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Written by Yang (Jenny) Bai
The conflict between individual desire and family royalty
Throughout the story, Mary Boleyn undergoes an intense and protracted inner conflict between individual desire and family royalty. Mary is a simple-minded and unsophisticated ingénue. She is full of emotional spontaneity and sees the world through rose-colored spectacles. She is truthful, virtuous and emotionally unaffected. However, this innocent girl is thrown into the decadent and corrupt royal court. Court life completely crushes Mary’s emotional spontaneity and individuality. Mary is forced to surrender her untainted innocence and to live the life of a fawning courtier. Mary is compelled to betray her principles by spying on the queen，whom she loves and respects. She is forced to commit adultery under the duress of her family, even though she is deeply devoted to her husband. She is obliged to act in a sycophantic and courtier-like fashion in order to please the king, even though she is repelled by this mode of behaviour. She is forced to bury her suffering under the mask of a smiling courtier. Life at court is totally uncongenial to Mary’s simple and unaffected character. However, Mary is acutely conscious of her Boleyn identity. She takes pride in being a member of a noble house and is devoted to her family’s interests. She has been raised in the sophisticated French court and is well versed in court etiquette and aristocratic skills. She knows that a noblewoman must surrender her individual identity in the interests of family advantage. Mary allows herself to be treated like a pawn in her family’s power struggle. She dutifully beds the king, bears him children and watches her own domestic happiness crumbles in front of her eyes. However, Mary’s individuality still asserts strongly in her. After she falls out of favour with the king, she is determined to live the life she craves. She resolves to bid farewell to family ambitions and court intrigue. She marries her true love William Stafford, even though he is only a retainer and a man of low-birth. She leaves the decadent court and starts a family in the peaceful English countryside. After many years of self-denying sacrifice, Mary at last lives a life under the dictates of her personal desires. By following her own desires and instincts, Mary is able to achieve domestic happiness and spiritual tranquility.
The clash between feudal hierarchy and meritocracy
Queen Katherine believes in the hierarchical system of the feudal order. She believes that a woman must be contented in the estate to which God has allotted her, and should not seek to alter her position in life. However, Queen Katherine was extremely privileged in her birth because she was born as a royal princess. She has already achieved the highest social position on the virtue of her birth. Katherine already enjoys all the privileges imaginable; she therefore has no need in seeking to elevate her position. As a result, it is quite unjust that such a privileged woman should blame the less privileged Anne Boleyn for seeking to better her social position. Anne Boleyn is not as privileged as Katherine. Anne is only a low-ranking aristocrat. If she obeys the workings of the hierarchical system, she will have to marry a low-ranking aristocrat like herself. Her chances of marrying an illustrious aristocrat like Henry Percy are very slim; while her chances of marrying the king are virtually nonexistent. Anne knows that her chances in social advancement lay in her abilities to overturn the limitations of the feudal hierarchal system. Anne lives in the Renaissance, a period in which outdated feudal ideas are beginning to be replaced with new modern values. The idea of meritocracy is beginning to emerge. People like Secretary Cromwell, are able to climb the social ladder on the virtue of their abilities, despite their low birth. Anne fervently believes in the system of meritocracy. She is determined to use her irresistible beauty, fascinating charms and sharp intellect to win the king’s love and to elevate her social status. The struggle between Katherine and Anne is a struggle between the forces of feudal hierarchy and the modern notion of meritocracy. It is meritocracy that wins this fight, as the low-ranking aristocrat replaces the Spanish princess as the queen of England.
The dangers of absolute power
King Henry is a monarch who craves absolute power and resents anyone who seeks to curtail his power. Before Henry’s reformation, his royal power can be curtailed by the Pope. Henry may be the ruler in England, but he is still a prince of Christendom, and therefore a servant to the Pope. The Pope is the only earthly mortal who can effectively limit his power. The Pope can either sanction or disavow Henry’s marriage, and wields the power of excommunication as the punitive measure against any disobedient monarch. When his wife Katherine becomes unable to produce a male heir, Henry is in a desperate need to marry a fertile woman. However, the Pope refuses to annul Henry’s first marriage, leaving him trapped with an infertile wife. As far as his divorce is concerned, the absolute temporal ruler in England becomes the slave to the Pope. Henry resents the Pope’s power over him and is determined to break free from his control. He breaks the English church from the Church of Rome and appoints himself as the head of this new church. By becoming the head of the Church of England, Henry is now the absolute ruler in England, in both spiritual and temporal matters. However, Henry is unable to exercise his newly acquired power with restraint and discretion. His absolute power turns the once enlightened monarch into a ruthless, overbearing and unscrupulous tyrant. He starts to make law on the spur of his whims and execute people arbitrarily. Many of Henry’s most loyal and competent advisers have fallen under the blade of his tyranny. Henry turns his court into a dangerous environment where everyone lives in fear of one’s life. Henry’s transformation shows that papal power is a necessary constraint on monarchial power. Without papal authority, a monarch is in risk of becoming an unscrupulous tyrant in his realm.
The oppression of women
The women in this story are horribly mistreated by their male relations. The English noblewomen during the Renaissance enjoyed very little autonomy and freedom. They are expected to obey the dictates of their male relations, get married at an early age, and to conceive a male heir for their family. They are expected to be docile and uncomplaining, even in the face of their husbands’ misbehavior. Queen Katherine is the embodiment of the ideal woman. She obeys her husband’s wishes, bears him children and puts up with his notorious philandering without uttering a word of complaint. Mary Boleyn also succeeds in conforming to the gender expectation of this period. She allows herself to be used as a political pawn. She sacrifices her self-interests and personal desires for the sake of family interests. Anne Boleyn is an exception to the conventional gender behavior. She is a rebellious, forward-thinking woman who attempts to subvert the conventional gender role. Women at this time enjoyed little formal education. Most of the women in King Henry’s court could not even write properly. Anne Boleyn is a highly accomplished scholar. She is well versed in many languages and subjects. She is not content to sacrifice herself for the sake of family interests. She programs her actions with the clear intention of advancing her own self-interests. She is brave, determined and is not daunted by the rigid social hierarchy which bars her way of becoming queen. She refuses to abide by the hierarchical system of the feudal era. Instead, she embraces the modern ideas of meritocracy, and believes that a woman can advance herself to the pinnacle of the social ladder on the virtue of her wits and beauty. Anne Boleyn is an example of the “new woman” avant la lettre.
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