In 2010 the Folger Theater presented Henry VIII, one of those plays by Shakespeare too rarely seen on the stage. Some scholars have even argued that John Fletcher wrote much of the play, with Shakespeare contributing only the punchier parts. Theater folks, who can be a superstitious lot (hence the practice of only referring to Macbeth as “the Scottish play”), are wary of it. Reportedly, a cannon fired as a special effect in one of the original productions of the play started a fire that burned the Globe Theater to the ground.The Folger production was wonderful, and no unseemly pyrotechnics ruined the performance. One speech stuck out above all others—so much so that the day after seeing the play I edited it down a bit, Xeroxed it, and distributed to some of my students with whom I’d had an idle chat about how Shakespeare had never really spoken to them.The moment comes at the end of Act III, when Henry VIII’s puissant minister, Cardinal Wolsey—a commoner by birth, cunning, opulent, self-indulgent, pragmatic, and a loyal servant of the king—learns that Henry has decided to strip him of his titles and possessions. He addresses his remarks to his own loyal servant, Thomas Cromwell, who will in turn rise in the king’s favor—a tale recently and brilliantly retold by Hilary Mantel in her trilogy of historical novels beginning with Wolf Hall.
Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness!This is the state of man: to-day he puts forthThe tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surelyHis greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,This many summers in a sea of glory,But far beyond my depth: my high-blown prideAt length broke under me and now has left me,Weary and old with service, to the mercyOf a rude stream, that must for ever hide me.Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye:I feel my heart new open’d. O, how wretchedIs that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,More pangs and fears than wars or women have:And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,Never to hope again.….here take an inventory of all I have,To the last penny; ’tis the king’s: my robe,And my integrity to heaven, is allI dare now call mine own. O Cromwell, Cromwell!Had I but served my God with half the zealI served my king, he would not in mine ageHave left me naked to mine enemies.
“That’s Washington for you,” I told the students. Actually, Wolsey has something over a lot of contemporary politicians. Like many of Shakespeare’s greatest figures (think Richard II, for example), in the final calamity of his life he has learned something profound about himself. Admittedly, he has become wise too late, but then again, you can go through a great deal of wretchedness in politics without learning anything at all.Wolsey’s words describe a complete Washington career. His are better than the usual metaphors of climbing the rungs of a ladder or shimmying up a slippery pole. The “tender leaves of hopes” followed by the “blossoms” and then being covered with thick heaps of “blushing honours” captures the springtime giddiness of a sudden ascent. The Wolseys of this world don’t climb step by step: they aspire, they flourish and flower, they spring into magnificence in some cases, not realizing, or perhaps not accepting, that blighting frosts come suddenly. They see the fruits of their greatness ripening, and, eyes fixed on those lovely things, do not notice the withering of the subterranean roots until it is too late.More poignant is his second metaphor: the boys gamboling about in the water on floats, not realizing that their sea of glory is, in fact, a deep and turbulent river in which they can drown, and that the swelling pride that keeps them buoyant can be pricked and deflated in a moment. And at that moment, it is not merely drowning, but rather an irreparable fall from grace, “like Lucifer, never to hope again.” Wolsey is left only with regret, and his compromised “integrity to heaven.”The irony of this is that Thomas Cromwell, to whom these parting words are addressed, will come to an even worse end. He will serve the king no less faithfully, and die on the scaffold—something of which Shakespeare’s audience would have been acutely aware. Some truths, unfortunately, are rarely learned from watching others. The Cromwells of this world may convince themselves that their blossoms will not delude them, or that the frosts won’t reach their roots, or that their floatation devices are made of durable stuff. But in the end, it is the same.It was refreshing the other week to see Congressman Paul Ryan thrust into the Speakership of the House of Representatives, a powerful position that he did not desire. He is a very un-Wolsey like figure, and he is highly unlikely to have occasion to make a Wolsey-like speech, but then again, in many respects he is unusual. Most aspiring politicians and officials—even some of my students, perhaps—think of the Potomac as a sea of glory. Those of us who have hiked the trails around it and observed it from the shore, however, know that below the surface its currents are treacherously swift, and that people really do drown in it.By the way, after discussing Wolsey’s speech, the students asked if we could begin reading Shakespeare together—and so we have, five years and going strong.