PROLOGUE To rank our chosen truth with such a show As fool and fight is, beside forfeiting Our own brains and the opinion that we bring, To make that only true we now intend, Will leave us never an understanding friend. (Prologue.18-22)
Before the play even kicks off, the Prologue gives us a spoiler alert: this play is all about truth. We're about to see historically accurate events, and we should think about the actors as real people, not characters. Sure, we can get behind that. But are we supposed to be entertained or just learn from the whole experience? Is there room for truth in a drama? If truth is so slippery in this play, what's up with all this focus on truth right off the bat?
BUCKINGHAM Yet I am richer than my base accusers, That never knew what truth meant. I now seal it, And with that blood will make 'em one day groan for 't. (2.1.124-126)
Right before he is executed, Buckingham gives us a little speech with a lot of bang. He doesn't hold back in telling us what's really going down, but we are left wondering which version of events is true: his or the Surveyor's.
LORD CHAMBERLAIN Heaven keep me from such counsel! 'Tis most true: These news are everywhere, every tongue speaks 'em, And every true heart weeps for 't. All that dare Look into these affairs see this main end, The French king's sister. Heaven will one day open The King's eyes, that so long have slept upon This bold bad man. (2.2.43-49)
The Lord Chamberlain's mama didn't raise a fool: he doesn't want to be tricked like the king has been by Wolsey. We're interested in the way he relates this to all men. It's not just that he doesn't want to be around liars; he says that no true heart wants to be surrounded by them, either. So, by association, he's calling all of Wolsey's buddies liars, just because they hang out with the guy.
KATHERINE My lords, I care not, so much I am happy Above a number, if my actions Were tried by ev'ry tongue, ev'ry eye saw 'em, Envy and base opinion set against 'em, I know my life so even. If your business Seek me out, and that way I am wife in, Out with it boldly. Truth loves open dealing. (3.1.38-44)
Katherine says this to Wolsey and Campeius after her trial as a way of challenging them. She is truthful, and they are not—plain and simple. But, since she doesn't have the political power that they do, she challenges them to bring their accusations against her out in the open. It's harder to lie out in the open, so she hopes they will be found out in public.
KING Have I not made you The prime man of the state? I pray you tell me If what I now pronounce you have found true: And, if you may confess it, say withal If you are bound to us or no. What say you? (3.2.206-210)
We're not sure if Henry realizes it, but this pretty much sums up a major theme of the whole play: he's after truth, and so are we. It's fitting that he is questioning what is true here, because that's the position pretty much everyone—including us—is in throughout the play. No one tells us for certain whether or not accusations are true, so we're left to question. But hey, we're not in bad company if the king is doing that, too.
WOLSEY So much fairer And spotless shall mine innocence arise When the king knows my truth. (3.2.363-365)
After Wolsey is confronted and asked to give up his seal, he doesn't take it lightly. Instead, he tells Norfolk and Surrey to watch it. What we're really interested in is that little word my in front of truth. Wolsey hints at the fact that truth is subjective: it's always open to interpretation in this play.
WOLSEY To be thy lord and master. Seek the King; That sun, I pray, may never set! I have told him What and how true thou art. He will advance thee; Some little memory of me will stir him— I know his noble nature—not to let Thy hopeful service perish too. Good Cromwell, Neglect him not. Make use now, and provide For thine own future safety. (3.2.493-500)
Here, Wolsey warns Cromwell how to behave with the king. He pays Cromwell a compliment by labeling him as "true" or truthful. That's a rare thing in this play, where everyone is scrambling for the king's affection.
KATHERINE I dare avow— And now I should not lie—but will deserve, For virtue and true beauty of the soul, For honesty and decent carriage, A right good husband, let him be a noble; And sure those men are happy that shall have 'em. (4.2.163-168)
Let's face it: anyone who starts talking about her own eulogy knows she doesn't have long left. Katherine isn't interested in flattery; she just wants to be remembered according to how she lived. In her death, truth is very important to Katherine. Perhaps that's because she's been bad-mouthed all over town and wants to set the record straight. Whatever the reason, Katherine's wishes for her life show us the importance of truth.
CRANMER Most dread liege, The good I stand on is my truth and honesty. If they shall fail, I with mine enemies Will triumph o'er my person, which I weigh not, Being of those virtues vacant. I fear nothing What can be said against me. (5.1.150-155)
Confident he won't be found guilty, Cranmer holds fast to the truth. It's curious that he's so confident in the truth when it's nowhere to be found in his trial. Indeed, the councilors seem more interested in locking him up and throwing away the key than in finding the real truth behind the accusations.
CRANMER All princely graces That mold up such a mighty piece as this is, With all the virtues that attend the good, Shall still be doubled on her. Truth shall nurse her; Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her. (5.4.32-36)
In a play that's so fascinated with truth, Cranmer's predictions for baby Elizabeth are spot on. The fact that truth will be with Princess Elizabeth is refreshing after the manipulation and cover-ups we've just seen. It also makes the baby's reign seem special and unique, since truth is a commodity that's hard to come by in Henry VIII.