Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Katherine, Queen of England, come into the court!

During our recent reading of King Henry VIII, our president, Frances Dharmalingham, read the part of Queen Katherine with great sensitivity. She reports here on her experience and her "take" on the character of Katherine.

Knowing that it is a sought-after role, I was glad to be asked to take the part of Queen Katherine in the club's recent reading of King Henry VIII. Katherine appears in only four scenes of a long and complicated play, but still emerges as a fully rounded character, with strengths and frailties, and convincing indications of her background. Mulling over these qualities, I wondered how far they chimed with the historical person, so I referred to Antonia Fraser's thoroughly researched biography in her book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. From this it was clear that the dramatic portrayal is remarkably faithful to the original.

Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of two royal personages, each a ruler in his or her own right. Ferdinand of Aragon had married Isabella, queen of Castile, and they reigned jointly, so inevitably Katherine from her earliest years was conscious of her heritage as a princess of a noble family. In the play there are frequent indications of this sense of the dignity of her position. Her upbringing was carefully supervised by her mother, who insisted on a broad education for all her children — academic, religious and (for the girls) domestic. Hence, Katherine was a competent linguist, who spoke Latin and French fluently, and after her marriage she learnt very good English. She could debate rationally with interlocutors of any standing, unintimidated by the trappings of power (as in her discussions with the great cardinals of the church). Although she was a devout Christian, she did not confuse religious dogma with the men who represented it; as she says in the play: ‘All hoods make not monks.’

Her beliefs required acts of charity for which she was much loved by the common people, who remembered particularly her donations on Maundy Thursday each year. We see in the play her concern also for her own attendants, when, for the second time in her life, she found herself husband-less and therefore poverty-stricken, unable to provide for her faithful women and servants. (The first such experience occurred in the seven years between the death of Prince Arthur and her eventual marriage to Henry.) Katherine was a skilled needlewoman and throughout her marriage sewed and embroidered Henry's fine linen shirts. Act III opens with a glimpse of Katherine and her women ‘at work’ sewing.

Her first appearance in the play reveals her strength, independence and awareness of the responsibilities of government. She is confident in her position as a loved wife and respected consort, daring to interrupt proceedings in the king's council chamber, to warn her husband of the common people's growing disaffection, thanks to the oppressive tax imposed by Wolsey. She is not afraid to imply some sympathy with Buckingham, despite the king's displeasure, and examines claims clear-eyed, without taking them on trust, as when she points out that Buckingham's surveyor had been dismissed from his post and therefore likely bore Buckingham a grudge.

In Act II, at her second appearance, Katherine's situation has changed and she is obliged to undergo the indignity of a trial, to determine grounds for a divorce. Given her upbringing, it is easy to believe that the idea of divorce is inconceivable to her, and she cannot agree to it, short of a direct order from the Pope. As well, she would no longer be queen if no longer married to Henry, but how can one who has been anointed in the eyes of God be ‘unqueened’, to use her own word? This scene contains the well-known appeal in which Katherine, dignified and articulate, puts her case before the king. It is an orderly and rational argument, presented without self-pity. Relevant points include the length of their marriage and her fidelity and loving devotion, and the fact that as a foreigner she is unlikely to find unprejudiced counsel. She refers also to their many children (although, sadly, only their daughter Mary had survived.) Her final point is a reminder that all due care had been taken prior to their wedding to ensure that it was legal.

As the scene continues, we have glimpses of anger, and she controls her temper with some difficulty as she makes perfectly clear her mistrust of Wolsey, the great prince of the church. ‘You are mine enemy, and (I) make my challenge / You shall not be my judge.’ This follows from ‘I am about to weep, but thinking that / We are a queen / (or long have dream'd so) certain / The daughter of a king, my drops of tears / I'll turn to sparks of fire.’

Several other short outbursts of temper, in all but the last scene, indicate Katherine's mettle, and prevent her from seeming implausibly good. She is basically so honest that she cannot lie, or sugar-coat her opinions, even when speaking of the dead. Her summary of Wolsey's character, on hearing of his death, is coolly exact and thoroughly unflattering, but immediately afterwards she is ready to allow Griffith to enumerate Wolsey's virtues.

Despite her reversals of fortune, she keeps up her courage to the end. She addresses one last letter to the king, seeking appropriate care for their daughter Mary, and for her attendants. The wording of this speech very closely echoes her actual last appeal to her ex-husband. Aware of her own impending death, she wishes to be buried ‘although unqueen'd, yet like a queen, and daughter of a king.’

I hope this is enough to indicate the rich depth of Katherine's character. For me, she emerges from the play convincing and thoroughly human, and someone with whom I can sympathise for her defenceless plight, while admiring her undaunted spirit.

The portrait of the young Katherine of Aragon, by Michel Sittow, is by courtesy of Wikimedia. This is a contemporary painting of the princess, created about the time she arrived in England. It can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.