Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

The problem with pomp: what’s so hard about staging power?

  From Shakespeare’s Henry VIII to the present day: the monarchy is all about ritualised pageantry and staged legitimation

4 minute read

After attending a performance of Henry VIII in 1663, the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that ‘the shows and processions’ in Shakespeare’s play, co-written with John Fletcher, were the most memorable things about it. That might say more about styles of Restoration performance than the play itself, but many productions in the past have leant on visual splendour to propel the play’s political storyline.

An actor wearing a deep purple gown and ruff, covering a visible pregnancy bumps, beams as they walk through audience members applauding and waving purple flags in the Yard of the Globe Theatre.

Productions of Henry VIII have leant on visual splendour to propel the play’s political storyline. Photographer: Marc Brenner

Indeed, Henry VIII stages several scenes of ritualised pageantry: Buckingham’s procession to the scaffold, the opening of Queen Katharine’s trial, Anne’s coronation entry, and, last but not least, the christening of the infant Princess Elizabeth.

At the same time, the play’s insistence on the performance and show of power paradoxically exposes the problem of controlling how people will respond to it, or interpret its possible meanings.

‘Henry VIII stages several scenes of ritualised pageantry: Buckingham’s procession to the scaffold, the opening of Queen Katharine’s trial, Anne’s coronation entry, and the christening of the infant Princess Elizabeth’

The Globe Theatre at night, cast in a golden glow. A procession of characters make their way up an extended catwalk to the Globe stage, as audiences watch on.

Elizabeth I’s christening is an example of a staged scene of ritualised pageantry. Photographer: John Tramper

Take, for example, the crowd that gathers to watch the procession of Elizabeth’s baptism. Instead of a moment of stately anticipation, Shakespeare gives us a throng of independent-minded spectators, whom a frustrated porter wants to ‘knock … down by th’ dozens’.

In another scene, the not-yet-queen Anne says to a lord, ‘You cannot show me.’ Here ‘show’ means ‘put on display’, but it also hints at involuntary sexual exposure. Anne is warning the noble not to make any assumptions about how she will be ‘read’ by a gossipy court.

‘Power in Shakespeare’s history plays depends on legitimation more than legitimacy. Kingship was not always determined by heredity, and usurping rulers such as Henry IV had to justify their authority’

According to scholar Urszula Kizelbach, power in Shakespeare’s history plays depends on legitimation more than legitimacy. In other words, kingship was not always determined by heredity, and usurping rulers such as Henry IV had – to some extent – justify their authority.

The difficulty of staging legitimation is something that today’s royal family is certainly familiar with.

The recent trip of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, to Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, all former British colonies, is a case in point.

An actor wearing a vivid red cloak, embroidered with golden lions, sits down, distraught, holding a crown out in their outstretched hand, as another actor looks on concerned behind them.

Usurping rulers such as Henry IV had to justify their authority, depending on legitimation more than legitimacy. Photographer: Tristram Kenton

The royal progress was part of this year’s festivities commemorating Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. It was referred to as a ‘charm offensive’ in the UK national press, meant to showcase the monarchy’s relevance in the 21st century.

Instead, unfortunate photos of Will and Kate shaking hands with brown and black children through a chain-link fence, and waving to Jamaican troops from an open-top Land Rover merely stoked existing republican feeling among many locals and members of the Caribbean diaspora.

The media fallout from the tour was stunning and swift. The royal couple were roundly criticised for being out of touch with today’s anti-colonial sensibilities. And charges of ‘poor stagecraft’ is something Shakespeare would have understood, since Tudor and Stuart monarchs relied on theatrical displays to legitimise their own power.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge smile and reach their hands out through a chain link fence to crowds of children on the other side.

The recent royal tour to Jamaica is a modern case in point, with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge criticised for being out of touch with today’s anti-colonial sensibilities.

In the opening prologue of Henry VIII, audiences are told they are about to watch a ‘serious’ drama, and those coming for ‘a merry, bawdy play’ will surely be disappointed. (The Globe show plays with both expectations, although director Amy Hodge has chosen not to include the prologue in her production.)

The prologue essentially frames the action to come, telling theatregoers how the writers would like them to interpret the play – as a drama of state rather than comedy, historical truth instead of fiction. Call it a bit of advance PR.

But in fact Henry VIII contains a good deal of comedy as well as political drama; and it is a highly partial retelling of Henry’s story – a bias that our house dramatist Hannah Khalil has sought to redress in her version.

The disingenuous prologue is a good reminder that any attempt to manage people’s expectations must reckon with the fact that we are more than capable of coming to our own conclusions.

FINIS.


Henry VIII plays in our Globe Theatre until 21 October 2022 as part of our Summer 2022 season.

Learn more about Henry VIII on one of our pre-show Guided Tours.

Celebrate our 25th anniversary with a special gala performance of Henry VIII on 18 June 2022.