad, as we would make ye: think ye see
The very persons of our noble story
As they were living; think you see them great,
And follow’d with the general throng and sweat
Of thousand friends; then in a moment, see
How soon this mightiness meets misery:

Who is the character that begins as the most successful in all of England at the time, though of relatively humble origins? None but Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Who begins surrounded by the loyalty of other lords as he organizes the execution of the one independent thinker of the bunch, the Duke of Buckingham? Who falls into the bottom of a deep canyon where “mightiness meets misery?” None other than Cardinal Wolsey. That is the core of the play that Shakespeare makes clear.

As Buckingham says, “no man’s pie is freed from his ambitious finger.” Buckingham continues:

I wonder
That such a keech [a fatty lump] can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’ the beneficial sun
And keep it from the earth.

Vanity of vanities. A keech who darkens the earth with his overwhelming presence. Not an unassuming manipulator in the guise of a humble man. We are told to expect an overwhelming and dominant presence before Wolsey even appears on stage to reveal how, spider-like, he weaves his plots. As Lord Norfolk notes, he is a powerful and overwhelming presence.

But who does Martha Henry bring on the stage? Not a man who long ago left behind his humble origins, not a big as brass braggadocio consumed by his own brilliance, made all the more blinding by the mediocrity of the lords with their inherited titles who surround him. But a man who feigns humility, who speaks plainly and without eloquence, who cannot hide his pride in himself, whereas he is described by Norfolk as the devil incarnate, a man who made peace with the King of France (Putin?) “purchased at a superfluous rate” only to sabotage it.

Wolsey in the play and in history was a man who loved and exhibited power, who bore grudges and punished all who would defy him. Vengeful and carrying a sword with a very sharp edge, he was a man who slithers and darts hither and thither. And he enters and we expect to watch him humiliate the brave and vocal Duke of Buckingham. The expectation is there. The humiliation is there. But not the means to execute it. As portrayed by Rod Beattie, Wolsey would not be able to swat a fly, yet he is supposed to be a man that brought the whole of the English aristocracy to its knees.

Wolsey has a venemous mouth, but what emerges in the Stratford production is pap that belies the very words uttered. Even Buckingham, mistakenly, muzzles his words lest he awaken the beast in his sworn foe and enemy of the people. Wolsey reviles Buckingham, but the performance is in striking contrast to the depths and volume of his spleen. He makes Buckingham look like an outright amateur in getting the king to take his side. Buckingham plans to use honour to combat insolence and we watch in dread at the failure of such a strategy in dealing with a serpent. Except this is not how Wolsey is portrayed. And anyone both watching and listening cannot help but be thrown off by the incongruency.

I could go on and on with description after description, with speech after speech, with scene after scene, to show how out of kilter Wolsey’s portrait is on stage with that of the historical character and the one Shakespeare put on stage. What Martha Henry, with all her brilliance, demonstrated is that she has not the least clue about what it takes to be a successful spy. And certainly not on why they fail.

When Wolsey is caught out, from the production watched, you cannot figure how such a clever plotter with such great attention to detail could make such an error in allowing damning and incriminating documents to be misfiled. There is also the ambiguity of this self-pitying rascal who has great remorse, not for what he did, but because history will not remember him. There is not an ounce of true regret, for that would be totally out of character, but just another performance, just another guise. Instead, we are led to believe from the performance that he might have truly come to confess his sins before his Lord Jesus.

For me, the problem was not all of Wolsey’s frauds, as enormous as they were, but the fraud I saw on stage in the central character of the play. Why would anyone believe that Wolsey died fearing God, that he felt bad about scheming against the king, that this greedy, acquisitive manipulator was truly remorseful? Katherine, the one character of true integrity and insight, knew better.

Let me end by offering a twist on a quote from A Man of All Seasons: “I believe, when politicians forsake their public duties for the sake of their own private gain, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

With the help of Alex Zisman


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