Of all the plays in the Shakespeare corpus, this one is the most immediately relevant to the contemporary politics of Shakespeare’s own day. The baby born in the last act is of course Elizabeth I, who was an occasional viewer of Shakespeare’s plays. What this does or does not imply about the terms of its composition and its potential political spin, of course, is itself quite intriguing.
First, of course, we must remember that this is an extremely late play. It’s often partly attributed to John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s sometime collaborator. More to the point, it also is generally thought to have been written in about 1612 or 1613 — which is, significantly, about a decade after Elizabeth’s death. Anything said about her could be taken with a grain of salt, so to speak; at the same time, if it was supposed to please anyone, it would have to please James I, the first of the Stuart line, which in some ways attempted to re-connect the varying strands of the Tudor royal house. The Stuarts, while willing to present themselves as Protestant, were not entirely convinced about that, and at the very least were more tolerant of Catholicism and beliefs and rituals of the Catholic tradition. In any case, at least the adulation of Elizabeth at the end of the play was not, at this point, mere pandering to the reigning monarch; it was, however, part of a program of general appreciation of her for who she had been, and (perhaps equally) the image she presented to the world.
However one approaches it, it really is not a narrowly framed propaganda piece. Yes, the final speech by Thomas Cranmer is perhaps a bit over the top, praising the transcendent and saintly virtues and powers of the newborn Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the play dives into the most difficult juncture in the whole reign of Henry VIII, namely the divorce (or annulment, depending on who’s telling the story) of Henry’s twenty-five year marriage to Katherine of Aragon, herself a brilliant, virtuous, pious, and capable woman — and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn (“Bullen” in the play). In the process, it presents a strikingly sympathetic portrait of Katherine herself, though she was a Catholic and hence officially not part of the winning faction. Her lines contain some of the finest music of the play, and her vision of the celestial paradise just prior to her death is shockingly intense and powerful as a validation not only of her own conviction, but of the legitimacy of those beliefs. It’s among the things people use in the argument that Shakespeare was himself a “closet” Catholic. At the same time, it does nothing to besmirch the memory of Anne Boleyn.
Equally intriguing is the portrait of Catherine’s chief adversary, Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is depicted as a conniving politician; those who have encountered Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” (especially in the 1966 version starring Paul Scofield) will remember him as the bloated spider in the middle of the web centered at Hampton Court in that play. Yet here he is presented as both sympathetic and unsympathetic: a dichotomy that is brought to a breathtaking conclusion in the collision of the two accounts of him at the end of Act IV: Katherine (his long-time enemy) presents her negative assessment, while Griffith responds with a more generous one; ultimately Katherine relents and agrees to honor the (now-dead) Wolsey.
These are the events of 1533-6. What the play does not discuss is equally fascinating. Some of it just has to do with where things went from here: Anne was subsequently found guilty of adultery (almost certainly falsely, but it was convenient for Henry to believe it) and so executed. Adultery in a queen is, or was, considered a species of high treason, since it imperils the legitimacy of the royal line, after all. Thomas Cranmer, who, during the reign of Henry’s son Edward V, composed the first English Book of Common Prayer, and established the liturgy that the Church of England and the Episcopal Church and Anglican Churches in the USA and around the world still use, was during the next reign — that of the Catholic Mary — burned at the stake on Broad Street in Oxford, just a few steps from the walls of Balliol College. A cross in the street still marks the spot. Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, barely escaped execution himself for treason (because Henry died the night before he was to be killed), while his son Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was not so lucky.
The play also does not directly address the issues of religious conflict at all. Perhaps Shakespeare was himself caught between his own opinions and the accepted public opinion; perhaps he realized that these issues were far from settled, and saying anything about them of any real substance would have been a dangerous course. Blood had been spilled abundantly in this area before his writing, and it would be spilled even more abundantly in the Puritan Revolution under Oliver Cromwell (a descendent of Thomas Cromwell of this play).
Just by way of historical fairness, it needs to be pointed out that none of the parties — Catholic or Protestant — came out of this upheaval unsullied. Both used execution as a way of enforcing religious policy, and it was really not until 1670 and the Restoration that some measure of practical religious peace was restored in England. Tolerance at any meaningful level was slower to come: it wasn’t until considerably later than that — sometime early in the nineteenth century — that Catholics were allowed basic civil rights in England. It is worth bearing in mind that Alexander Pope (1688-1744), a Catholic and one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, was not even able to attend university.