Neil Rathmell – writer

100+ essays on literary topics

The five acts and four intervals of Henry VIII

Shakespeare’s last play was not The Tempest, but Henry VIII, which was written some two years later. It is easy to read The Tempest as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage (“Now my charms are all o’erthrown”) but Henry VIII made a much more dramatic farewell when, on its second or third performance, a canon that was fired in the coronation scene set fire to the thatched roof and burnt the theatre down.

Perhaps this gave rise to one of those theatrical superstitions to which the profession has always been susceptible, or perhaps it fell out of favour for other reasons, but Henry VIII is now one of Shakespeare’s most rarely performed and least studied plays, which is a shame, because it has a lot to teach us about Shakespeare’s methods as a dramatist.

It taught me, when I read it recently for the first time, that the five act structure of Shakespeare’s plays is more than mere convention. Shakespeare might have ignored the classical unities of time and place, but he substituted for them his own homegrown unities of five acts and four intervals.

Modern directors take a sadistic pleasure in making audiences endure plays of brain and bottom numbing length. Modern audiences, anxious to prove their aesthetic credentials, are not only willing to forego an interval, but also whole days of their lives, as if Shakespeare was Wagner and the History Plays were the Ring Cycle.

Shakespeare himself grew up in the days of the Corpus Christi plays, the medieval Mystery Plays as we now call them, in which the whole bible story, from the creation to the crucifixion, was acted out in one day. Not, however, as a single, uninterrupted performance and not in a theatre, but as forty or fifty short scenes performed by amateur actors on carts in the streets of the town. You could watch as few or as many scenes as you wanted, just the comic ones or the ones your friends were in, standing or leaning for a quarter of an hour at a time, not sitting in rows on seats that get harder with every scene that passes.

I like to think that Shakespeare himself might have acted the Prologue in Henry VIII. After the applause which would no doubt have greeted his appearance had died down, he would pause before saying his first line: “I come no more to make you laugh.” Another pause would have been enough to get the laugh which is surely intended.

He goes on to mention the differing expectations that members of the audience might have.

“Those that can pity, here
May, if they think it well, let fall a tear…”

Alternatively “Such as give
Their money out of hope they may believe,
May here find truth too.”

While others, who just want to pass the time, “if they be still and willing,
I’ll undertake may see away their shilling
Richly in two short hours…”

The only ones, he says, who will be disappointed, are those “That come to hear a merry, bawdy play.”

In conclusion, he tells everyone that, in the play they are about to watch, they will be shown how the mighty are brought low.

“And, if you can be merry then, I’ll say
A man may weep upon his wedding day.”

At which point, another pause will get another laugh.

Two short hours. Five acts, each lasting half an hour, with four short intervals, makes three hours, but the effect of the intervals is to make it feel like two.

So why split Shakespeare’s plays into two halves, instead of the five acts in which they were written?

To take another example, each act of Twelfth Night, surely the most perfectly constructed of his comedies, ends with an exit line that leaves the stage empty.

Act 1
OLIVIA
“I do I know not what; and fear to find
Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.
Fate show thy force: ourselves we do not owe;
What is decreed must be, – and be this so!” [Exit.

Act II
MARIA
If you will see it, follow me.
SIR TOBY BELCH
To the gates of Tartar, thou most excellent devil of wit!
SIR ANDREW AGUECHEEK
I’ll make one too. [Exeunt.

Act III
FABIAN
Come, let’s see the event.
SIR TOBY BELCH
I dare lay any money ’twill be nothing yet. [Exeunt

Act IV
SEBASTIAN
I’ll follow this good man, and go with you;
And, having sworn truth, ever will be true.
OLIVIA
Then lead the way, good father; and heavens so shine,
That they may fairly note this act of mine! [Exeunt

The effect of each exit line is to leave the audience wanting to know what happens next. It makes good theatrical sense to keep them waiting.

Each act of Henry VIII has its own focus. In Act I it is the fall of Buckingham, in Act II the fall of Queen Katharine, in Act III the fall of Wolsey, in Act IV Katharine after her divorce, in Act V Cranmer and his prophecy of a happy England under a future Queen Elizabeth. Each act has it own distinctive ending.

Act I ends with a striking invitation from the King to join the ladies in a dance.
KING HENRY Let the music knock it. [Exeunt with trumpets.

Act II ends with the King clearing the stage.
KING HENRY Break up the court: I say, set on. [Exeunt in manner as they entered

Act III ends with a prayer.
CARDINAL WOLSEY …my hopes in heaven do dwell. [Exeunt

Act IV ends with Katharine’s departure.
KATHARINE I can no more. [Exeunt

Each interval gives the audience time to reflect on the person who has, until then, taken centre stage. What follows is a change of mood and focus, in effect a new beginning.

Act II begins with two anonymous gentlemen whose conversation sets the scene and brings the audience up to speed, a theatrical device often used by Shakespeare and other dramatists of the time. Act III begins with a sad song that sets the scene for Queen Katharine as the focus of this act. Act IV begins with the gentlemen again, except that this time the over-used theatrical device is, with straight faces, played for laughs.

FIRST GENTLEMAN Y’are well met once again.
SECOND GENTLEMAN So are you.
FIRST GENTLEMAN You come to take your stand here, and behold
The Lady Anne pass from her coronation?
SECOND GENTLEMAN ‘Tis all my business.

And so on until they are joined by a third, who was present at the coronation.

SECOND GENTLEMAN You saw the ceremony?
THIRD GENTLEMAN That I did.
FIRST GENTLEMAN How was it?
THIRD GENTLEMAN Well worth the seeing.
SECOND GENTLEMAN Good sir, speak it to us.

And so on, with mock seriousness, until they make their exit.

THIRD GENTLEMAN As I walk thither, I’ll tell ye more.
BOTH You may command us, sir. [Exeunt

Henry VIII was included in the First Folio and accepted as being by Shakespeare until, in the late nineteenth century, it began to be fashionable for scholars to dispute his authorship, either wholly or in part. The play has come to be seen by most but not all scholars, as a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher. Not being a scholar, I feel free to state my opinion that, whether Fletcher had a hand in it or not, Henry VIII (or All Is True, which seems to have been its alternative title) sheds light on many aspects of Shakespeare’s stagecraft, his entrances, his exits and, not least, his sympathy for an audience whose attention span was no longer than mine.

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This entry was posted on July 31, 2020 by in drama, Literature and tagged , , .

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