Although he had not written a history play since completing Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600), near the end of his career William Shakespeare wrote one more history play, this time in collaboration with John Fletcher. Henry VIII is thus the last of Shakespeare’s histories not only in the date of its setting but also in its time of composition. The events of the play are much closer to Shakespeare’s own time than those of his other histories: Henry VIII died about eighteen years before Shakespeare was born. Moreover, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, whose birth is hailed at the end of the play and who died in 1603, was queen of England during most of Shakespeare’s lifetime. Accordingly, Shakespeare had to treat certain political themes that might still have had current relevance more gingerly than he did events that had occurred two or three centuries before.
Another difference between Henry VIII and the rest of the history plays is its genre. By the time of the play’s composition, Shakespeare had written several of his most successful late romances, including Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610, pb. 1623), The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623), and The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). The modes of treatment used by Shakespeare in these plays were also applied to Henry VIII. This is particularly demonstrated by the way the play ends not tragically, but amid joy and reconciliation—as did Henry V. The play is also more episodic than Shakespeare’s later plays and is similar to the chronicle plays of an earlier era, showing another marked difference between this history play and its predecessors—again, except possibly Henry V.
King Henry himself does not so much dominate the action as coordinate it. The actions of all the major characters stand in reference to him, for all the participants in political intrigue wish to gain his ear or influence. Although he is personally involved in the play’s events, as evidenced by his divorce from Katharine and his courtship of Anne Boleyn, he is always somewhat above the fray, an image of the play’s wish for harmony.
If there is tragedy in Henry VIII, it is not that of the king himself but of Cardinal Wolsey, much as it is Brutus, not the title character, who is the tragic figure in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623). The audience sees Wolsey at the height of his power and intrigue, as he successfully maneuvers against Buckingham—until, like one of Christopher Marlowe’s “over-reachers,” he goes too far, and the wheel of fortune turns against him. Even though Wolsey is sentenced to death, Shakespeare, with his characteristic late insights into the mixed nature of much human motivation, gives Wolsey’s character a graceful and sympathetic turn as he goes to his end. In Wolsey’s final speech, he reveals to the audience how he...
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