A dual ethic of love and living


Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (1536)

In the classroom, I frequently invoke what the ancient Roman poet Horace said in Ars Poetica because he succinctly defines the telos of all literature, “Poets wish either to profit or to delight; or to deliver at once both the pleasures and the necessaries of life.” Since completing William Shakespeare’s historical play King Henry VIII (1623), I discern that its overriding profit for me relates to a dual ethic of love and living.

First, let me address the ethic of love. Above all else, King Henry VIII is remembered for his six wives – a testimony to failed love. Shakespeare only treats the first two wives, a limited scope that makes sense because the transition from Katherine of Aragon to Anne Boleyn issues gifts that are cherished by the playwright’s 16th century audience: a child (Elizabeth I), who “promises / Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings” (5.4.18-19), as Archbishop Cranmer prophesies at the christening, and the Protestant Reformation. Against expectations, Anne is a marginal character next to Katherine, who earns our sympathies when the king takes off the jewel that “has hung twenty years / About his neck, yet never lost her lustre” (2.2.3-31). The divorce between Henry and Katherine, which owes to the dubious pricks of the King’s conscience, yields this profit: when a man courts a woman, he should begin with the gravitas of marriage vows and then work backward because a romantic relationship, especially in its early stages, is marked by flippancy and fantasy. The Anglican tradition uses a marriage vow from the Book of Common Prayer; these words offer a needful weight to the couple as they are “falling in love.” If Henry had heeded these words, the course of English history would be dramatically altered.

The Man, facing the woman and taking her right hand in his, says

In the Name of God, I, [name], take you, [name], to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

Then they loose their hands, and the Woman, still facing the man, takes his right hand in hers, and says

In the Name of God, I, [name], take you, [name], to be my husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

They loose their hands. The Priest may ask God’s blessing on a ring or rings as follows

Bless, O Lord, this ring to be a sign of the vows by which this man and this woman have bound themselves to each other; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The giver places the ring on the ring-finger of the other’s hand and says

[Name], I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (or in the Name of God).

Then the Celebrant joins the right hands of husband and wife and says

Now that [name] and [name] have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of a ring, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.

Second, let me address the ethic of living. Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber notes:

The events of the play span a series of “falls” of persons of high estate: in act 1 the fall of the Duke of Buckingham, whose servants have been suborned by his enemy, Cardinal Wolsey; in act 2 the fall of Queen Katherine, who has failed to provide the King with a male heir, and whose twenty-year marriage to Henry is now put aside in favor of a new marriage, to Anne Bullen; in act 3 the fall of Wolsey himself, a butcher’s son risen to high eminence, brought low by his acquisitiveness and financial dealings as well as his political connivance; and in act 5 the attempt – foiled by the King – to bring down Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. 

The fall of Wolsey, which owes to his “unbounded stomach, ever ranking / Himself with princes” (4.2.34-35), as Katherine castigates him upon hearing of his death, yields this profit: when a man pursues his ambition in life, he should begin with his own obituary and then work backward because posterity does not forgive a heart that is “crammed with arrogancy, spleen and pride” (2.4.107-108), even if much success was achievedWolsey writes his obituary too late, regretting that he courted honor instead of doing what is honorable. Stripped of his title and its privileges, he tells Thomas Cromwell, who he anticipates will be his successor, “The king has cured me, / I humbly thank his grace; and from these shoulders, / These ruined pillars, out of pity, taken / A load would sink a navy, too much honour. / Ó ’tis a burden, Cromwell, ’tis a burden / Too heavy for a man that hopes for heaven” (3.2.380-385). Wolsey continues using the nautical imagery, at last admitting that his ambition has shipwrecked him.

Let’s dry our eyes: and thus far hear me, Cromwell;
And, when I am forgotten, as I shall be,
And sleep in dull cold marble, where no mention
Of me more must be heard of, say, I taught thee,
Say, Wolsey, that once trod the ways of glory,
And sounded all the depths and shoals of honour,
Found thee a way, out of his wreck, to rise in;
A sure and safe one, though thy master miss’d it.
Mark but my fall, and that that ruin’d me.
Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition:
By that sin fell the angels; how can man, then,
The image of his Maker, hope to win by it?
Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee;
Corruption wins not more than honesty.
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace,
To silence envious tongues. Be just, and fear not:
Let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy country’s,
Thy God’s, and truth’s; then if thou fall’st, O Cromwell, 
Thou fall’st a blessed martyr! Serve the king;
And, – prithee, lead me in:
There take an inventory of all I have,
To the last penny; ’tis the king’s: my robe,
And my integrity to heaven, is all
I dare now call mine own. O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies. (3.2.431-457)

Putting this all together, here is the dual ethic in a nutshell: If a man can begin his romance with a marriage vow and his life with an obituary, then he can work backward with a much greater possibility of loving well and living well.


3 thoughts on “A dual ethic of love and living

  1. So, what exactly do mean to say when say that a man begin his romance with a marriage vow and his life with an obituary? It would be quite awkward for me to propose to a woman on our first date. Could you clarify what this dual ethic entails?

    • I’m happy to explain what I meant, although I thought it could be intuited or inferred. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that a man should propose to a woman on his first date, nor should he buy space in the newspaper for his obituary when he turns 18. That would be a literal understanding of my words. Shakespeare’s play encourages a thought experiment of sorts, where one begins not at the beginning but at the end. When a man courts a woman, he should begin at the end of the courtship when a couple exchanges marriage vows in a wedding ceremony. What profit is that? It may bring a needful seriousness to the romance, which might otherwise be marked by flippancy and fantasy (as in the case of King Henry). If a young man has the ambition to succeed, he should begin at the end of his career, as if an obituary were written about how he achieved his ambition. What profit is that? It may bring a focus on doing what is right rather than doing what is expedient or selfish (as in the case of Cardinal Wolsey). Much of this thought experiment is influenced by Kierkegaard’s famous quotation, “Life is lived forward but understood backward.” If that’s true, then for the sake of loving well and living well, man should fast-forward in his imagination, as much as possible, to live forward with wisdom and virtue.

      • Thank you for clarifying! I knew that you did not mean your words to be read literally. I just wanted to hear how one would live out this dual ethic – what it means for someone to live with the end in mind.

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