Collaborating with Shakespeare and Fletcher on Henry VIII
Our 2022 Writer-in-Residence Hannah Khalil shares her approach to working with two Elizabethan playwrights on a 400 year old story
When I was asked to collaborate with Shakespeare and John Fletcher on a new version of their 1613 play, Henry VIII, I was a bit unsure at first.
Not to say those chaps have a bad reputation for being divas or difficult to work with, more in that it’s hard to communicate with people who are dead. But when I reread the play (which I haven’t looked at for a decade or more) I was struck by how masterful some of the writing is. And how much it feels like a ‘greatest hits’ of the Bard’s plays in a way: Katharine of Aragon’s speeches are full of power like Hermione (in The Winter’s Tale) but with a righteous indignant fire, while Wolsey’s language at times recalls Iago (Othello) at others Lear or Gloucester (King Lear). And there’s a beautiful scene between Anne Bullen (Boleyn) and her lady which makes me think of Juliet and her Nurse (in Romeo and Juliet).
In short I fell in love with the play and marvelled that although this story is one that most familiar with English history will recognise – Henry VIII divorcing Katharine in favour of Anne to try and secure a male heir for the throne of England – here it is told in a way that is surprising and refreshing compared to modern considerations of this story. For a start (and most strikingly to my mind) Anne is portrayed as a young woman without guile. She is not a gold-digger who is conniving, instead she is at the mercy of the patriarchal world in which she lives and tries to make the best of it. Furthermore there’s a clear absence of blame within the play, it’s very even handed in its portrayal of all the characters and their actions.
My brief from the team at the Globe was to sculpt the play into an exploration of the female experience in this world. This felt possible and in keeping with the original as Katharine is absolutely the anchor and the heart of the play. And with the non-judgemental portrayal of Anne there was scope and room to grow her character in an organic feminist way. I was immediately aware however of the absence of Mary I (AKA Bloody Mary) – Henry’s daughter with Katharine who is referenced once in the original play. This seems very strange as the whole drive of Henry’s character is to provide an heir to the throne… but he already has one – albeit a female one. Then the play ends with the Christening of Elizabeth I, which is exalted as the moment of change and security. This disconnect in the storytelling must surely be because of how recent this historical story was to Shakespeare and Fletcher, having happened only 100 years previously. So I decided that I could take the initiative, with the privilege of 400 years distance, to insert Mary into the play as a watcher and commentator on the action.
Therefore, my collaboration was very much taking threads that existed already within the play and stitching more rich seams, while pruning other sections that felt less relevant to this reimagining. The question was how to compose more words, more language, for the characters. My mum asked me if I was going to write new text and dialogue in iambic pentameter, I replied “no way! I’m not in the business of writing fakespeare!” So instead I have mined the treasure trove of 37 plays and 154 sonnets to source snippets of text and put those in the mouths of the characters in order to deepen the exploration of their experiences and tell the story that feels most relevant to now.
Writer Hannah Khalil deepens the exploration of women’s experiences and stories within the play, focusing on (from left-right) Katharine of Aragon, Mary Tudor, and Anne Bullen. Portraits via Wikimedia Commons
The other fascinating thing about this play is that it has almost 100 stage directions which is unheard of in Shakespeare. So I’ve taken my lead from him and Fletcher, and it’s in the stage directions that I have imagined theatrical moments to create resonance and understanding. For example, I have constructed a new speech for Anne about motherhood, during which we watch her grow large with child and then give birth. This happens as she speaks about her commitment to becoming a mother and the potential that her child may do things in the world that she may not have had the opportunity to do, which will hopefully feel like an electric theatrical moment.
These are just some of the ways that I’ve avoided engaging the help of a clairvoyant to become Shakespeare and Fletcher’s third collaborator, and remake Henry VIII into something that can remain true to the original, while at the same time address themes relevant to today – by deepening the exploration of the women’s experiences and stories within the play.
Writer Hannah Khalil joins Mira Kafantaris, Assistant Professor of English at Butler University, to discuss race and social justice in Henry VIII as part of our series of free online Anti-Racist Shakespeare webinars, on 31 May 2022, 6.00pm. This series is generously sponsored by Cambridge University Press.