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S H A K E S P E A R E ’ S H E N R Y V i l i A N D T H E T H E M E O F C O N S C I E N C E ALAN R. YOUNG Acadia University kjhakespeare’s Henry V III has been criticized for its lack of structural co­ herence; for its inconsistent presentation of characters; for its lack of sus­ tained thematic unity; and for its linguistic deficiencies. Various theories, among them that Shakespeare wrote the play in collaboration with John Fletcher, have been argued in explanation (if not always in defence) of these supposed inadequacies. It has been suggested, for example, that the play’s structure is epic rather than tragic and that the presentation of char­ acters is consistent once that structure is understood.1 It has also been sug­ gested that readers and actors have in the past mistakenly substituted pop­ ular misconceptions about the historical Henry vm for the character presented in the play,2 and that, appearances to the contrary, the play is built around certain unifying themes, identified by R. A. Foakes as those of justice and injustice, and of patience in adversity.3 However, it has always seemed curious to me that the very obvious central theme of conscience has never been examined in any great detail. Paul Ber­ tram offers the nearest approach to such an analysis (see note 2), but his article is principally concerned with analysing the character of Henry vm and the political relationships of other characters to him. Although Bertram discusses conscience, the theme is not seen as the unifying concern of the play, nor is the topic discussed in relation to characters other than Henry. Jerome William Hogan also offers interesting comments on conscience in his discussion of the “Wild Sea” of conscience metaphor in the play, but, like Bertram, he does not explore the full significance of conscience in the play as a whole.4 Critics have in fact tended to deny either explicitly or im­ plicitly the importance of the theme,5 and none, so far as I am aware, has identified it as central. Historically the matter of conscience was the crucial issue that led to the annulment of Henry’s marriage with Katherine of Aragon, and it was this issue, in the popular mind at least, which was thus largely responsible for England’s Protestantism. Historically too, the issue dramatized a fundamen­ tal doctrinal difference dividing the Protestant and Roman points of view E n g l ish Studies in C anada, vii, i , Spring 1981 since it presented a classic example of conflict concerning the primacy or otherwise of the individual conscience as opposed to the authority of the Church and its priests. My intention here is to argue that, not only are these historic matters central in the play and would have been appreciated as such by Shakespeare’s audience, but the theme of conscience, once its centrality is recognized, informs our understanding of the play’s structure and character presentation. In the play the word “conscience” occurs more frequently than in any other Shakespeare play, and, although the frequency of the word is not necessarily to be taken as an indication of its functional significance, the twenty-four occurrences of the term (together with the five occasions when “scruple” appears) nonetheless cannot be ignored. At first glance the ques­ tion of conscience in Henry V III appears to be restricted to matters relating to the title-character, and it is with him that I will be concerned initially. However, as I will show, the theme is far more pervasive than this and pro­ vides a context for the examination of all the other major characters as well. Conscience is, of course, a theme that appears to have fascinated Shake­ speare throughout his career. It is of particular significance in Macbeth, Hamlet, and to some extent several other plays, most notably The Tempest, but the closest parallel to Henry VIII is the much earlier Richard III. In this play, as in Henry VIII, a series of characters undergo miniature dramas of conscience, often prior to their...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1913-4835
Print ISSN
0317-0802
Pages
pp. 38-53
Launched on MUSE
2019-04-03
Open Access
No
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