Although this play of Shakespeare is given the title The Famous History Of The Life Of Henry VIII, the king is really a supporting figure. It covers that period in the reign of that monarch where Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was his chief minister and how he fell from power.
John Stride plays Henry VIII and he hasn't gotten to be the obese and overblown figure as made famous Charles Laughton. He's still lean and limber, in fact the young Henry as prince and king was something of an athlete and not just a sexual one. But this is about the time that Henry VIII is starting to get concerned over the lack of a male heir. His wife, the pious and virtuous Catherine of Aragon played by Claire Bloom has only given him a daughter Mary who has survived to adulthood. And England has not had a queen regnant since Matilda back in the 12th century.
Timothy West plays Wolsey who tried to balance too many balls in the air and ended up dropping everything. If he could have pulled it off he might have gone down as the greatest statesman of the middle ages. As it was he's ranked pretty high. If you recall the film Becket, Richard Burton tried being both the king's chancellor and the head of the Catholic church as Archbishop of Canterbury. He found the conflict irreconcilable and chose the church and ultimately sainthood. Wolsey tried to do both and was reaching for even more, he wanted to be Pope.
To explain the political situation at the time would involve me writing a small book. But coming into play in this whole situation besides Wolsey's own ambition and Henry's desire to have a male heir is the power politics of the Hapsburgs and their Emperor Charles V who with his German possessions and Spanish Empire was ruling over the largest bit of real estate ever controlled by one man and Francis I, the Valois King of France. Those two jockeyed for power in Europe and Charles won. And Charles was the nephew of Catherine Of Aragon and he wasn't about to see his aunt get dumped just so Henry could have a son and get a little good nookie the pious old queen wasn't giving out any more. Charles also after the battle of Pavia where the French were decisively beaten was the de facto ruler of the Italian peninsula, including Rome and the Pope danced to whatever tune the Hapsburgs played.
So Wolsey kept trying to cut deals for Henry's annulment and to advance himself and in the end got neither. And he lived high on the hog himself as Renaissance cardinals tended to do.
As the real central character of this play, Timothy West does a fine job as Wolsey. It's a complex character that West takes on and masters. Wolsey is a man of many parts, a statesman, a politician, a priest and a bit of a rake himself. He sent a few people to their deaths in the political power plays of the time, but he wasn't a man consumed with settling scores. He was just a guy who took on too many jobs and couldn't reconcile his various roles. In the end that's what his downfall was all about.
This was the last of Shakespeare's historical works and it ends with the baptism of the woman who would be Will Shakespeare's number one patroness, the Princess Elizabeth. All though the play hewed more close than most of his other works to the Tudor historical interpretation, still it's an entertaining piece, driven by Timothy West's Cardinal Wolsey.
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