The Play’s The Thing: Anne Boleyn

Welcome to my first edition of The Play’s The Thing.  It’s where I’m going to give my thoughts on plays that I’ve read or seen.  So I figured why not start with Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton?

Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton


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Why I Decided To Read It: I honestly don’t remember when or how I discovered my love of Tudor history- specifically Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I- but I have been enamored of it for a while.  The discovery might have occurred while reading a young reader’s historical fiction in elementary or middle school or during a history class, but I just don’t remember.  Regardless of how it started, my love of the time period has been fairly consistent throughout my life.  I took a Tudor and Stewart England class my senior year of college and my final paper was on Anne Boleyn.  A few years ago, Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn, did a talk at my college.  I was there with bells on and it was extremely fascinating.  Most of the talk and the book itself is about how different cultures and eras view Anne Boleyn.  Unfortunately, I did not have the money to buy the book at the time, but I recently bought it on Audible.  (I highly recommend it, by the way.)  Because the book deals with different media representations of Anne Boleyn, this play was discussed.  I had never heard about it before, so I decided to read it.

Summary:  After moving to England to ascend its throne in 1603, King James I is shown a trunk owned by the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth.  What he finds in it sheds light on the personality and religious ideals of Anne Boleyn- the late queen’s mother.  Suddenly, the court of Henry VIII comes alive to tell the story of how an intelligent and persistent young woman, a love affair with a king, and two dangerous small books changed religion in England.  Facing a religious crisis of his own, James I becomes entranced by Anne’s dark, dramatic story and hopes to find a less deadly ending for himself.

Thoughts and Analysis:  There are a few things I wish to discuss about this play.  First of all, it is a very interesting angle to look at Anne Boleyn.  Media rarely looks at her through a religious lens.  Most media gets the whole “Henry VIII left the Catholic church to marry Anne Boleyn”, but most don’t look at her personal religious views in detail.  The only one that I can think of at the moment is Wolf Hall, but that focuses more on Cromwell.  Howard Brenton really emphasizes how radical her views were for the time, which is important to understand her. This was a time were having an English-translated Bible like Anne had was a huge deal and could possibly lead to torture or death.  She is willing to put herself in danger for her religion.

Because the play mainly focuses on how religion shaped the court, it isn’t a very large cast, which is refreshing.  I saw the first part of Wolf Hall on Broadway and it was initially confusing to keep track of all the characters although I have a basic understanding of the time period.  I had much less of a problem in this play. Also, if I hadn’t known that it was written for the Globe, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it was.  It shares similarities with Shakespeare’s histories in terms of structure and staging.  In addition to the relatively small cast, the necessary set pieces are pretty slim.  Instead of covering the monarch’s entire life, it focuses on one central theme. 

Another interesting way this discusses religion is framing Anne’s story through James I discovering her Bible.  James interacting with her story adds the extra dimension in showing that the religion issues in England haven’t been solved almost 70 years after her death (and ultimately wouldn’t be for a long time after James’s death).  James has to struggle with the Anglican church and the Puritans to find a sort of common ground to create religious unity in England.  They discover their problems stem from how they interpret the Bible.  Their disagreements ultimately leads to the creation of the King James Bible, which still doesn’t solve all problems.  By including James’s story, the major theme of the play becomes how people use their religion to justify their own actions.

Speaking of James I, at first he can come across a little much, but when you look at the historical record (he loved his favorites, was smart but pretty vulgar in his language, literally wrote the book on witches, would mark himself and his fellow hunters with deer’s blood after killing a deer, and so much more) this interpretation is fair.

I only have a few critiques on the play.  First of all, I wish we saw at least one more scene of Anne Boleyn’s changing relationship with Thomas Cromwell.  Their ending animosity comes a little fast.  My other critique is that the introduction of the Anglicans and Puritans could have come a little sooner or their scenes could have been more spread out.  They come in fairly late and it takes a long detour away from Henry VIII’s court.  However, I can see the argument of why they come in when they do.

If I’m being honest here, I actually read this play twice: once before the US presidential election was over and again after it was over.  I doubt that this was intentional, but Brenton has written something very prevalent to US politics.  Like mentioned previously, this play hinges on how we as people use our religion to justify our actions, especially how we “prove” are points are correct by interpreting scripture or doctrine in a way that benefits us.  We see this a lot in US politics today, especially with how many conservatives use their religion to support their views that many things are “wrong” (gay marriage, abortion, transgender people using the bathroom of the gender of which they identify, etc.).  Scenes like when the Anglicans and the Puritans debate how scripture should be translated stood out in my mind because of this.  The other way this play reminds me of US politics, especially of the 2016 Presidential election, is how Anne Boleyn- and by extension all women in power- is treated by the other characters.  Because Anne Boleyn is a woman trying to give her input on political issues, she is treated with disdain and mistrust by the patriarchal society that surrounds her.  Late in the play, Cromwell tells Jane Seymour- Henry VIII’s new mistress and his eventual third wife- not discuss politics with the king; she is just to be a pretty body that will hopefully give him a son.  I couldn’t help but think of how Hillary Clinton and other women in politics are treated in this day and age.  There are people out in the country that don’t like Hillary because she wants to be in politics; they don’t think it is a woman’s sphere.  Even though this play is a fictional account, many historians believe that Anne Boleyn trying to be an active participant in her country’s politics is what led to her downfall.  It deeply saddens me that this is still an issue 500 years later.

Favorite Character: While there are many great characters in this play- including how surprisingly hilarious Robert Cecil is- the true star is the title character.  Anne Boleyn is witty, smart, seductive, and stubborn.  She’s also very religious and has very specific opinions about her religion.  She’s flawed, but that’s what great about her and makes her interesting.  Theatre needs more female characters like this Anne Boleyn.

Should You Read This?: Yes! This play feels pretty prevalent for America right now, especially how we use religion to defend our actions and how we treat women in power.  This play is also interesting to read if you have any interest in the Tudor/Stewart time periods, women in power, and religion. 

Final Thoughts: While this play has some flaws, it is overall an interesting and different look into the life and death of Anne Boleyn.