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Characters, Actors and Figurative Language

Early in Henry VIII, Anne Bullen, young and beautiful, considers the prospect of a prosperous future. In the same scene, Anne's companion, the old lady, sardonically remarks on her lost youth and unfulfilled aspirations for wealth and position at court. The contrast of these two characters is clear, but Shakespeare uses more than casting, makeup, costumes, or even the subject matter of their opening dialogue, to dramatize their differences and to enrich the actors' opportunities to perform. He gives each character different figures of speech to sharpen the contrast and heighten the tension between them.

Anne's youth and presumed innocence are reflected in the types of similes and metaphors she lyrically expresses. She piously speaks of prayer, God's will, truth and her maidenhood, of her words not “duly hallowed” and her wishes not “more worth than empty vanities.” Her apparent humility and simplicity are also reflected in the brevity of many of her lines. In fact, her first line in act 2 scene 3 — “Not for that neither.” — contains touches of alliteration and consonance within a four-word anapodoton, the intentional use of a sentence fragment. Anne uses this figure of speech seven times in this scene with the old lady.

Interestingly, however, after her first use of anapodoton, Anne speaks at moderate lengths about her sympathy for Queen Katherine who, having faithfully loved and served her husband for years, faces divorce. The old lady responds with short expressions of agreement, until Anne crosses a line into self-serving hypocrisy, by declaiming, “By my troth and maidenhead, / I would not be a queen.” The old lady scoffs, “Beshrew me, I would, / And venture maidenhead for ’t; and so would you, / For all this spice of your hypocrisy.” This is the turning point of the dialogue in which the old lady then speaks at moderate lengths to which Anne responses in brief phrases using several of her anapodotons. The old lady's speech becomes rich in another category of figurative language, forms of questions. For example:

Old Lady
You would not be a queen?
No, not for all the riches under heaven.
Old Lady
’Tis strange. A threepence bowed [bent coin] would hire me,
Old as I am, to queen it. But I pray you,
What think you of a duchess? Have you limbs
To bear that load of title?
No, in truth.

In fact, the question mark appears seven times in the old lady's speeches in this scene. And those questions represent three different types of figures of speech — hypophora, pysma and rhetorical question. The last is the best known, asking a question that requires no answer because it is obvious. Hypophora is the posing of a question that the speaker both asks and immediately answers. Pysma is the asking of two or more questions in succession. One of Shakespeare's most famous uses of hypophora and pysma were Falstaff's lines in Henry IV, Pt.1, “What is honor? A word. What is in that word ‘honor'? What is that ‘honor'? Air. A trim reckoning.” A few centuries later, the American Falstaff, Mark Twain, used those same figures of speech in his rant against the titans of the gilded age, “What is the chief end of man? To get rich. In what way? Dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must.” For some reason, these figures of speech are well-suited to the sardonic tone of the characters who use them, and therefore rich material for good actors to project their characters. Shakespeare, being both an actor and a playwright, knew this.

So when the Lord Chamberlain interrupts the ladies' conversation to tell Anne that the King is offering her the title of Marchioness of Pembroke with an annual forty pound income to support her new lifestyle, the old lady takes note. Soon after he leaves, she asks Anne, “How tastes it? Is it bitter? Forty pence, no.” And the old lady continues, turning Anne's use of anapodotons back on her in the form of pysma:

The Marchioness of Pembroke?
A thousand pounds a year for pure respect?
No other obligation?

Then in answer to the questions she had asked Anne before Chamberlain's entrance, “What think you of a duchess? Have you limbs / To bear that load of title?” The old lady answers herself:

By this time
I know your back will bear a duchess. Say,
Are you not stronger than you were?

Dialogues like these will forever appeal to gifted actors.


Not for that neither. Here’s the pang that pinches

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You bear a gentle mind, and heav’nly blessings

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Hal, if thou see me down in the battle

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