I was initially surprised Shakespeare wrote this play; I would’ve thought this a dangerous subject, especially since it was practically current history, Elizabeth having been dead only about 10 years after it was penned. After reading it, there is definitely a noticeable conservative element to the writing. The main focus on the play is pageantry, leading up to the birth and christening of Elizabeth. Most of the action takes place off stage. Instead, we’re offered a summation of the events by side characters who recount what has happened. If you’re expecting drama, sex and intrigue, as in The Tudors
series, don’t look for it here.
There is a sort of villain in the form of Cardinal Wolsey, but when his villainy gets exposed, he merely gets a smack on the wrist for his grand machinations. It’s rather disappointing. The same goes for the portrayal of Queen Katherine, who’s initially portrayed as a strong woman, readily suspecting Wolsey’s schemes, and actively seeks ways to trip him up. Yet, this image is completely reversed at the end of the play, which depicts a woman completely defeated, seeking solace in death. It’s actually kind of funny how both of these characters—Wolsey and Katherine—regress at the end, both in essence being reduced to tears as they reflect upon all that has passed.
The ironic element of this play is the fact that our main character, Henry VIII, doesn’t really have that much to say. He’s mostly used as a tool that gets us to the conclusion. The play essentially is a vehicle to describe Elizabeth’s birth, prophesying how this infant will one day become a queen for the ages.