Henry VIII Essay - Henry VIII (Vol. 41)

Henry VIII (Vol. 41)


Henry VIII

For further information on the critical and stage history of Henry VIII, see SC, Volumes 2 and 24.

Frequently—and perhaps erroneously—regarded as an inferior example of Shakespeare's chronicle history plays, Henry VIII has until recently been neglected by many critics, except for those engaged in the at times heated debate over the true nature of its authorship. Included in the First Folio of the dramatist's works, Henry VIII is often seen as the product of two individuals: Shakespeare and John Fletcher, his sometime collaborator (notably on The Two Noble Kinsmen) and successor as chief dramatist for the King's Men. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a number of scholars have endeavored to move beyond this subject of authorship in order to focus on thematic, stylistic, generic, or dramaturgical issues in relation to Henry VIII. Still, contention over the specifics of the play's disputed writing remains a perennial interest.

The earliest claim of dual authorship in the modern era is generally attributed to James Spedding (although the idea itself is said to have originated with Lord Tennyson). Spedding's exploration of the subject in 1850 set the tone of Henry VIII scholarship for the next century, with many critics using the authorship debate as a launching point for discussions of the work as aesthetically flawed, episodic, and lacking in thematic unity. Faced with a dearth of external documentation that would settle the question, proponents of the two-author theory have nonetheless offered a considerable amount of stylistic evidence that would appear to indicate Shakespeare's collaboration with Fletcher on the work. Many have also divided the play into two parts, attributing between one-third and one-half or more of the text to Fletcher. Marco Mincoff (1961) has used both metrical and thematic evidence to support the claim of Fletcher's co-authorship. Members of the opposing camp have often taken a structural, comparative, or thematic approach to the problem. H. M. Richmond (1968) has observed numerous affinities of style, theme, and characterization between Shakespeare's late romances and Henry VIII that would suggest Shakespeare's primacy in writing the history. Paul Bertram (1962) has opted for a somewhat different approach, arguing that those critics who have embraced Spedding's dual author theory have failed to adequately demonstrate their point, and have only succeeded in contriving unpersuasive textual evidence to support an erroneous hypothesis. Because none of these arguments have proved adequate to settle the question of Henry VIII's authorship, critics have most recently decided to acknowledge the debate, but for the time being put this material aside in favor of other, longneglected issues. Among these, the subjects of aesthetic unity and generic variety have gained increasing interest. Responding to critics who see the play as episodic and fragmented, John Margeson (1990) and Peter L. Rudnytsky (1991) have argued for the work's thematic unity, with the former seeing it as a sustained "exposure and celebration of royal power" and the latter as a dramatization of the relativity of historical truth. Edward I. Berry (1979) represents another faction of scholars who have studied the complex question of genre in Henry VIII. Written near the end of Shakespeare's career, at a time when the dramatist was primarily concerned with the so-called late romances—including The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and others—Henry VIII appears to Berry as a blend of dramatic and generic conventions: chronicle history, tragedy, court masque, and romance. Seen as an amalgamation of dramatic forms, Henry VIII has also elicited interest—both as a literary/historical text and in performance—for its emphasis on visual spectacle and imagery. The play itself is punctuated by several scenes of grandiose, aristocratic pageantry, a fact that some critics note has contributed to its viability on stage despite such flaws as weak characterization and lack of a sympathetic hero. Moving beyond such dismissive assessments, F. Schreiber-McGee (1988) has focused on the cultural implications of spectacle in Henry VIII by arguing that the shift of aristocratic pageantry from the royal court to the public stage offered a direct challenge to long-accepted notions of political authority. Others, such as Linda McJ. Micheli (1987), have concentrated on the queens Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn—who many commentators feel are Henry VIII's only compelling characters—and the complex visual imagery with which they are portrayed.


Edward I. Berry (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Henry VIII and the Dynamics of Spectacle," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. XII, 1979, pp. 229-46.

[In the following essay, Berry evaluates Henry VIII as a blend of dramatic modes, including history, tragedy, and masque. ]

Although admittedly a modest play by Shakespearean standards, Henry VIII has been subjected to criticism which seems to me undeservedly severe. Its structure has been condemned as episodic, its characterization as sentimental and stereotyped, its pageantry as meaningless, its language as inflated, its treatment of history as evasive and propagandistc1 Much of this criticism reflects, I think, a failure to take the play on its own terms, to understand its distinctive dramatic mode. Like the other late plays, Henry VIII is boldly original in form and assimilates a wide variety of traditions into a complex whole. Its dramatic vocabulary includes disparate, even conflicting elements: de casibus tragedy, the history play, the masque, tragicomedy, romance. The unfamiliarity of the blend puts unusual (though not un-Shakespearean) demands upon an audience; the combinations force reevaluations not only of the conventions but of the views of reality they imply. Henry VIII is a history play that redefines truth, a de casibus play that moves beyond tragedy, a masque that questions the value of spectacle.

As Frank Kermode has observed, the play is constructed upon a familiar de casibus pattern, a series of interlocking falls from high estate—Buckingham's, Wolsey's, Katherine's; in a variation upon the pattern a fourth fall, Cranmer's, is happily averted.2 Although Kermode describes accurately the play's basic structure, critics have not been content with the implications of his description. Howard Felperin, for example, protests that the tragedies in the play are not retributive, as in the Mirror tradition, and lead to redemption rather than suffering: "The falls . . . are all romantically, rather than tragically, conceived."3 Robert Ornstein objects that Kermode does not explain why Shakespeare "regresses" in Henry VIII "to a more primitive dramatic form than that used in Henry VI Part I."4 Both of these objections are valid, I think, not because Kermode has misidentified the play's conventions, but because he, like his critics, has taken them at face value. The play, however, is self-consciously primitive and invokes de casibus conventions only to redefine them.

The prologue, for example, even more than in Henry V, is a device whereby the play becomes self-reflexive. Though he is not without dignity, the speaker introduces the play with a suspiciously moralistic and sententious air, as if he were kin to Sidney's historian, the "tyrant in table talke" who denies "that any man for teaching of vertue, and vertuous actions, is comparable to him."5 We are not to expect laughter or bawdiness from this play but sorrow—"Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow" (1. 4)6—and truth. The play is true, he assures us—three times. The coupling of tragedy and truth evokes not only the de casibus tradition in general but the specialized form it took when adapted to English history, as in the Mirror for Magistrates and its numerous progeny, both narrative and dramatic. As defined in the preface to the original edition of the Mirror (1569), history is a "myrrour for al men as well noble as others, to shewe the slyppery deceytes of the waveryng lady [Fortune] and the due rewarde of all kinde of vices."7 When the speaker concludes, he does so, significantly, in the old-fashioned alliterative style so characteristic of the Mirror:

. . . think you see them great,
And follow'd with the general throng, and sweat
Of thousand friends; then, in a moment, see
How soon this mightiness meets misery:
And if you can be merry then, I'll say
A man may weep upon his wedding day.

(ll. 27-32)

And yet before the play is finished, we will have experienced feelings of joy as well as grief and perceived truths beyond history.

The use of the prologue, in other words, is artfully naive, deliberately archaic, its evocation of a distinctly old-fashioned genre reminiscent of Gower's introduction to Pericles—"To sing a song that old was sung / From ashes ancient Gower is come"—or of the moment in The Winter's Tale when Mamillius sits down to tell a sad tale for winter. Like Mamillius' "sad tale," the Prologue's "mightiness meets misery" tells us only half the story, for both plays, although they contain tragedy, move beyond it. The Prologue may even hint at this movement in its final lines: it does not take a cynic, after all, to know that men have wept upon their wedding days. If so, the reality principle itself licenses romance, for our skepticism about marriages opens us to the potential for joy in tragedy. The equivocation of the prologue as a whole is precisely of the kind we should expect from the late plays. We are being asked to respond to an old-fashioned genre and the view of reality it implies in a new way. The theatrical selfconsciousness that degenerates into solipsism in much Jacobean drama becomes in Henry VIII a means of reevaluating tragical history.

If Henry VIII sophisticates the naive Mirror tradition, it popularizes the masque by integrating it with drama. The presence of the masque is felt throughout the play, most obviously in its pageants and spectacles—one of which, as in The Tempest, is itself a kind of pastoral masque—and in the celebration of James I with which the play concludes. Less obvious though more important is the play's dependence on the masque form for its mode of action. For Henry VIII moves not through plot, as many critics have lamented, but, like the masque, through the dynamics of poetry and spectacle. As developed by Jonson in the years immediately preceding Henry VIII, the masque consists of two basic movements: the antimasque, a depiction of a disordered world, grotesque and often diabolic, and the masque, a depiction of an ordered, ideal world which culminates in the revels, the moment when, order having been achieved, noble actors and audience join hands and dance. As Stephen K. Orgel makes clear, the movement from antimasque to masque can take place in two ways: as a "single moment of transformation" in which disorder is replaced by order, evil by good, or as a "gradual process of refinement," in which faulty values become increasingly perfected. The latter method, which began with Oberon in 1611, became for the courtly audience, according to Orgel, "an education in the meaning of the revels."8 More complex than a masque, and more dramatic, Henry VIII accommodates both patterns; in the course of the play false values are replaced with true ones and flawed ideals are refined. In order to appreciate the play, we must stop thinking of masques in a loosely pejorative sense and start thinking of their form.9

The play begins with a spectacle, Norfolk's enthusiastic description of the pageantry of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. His account of the meeting of the French and English, like Enobarbus' narration of the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, dazzles the imagination. It is in some ways even more compelling, for we cannot check Norfolk's report against our own impressions. Like Buckingham, whose illness prevented his attendance, we can only wonder at this "view of earthly glory": costumes that made the French "like heathen gods" and "Britain India," masques that every night were "cried incomparable," tournaments in which the kings performed "beyond thought's compass," that even the legends of Bevis were believed. As one might expect from the title of the pageant, all that glistered on that field was gold: the French were "all clinquant all in gold"; the pages were "all gilt"; the two kings were like suns, "equal in lustre" (I.i.13-38).

Like the opening of The Tempest, in which a tragic shipwreck is immediately redefined as a theatrical illusion, the beginning of Henry VIII might be called a lesson in perception. Our teacher, momentarily, is Buckingham, for as soon as he discovers that the substance behind this show is Wolsey its glories evaporate:

What had he
To do in these fierce vanities? I wonder
That such a keech can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o' th' beneficial sun,
And keep it from the earth.


The earthly glories become suddenly "fierce vanities"; the sun-king is cut off from the earth by the bulky shadow of the son of a butcher. Buckingham's animosity is fueled by private motives, of course, but it cannot be so easily dismissed, for even Norfolk must admit that the treaty of peace, the sole purpose for this extravagant display, has been broken already and that the English nobility who paid for it have "sicken'd their estates" (I.i.82) and "broke their backs with laying manors on 'em" (I.i.84). Norfolk's vision, then, is an empty show, a kind of antimasque. Although we are brought to a new level of awareness by Buckingham at this point, we are still far from the world of the masque itself. By the end of the play both Norfolk's and Buckingham's values will have been replaced. At this moment the criticism levied against this pageant of peace is of a merely commercial nature; it brought, as Abergavenny ironically observes, "a proper title of a peace, and purchas'd / At a superfluous rate" (I.i.98-99). Before we experience the true vision of Cranmer at the end of the play, our conception of peace, of pageantry, of "earthly glory" will have been radically revised.

The crucible in which values are refined, as in all the late plays, is tragedy. Buckingham's, the first of the series, is in its own way as unsettling as the account of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. His tragedy is deliberately ambiguous, I think, designed to undermine the expectations generated by the prologue's evocation of the Mirror tradition.10 What we are invariably granted in Mirror tragedies and what we are denied in Buckingham's is the security of judgment. The treatment of Buckingham is ambiguous from the start, both morally and legally. His opposition to Wolsey earns him our sympathy, of course, but his motives are partly suspect and his methods grossly impolitic. A passionate, arrogant aristocrat, he seems a kind of middleaged Hotspur—he is even taken to task for his intemperance by Norfolk as Hotspur is by Worcester. His antagonism towards Wolsey seems impelled more by social snobbery than care for the commonwealth; he returns almost obsessively in his rages to Wolsey's base origins—calling him a "keech" (Li.55), a "butcher's cur" (I.i. 120), an "Ipswich fellow" (I.i.138). Whatever we make of his motives and character, his guilt remains unresolved. Wolsey will undo him by any means. His surveyor, his accuser, bears him a grudge. Yet he himself seems easily capable of blustering treason in rash moments. And he is found guilty not only by the king but by his peers. Ironically, in a play committed to "truth," the ambiguity reflects accurately the chronicle account. Of the charges against Buckingham, Holinshed can only say "how trulie, or in what sort prooved, I have not further to say, either in accusing or excusing him."11 We may recall Sidney's historian, who, "beeing captived to the trueth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from well dooing, and an incouragement to unbrideled wickednes."12

When Buckingham is led forward to execution with the axe turned toward him, then, we have no settled opinion. And what we meet comes as a distinct surprise. The man who earlier raged against Wolsey, and at his trial "sweat extremely" (II.i.33), turns calmly to Sir Thomas Lovell, a man he has been accused of desiring to murder, and says:

Sir Thomas Lovell, I as free forgive you
As I would be forgiven: I forgive all.
There cannot be those numberless offences
'Gainst me that I cannot take peace with: no black envy
Shall make my grave. Commend me to his grace,
And if he speaks of Buckingham, pray tell him
You met him half in heaven.


The note of Christian forgiveness is a new one, for Buckingham and for us. The dramatic moment, however, recalls obliquely the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Buckingham's farewell is itself a public spectacle, a kind of pageant of peace; his compact, however, unlike that made at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, will not be broken. Peace has begun to be defined in spiritual rather than political and economic terms. As Buckingham enters the barge, moreover, he himself re-evaluates his condition:

When I came hither I was Lord High Constable
And Duke of Buckingham: now poor Edward Bohun;
Yet I am richer than my base accusers,
That never knew what truth meant.


Glory, wealth, honor are now of spiritual rather than material significance. If there are "wonders" in this dramatic moment, they are generated by an act of spiritual heroism "beyond thought's compass" (I.i.36), not by deeds of knightly prowess that would make Bevis believed.

The final effect of the scene remains ambiguous, however. For one thing, Buckingham, as he himself perceives, is only "half in heaven." His last words reflect spiritual effort, not spiritual perfection. A slight sense of strain humanizes the role and reminds us of the necessary imperfection of all human gestures. In the phrase "poor Edward Bohun," for example, a touch of self-pity lingers, and in "richer than my base accusers," a touch of pride; are those accusers "base" because "they never knew what truth meant" or because they are lowborn or both? We see the process of refinement, not the finished product. We still wonder, moreover, about his guilt. As Buckingham exits, the last words we hear are those of the Second Gentleman: "If the duke be guiltless, / 'Tis full of woe" (II.i.139-40). We may want to respond that it is full of woe in any case, but the nagging question, never finally resolved, conditions our emotional involvement. And how can one respond conditionally to tragedy?

The complex response that Buckingham's downfall asks of us reflects an allegiance to two kinds of truth, both of which call in question the naive moralizing typical of the Mirror tradition: truth to the problematic nature of fact and truth to the possibility of redemption. The extent of the play's departure from the Mirror tradition becomes jarringly clear if we apply to Buckingham's fall Holinshed's concluding moralization: "Alas, that ever the grace of truth was withdrawne from so noble a man, that he was not to his king in allegiance as he ought to have beene! Such is the end of ambition, the end of false prophecies, the end of evill life, and evill corniseli."13 These are the judgments we expect when "mightiness meets misery," the judgments the Prologue has prepared us for. Yet neither the moral censure nor the tragic tone of this passage is appropriate to Buckingham's farewell in Henry VIII. If the question of his guilt remains ambiguous, we cannot moralize; if he is indeed "half in heaven," we cannot mourn. In the context of spiritual renewal that the play provides, moreover, the question of Buckingham's guilt ultimately becomes not ours to judge. Our only judgment can be that human justice, as Henry himself perceives at the end of the play, is at best a patchwork affair. In Buckingham's fall, the play uses the "facts" of history to lead us to other kinds of truth.

The play's second tragedy, Wolsey's, is initially more conventional than Buckingham's and therefore less perplexing. The Cardinal's guilt, politically and morally, is unambiguous, even self-declared. From the first his powers appear not merely extrahuman but demonic. Abergavenny's reply to Norfolk in scene i sets the tone for his presentation throughout the first half of the play:

I cannot tell
What heaven hath given him: let some graver eye
Pierce into that, but I can see his pride
Peep through each part of him: whence has he that?
If not from hell the devil is a niggard,
Or has given all before, and he begins
A new hell in himself.

(I.166-7 2)

His ability to control men is mysterious and awe inspiring. He stalks silently across the stage with his attendants, pauses, fixes on Buckingham a look "full of disdain, " and exits without a word; a moment later Buckingham is arrested. The mainstay of the king, he enters the council chamber to hear the testimony against Buckingham with Henry leaning on his shoulder (s.d., I.ii). When the king abrogates his unjust tax, Wolsey, with Machiavellian guile, takes the credit for it: "let it be nois'd / That through our intercession this revokement / And pardon comes" (I.ii. 105-07). The use of the royal pronoun is revealing; unable to see through his machinations, the king is under his control. In Holinshed's account of Wolsey's banquet the Cardinal jokingly unmasks Sir Edward Nevill, thinking him the king; in Shakespeare's he makes no mistake, and the action has the force of emblem.

Wolsey reaches his zenith at Katherine's trial: "The cardinal / Will have his will," we hear, "and she must fall" (II.i. 166-67). To Norfolk, Wolsey may be "the king-cardinal, / That blind priest" who, "like the eldest son of fortune, / Turns what he list" (II.ii.19-21), but to Henry he is "the quiet of my wounded conscience" and "a cure fit for a king" (II.ii.74-75). At the trial scene, however, our perception of Wolsey and his powers subtly alters. When Henry places the responsibility for the trial on his own troubled conscience and clears Wolsey of blame, it is a moment of triumph for the cardinal; he is able to unseat a queen and be publicly exonerated by her king. But as we listen to Henry explain events, we begin to question how much this eldest son of Fortune actually turns. Whether we take conscience or sexual attraction as the motive that drives Henry—and I think we are invited to take both—it becomes clear that a power is at work beyond even Wolsey's control.

What we sense indirectly in this scene, I think, and with increasing force as the play develops, is the presence of God's will, working itself out, mysteriously as always, in history. Indeed, the play's only explanation for Henry's eventual ability to unmask and dethrone the "king-cardinal" is the providential one hinted at earlier by the Lord Chamberlain:

Heaven will one day open
The king's eyes, that so long have slept upon
This bold bad man.


When Wolsey's papers fall into the king's hands, Norfolk sees not accident but design:

It's heaven's will;
Some spirit put this paper in the packet
To bless your eye withal.


Wolsey, significantly, attributes his amazing negligence to some "cross devil" (III.ii.214).

Like Buckingham, Wolsey falls only to be renewed. In Wolsey's case, however, we experience the actual moment of conversion. Left alone after Norfolk and the other nobles have vented their accumulated rage upon him, Wolsey moves from generalized reflections on the transiency of earthly affairs—"a long farewell to all my greatness" (III.ii.351)—to regrets for his "high-blown pride" (361) and a renunciation of the values he had formerly pursued: "Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye" (365). Then, suddenly, he is able to say, "I feel my heart new open'd" (366). The surge of renewal is only momentary, however, for he returns immediately to thoughts of princes' favors and plunges into self-pity, seeing in his fall the dramatic finality of Satan's: "And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer, / Never to hope again" (371-72). Only after Cromwell enters does Wolsey master his emotions. When Cromwell asks "How does your grace?" he responds serenely,

Why well;
Never so truly happy, my good Cromwell;
I know myself now, and I feel within me
A peace above all earthly dignities,
A still and quiet conscience. The king has cur'd me,
I humbly thank his grace; and from these shoulders,
These ruin'd pillars, out of pity taken
A load would sink a navy, too much honour.
O 'tis a burden Cromwell, 'tis a burden
Too heavy for a man that hopes for heaven.


Insofar as Wolsey's downfall is tragic, it fits perfectly into the pattern of the Mirror for Magistrates; in this sense, as Kermode observes, it is the most "completely orthodox" fall in the play.14 Insofar as it is redemptive, however, it moves outside the confines of the Mirror into the world of tragicomedy or romance. The suddenness of the reversal and the rather stylized quality of the action may bring to mind scenes in the newly fashionable tragicomedies of Beaumont and Fletcher, in which characters reverse themselves with the ritual gestures of figures in a tableau. All of the "farewell" scenes reflect these new methods, but they are applied, as is rarely the case in Beaumont and Fletcher, with psychological credibility and artistic restraint. Despite its stylization, Wolsey's conversion, like Buckingham's, is not artificial: its rhythms, both dramatic and linguistic, remain faithful to human experience. In part, no doubt, this control derives from the very conventionality of the psychology, which is as old-fashioned as that of Everyman and as new as that of Leontes in The Winter's Tale. The reversals of the play may be new in dramatic mode, but their meaning is anchored in the popular tradition.

Perhaps even more pertinent to the question of artistic control is the way in which the language of Wolsey's downfall is integrated into the developing patterns of the play. When Wolsey tells Cromwell "I know myself now," the phrase recalls Norfolk's earlier prediction of Wolsey—"the king will know him one day"—and Suffolk's reply, "Pray God, he do, he'll never know himself else" (II.ii.21-22). Suffolk's remark is ironically ambiguous, since not only the king but Wolsey comes to know himself. The "peace above all earthly dignities" that Wolsey feels within him reminds us once again of the Field of the Cloth of God and its "earthly glory" which brought no peace, and of Buckingham's more promising peace with his enemies. The "quiet conscience," which was "cur'd" by the king, echoes ironically Henry's earlier view of Wolsey as "the quiet of my wounded conscience" and "a cure fit for a king." The feeling of being released from a burden, a "load" that "would sink a navy," brings back the court ladies of the Field of the Cloth of Gold who "did almost sweat to bear / The pride upon them" (I.i.24-25); the unjust taxes, so heavy, as Katherine observes, that "the back is sacrifice to th' load" (I.ii.50); the "load of title" the old lady holds cynically above Anne (II.iii.39); the "burthen of. . . sorrows" (III.i.111) that Katherine warns Wolsey and Campeius may fall upon them. Later, we will hear from Griffith that Wolsey's "overthrow heap'd happiness upon him" (IV.ii.64). The play's movement, like the masque's, is one of poetic and visual redefinitions.

If Wolsey's downfall is that of a "bold bad man," Katherine's is that of an innocent victim. Her tragedy may owe something to the Jacobean fascination with feminine pathos, but she bears little resemblance to the bloodless heroines of Beaumont and Fletcher. Though victimized by an unfortunate love, she is no Aspatia; her character is psychologically compelling, her tragedy meaningfully defined. Although innocent, she is not an idealized figure like Cranmer, for in, her suffering she reveals something of Buckingham's passion and, ironically, something of Wolsey's pride:

I am about to weep; but thinking that
We are a queen (or long have dream'd so) certain
The daughter of a king, my drops of tears
I'll turn to sparks of fire.


Katherine never forfeits our sympathies, of course, but she resembles her enemy in at least one respect—she must come to know more fully herself.

Although humbled in station after the trial, acting the part of a "housewife," she is by no means humbled in spirit, as her passionate outbursts against Wolsey and Campeius attest. She replies to their offer of aid with bitter hatred and distrust, and as the interview proceeds becomes increasingly resentful and self-pitying. At the same time, the very language through which she expresses these feelings has religious overtones which are extremely revealing. Consider, for example, her description of her love for the king:

Have I with all my full affections
Still met the king? lov'd him next heav'n? obey'd him?
Been (out of fondness) superstitious to him?
Almost forgot my prayers to content him?
And am I thus rewarded?


The extravagance of her claims is both psychologically and spiritually significant. Caught up in her passion, she is unaware of the implications of her metaphors; if she has indeed been "superstitious" to the king and forgotten her prayers "to content him," the response to her final question must be affirmative—she has received the inevitable "reward" of worship for any worldly thing.

This higher perspective implicit in the language itself becomes most apparent when Katherine's lamentations reach their climax at the end of the scene. Before she realizes that her passion has carried her beyond herself, she envisions her plight as that of a woman alone and defenseless in a hostile world:

What will become of me now, wretched lady?
I am the most unhappy woman living.
Alas poor wenches, where are now your fortunes?
Shipwrack'd upon a kingdom where no pity,
No friends, no hope, no kindred weep for me,
Almost no grave allow'd me: like the lily
That once was mistress of the field and flourish'd
I'll hang my head and perish.


Like Wolsey, who echoes these sentiments upon his own downfall—"he falls like Lucifer, / Never to hope again" (III.ii.371-72)—Katherine must learn to accept the transiency of earthly affairs and place her faith in the eternal. She must discover, in other words, meanings her language already implies. The lilies of the field, after all, do not perish: "If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?" (Luke 12:28).

The wonderful irony in Katherine's tragedy is that the very man she held responsible for her fall becomes the agent for her salvation, for only after Griffith has taught her to see Wolsey anew does she achieve the spiritual state necessary to her final vision. When Griffith concludes his report of Wolsey's Christian death, she accepts it as truth:

Whom I most hated living, thou hast made me,
With thy religious truth and modesty,
Now in his ashes honour: peace be with him.

Patience, be near me still, and set me lower;
I have not long to trouble thee.


Peace comes to Katherine when she is able to wish peace to Wolsey, to accept a judge of human merit higher than herself. When she says, "Patience, be near me still, and set me lower," she emblematizes that new wisdom. Humility having been attained, nothing remains but to "sit meditating / On that celestial harmony I go to" (IV.ii.79-80).

The meaning of the vision which ensues is clear enough: the crown denied Katherine on earth will be hers in heaven. Her former "dream" of being a queen becomes in a dream, paradoxically, a reality. In its purity, simplicity, and timelessness the vision contrasts with earlier spectacles, like Norfolk's "view of earthly glory" or Wolsey's "broken banquet," with its "heaven of beauty" (I.iv.61, 59). But the vision relates most directly to the spectacle of Anne's coronation which immediately precedes it. The contrast here is not between an empty spectacle and a true one, for Anne is the mother of Elizabeth, but between an earthly and heavenly one; the process is one not of antithesis but of refinement. Anne's coronation pageant begins with a flourish of trumpets, Katherine's with sad and solemn music. Anne's ceremony is crowded with participants, dressed magnificently and wearing crowns indicative of their social status: a crown of "gilt copper" or a "demi-coronal of gold, " or an "earl's coronet, " or a "coronal of gold, wrought with flowers, " or "plain circlets of gold without flowers. " In'the midst of all sits Anne herself, "richly adorned with pearl, crowned" (s.d., IV.i). Katherine's attendants, few in number, are all "clad in white robes, " crowned with "garlands of bays, " and bear "branches of bays or palm in their hands. " They crown her by holding "a spare garland over her head" (s.d., IV.ii). The only gold in Katherine's pageant is that of the golden vizards which, as Katherine says when she awakens, "cast thousand beams upon me, like the sun" (IV.ii.89). While Katherine's spectacle has the stillness of a trance, Anne's has the noises of a procession, complete with the quips of gentleman onlookers impervious to the higher aims of civic pageantry. "Heaven bless thee!" exclaims the Second Gentleman as he catches sight of Anne,

Thou hast the sweetest face I ever look'd on.
Sir, as I have a soul, she is an angel;
Our king has all the Indies in his arms,
And more, and richer, when he strains that lady;
I cannot blame his conscience.

(IV.i. 42-46)

Anne's pageant, it seems, despite her virtue, is distinctly of this world. It is a joyful, meaningful spectacle, but touched with mortality. The language of the Second Gentleman recalls disconcertingly the description of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in which Britain was made India (I.i.21), ladies strained to "bear" their "pride upon 'em" (I.i.24-25), and the only angels were "dwarfish pages" dressed as "cherubims, all gilt" (I.i.22-23). One cannot help but think of Anne's tragic future, moreover, her own treaty with Henry being as impermanent as that of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The point is made unconsciously by the First Gentleman when he replies to the Second Gentleman's "These are stars indeed" with "And sometimes falling ones" (IV.i.54-55). There is joy in sexuality, but also death; the word falling, like the word dying, points in two directions. This problematic blend of sexuality and death appears again in the Third Gentleman's description of the mob:

Such joy
I never saw before. Great-bellied women,
That had not half a week to go, like rams
In the old time of war, would shake the press
And make 'em reel before 'em. No man living
Could say This is my wife' there, all were woven
So strangely in one piece.


Here fecundity itself becomes an instrument of death, the great belly a battering ram. The description is both exhilarating and slightly ominous. The ram does not destroy the mob but unifies it, and yet in a strange, almost barbaric way. We heard earlier of an equally wonderful union, of two kings who at the Field of the Cloth of Gold "clung / In their embracement as they grew together" (I.i.9-10), and they were at war shortly thereafter. Anne will give life to Elizabeth and eventual unity to the realm, but the state of the realm and of her own marriage will remain for some time precarious.

Katherine's vision achieves complete permanence and purity only because it is carefully circumscribed, set apart from mortal affairs as a prophetic dream. When she awakens, she returns to mortality. She has not been transfigured, as the foolish messenger learns to his dismay: "You are a saucy fellow, / Deserve we no more reverence?" (IV.ii.100-01). There is sharp irony in the fact that as she nears her death—"She is going wench; pray, pray" (IV.ii.99)—she orders Griffith, "this fellow / Let me ne'er see again" (IV.ii. 107-08). As long as they remain on the stage of this world, it seems, the tragic figures of this play can be no more than "half in heaven." The play's most powerful symbol of that truth is Katherine's heavenly crown, which is held above her head. As long as we remain in life, eternity eludes our grasp.

When Cranmer's downfall is averted by Henry, history achieves momentarily the status of an ideal. The rhythm of tragic falls is finally broken, and the renewal experienced in the lives of individuals reaches out to encompass the life of the nation. The rebellions against unjust taxes are replaced by the joyful mobs at Anne's coronation and Elizabeth's christening. The king's conscience is whole, his queen a woman whose daughter will shower blessings over the whole land. The relationship between church and state is properly defined in the relationship between Henry and Cranmer—the king serving, literally, as protector of the faith. The saintly Cranmer, a figure as innocent as Katherine and more patient, brings holiness to high office. The satanism of Wolsey is replaced by the ineffectual scheming of Gardiner. For a brief moment, then, the actual becomes ideal.

Not entirely, however; we are never allowed to forget quite where we are. If in The Tempest Miranda's view of a "brave new world" is qualified by Prospero's "'Tis new to thee," in Henry VIII our joy in the nation's renewal is tempered by our consciousness of history. The rhythm of tragedy is not exactly broken but suspended, for looming beyond the play are events that no Jacobean audience could forget: Anne's execution, Cromwell's, Cranmer's martyrdom, the reign of Mary, to mention only the more obvious. Although these tragic memories arc not specifically evoked at the play's conclusion, earlier scenes have stirred them repeatedly. Anne has premonitions before her marriage: "it faints me / To think what follows" (II.iii.103-04). The description of her labor in childbirth hints ominously at her future: "her suff'ranee made / Almost each pang a death" (V.i.68-69). Wolsey's advice to Cromwell is prophetic:

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.


Henry's warning to Cranmer shows clearly his need of protection, and the narrowness of his escape hints at a future when he will not have it. We hardly need these reminders, of course, not only because the history behind the play is unforgettable but because the play itself provides us with an impressive education in impermanence. The world of history is a world of flux.

Only in Cranmer's vision do we glimpse a promised land, and that exists in the true but timeless realm of prophecy. Cranmer's vision is the play's masque, the antithesis of Norfolk's antimasque of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Cranmer speaks prompted by heaven, not by his own enthusiasm, and the values he celebrates are those that Norfolk's vision had denied. We have been led from a false "view of earthly glory," which we accepted at first uncritically, to a true one, which the "tragic" events of the play have enabled us to understand. Unlike Norfolk, Cranmer celebrates abstract moral virtues, not splendid appearances. "A pattern to all princes," Elizabeth shall be "More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue" than Saba herself (V.iv.22-24). Cranmer too paints a picture not of pagan opulence but of simple, fruitful peace: "In her days every man shall eat in safety / Under his own vine what he plants." (V.ii.33-34). The pastoral simplicity recalls Katherine's vision, which is now being translated into public myth. The pastoral is no longer merely a source of courtly amusement, as when Henry appeared at Wolsey's banquet disguised as a shepherd and was unmasked.

That Cranmer's pastoral images are Biblical in origin suggests the most striking contrast between the two visions—a contrast between time and eternity. In Norfolk's account of the Field of the Cloth of Gold everything is in incessant motion:

Each following day
Became the next day's master. . . .


To-day the French . . .
Shone down the English; and to-morrow they
Made Britain India. . . .

(Li. 18-21)

Now this masque
Was cried incomparable; and th'ensuing night
Made it a fool and beggar. . . .


Norfolk's is a world of the past tense (it has already ceased to exist when he describes it), a world of mutability, shifting, unsteady, untrustworthy. In Cranmer's vision, however, time is suspended. His view extends not only to the future but beyond time itself. His Golden Age will not "sleep with" Elizabeth, for out of her ashes will emerge an heir who "Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was / And so stand fix'd" (V.iv.46-47). The movement of the play fits precisely the terms used by Orgel to describe the Jonsonian masque: "The antimasque world was a world of particularity and mutability—of accidents; the masque world was one of ideal abstractions and eternal verities."15

That Cranmer's Golden Age refers to the age of Elizabeth and James has led some critics to attack the prophecy as tasteless flattery.16 Certainly the gesture of political idealization places special demands upon modern audiences and readers. If approached in terms of two Renaissance traditions, however—that of the masque and of Biblical prophecy—the vision becomes a profoundly meaningful conclusion to the play. Like a Jonsonian masque, the play ends with a definition of royal virtues and a celebration of the reigning monarch as if he embodied them. To idealize the king in this manner is not necessarily to flatter him, as numerous studies of masque conventions have made clear, but to incite him to become ideal—to translate into reality the virtues that have been defined and bequeathed in fiction. As Lee Bliss has convincingly argued, the adaptation of this familiar masque convention enables Henry VIII to remain true to the ideals potential within reality without sacrificing reality itself.17

A complementary tradition at work in the vision is that of Biblical prophecy, invoked not only because Cranmer's vision is prophetic but because, as the Arden editor observes, it alludes repeatedly to visions of a golden age that recur throughout the Old Testament. A prophecy like that in Micah, for example, that "they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid" (4:4), if taken literally, is potentially as escapist as literal readings of the masques. Hence commentators on such visions are prone to stress a spiritual rather than a literal reading. In a commentary on the universal peace prophesied in Micah, for example, Anthony Gilby argues against the Jews, who interpret the vision literally; the kingdom that is prophesied, he insists, "shal not be carnal but spiritual and eternal even suche joy reast and peace as Christe promysed unto his Disciples suche as the world canne not gyve."18 The Geneva Bible provides for the prophecies of Micah a comparable gloss: "the accomplishment hereof shalbe at the last comming of Christ" (4:margin). In The Institutes Calvin stresses repeatedly that Biblical assurances of blessedness to all believers refer not to this life but to the life to come:

That is, whenever the prophets recount the believing people's blessedness, hardly the least trace of which is discerned in the present life, let them take refuge in this distinction: the better to commend God's goodness, the prophets represented it for the people under the lineaments, so to speak, of temporal benefits. But they painted a portrait such as to lift up the minds of the people above the earth, above the elements of this world . . . and the perishing age, and that would of necessity arouse them to ponder the happiness of the spiritual life to come.19

It is unlikely, then, that a Jacobean audience would have mistaken Cranmer's prophecy for a simple prediction of actual events. If the reigns of Elizabeth and James reflect in their peace and prosperity the Golden Age of Biblical prophecy, they are all reflections of a perfect peace which, like Katherine's crown, stretches outside our grasp until the Last Judgment. The perfect political community exists only outside of time.

If there is a flaw in the play, it lies, I think, not in Cranmer's vision but in the characterization of Henry. The problem is not that the portrait is sentimental or evasive—the gentleman onlookers provide us with a complicating perspective on Henry's motives—but that Henry's development is not dramatically compelling. At the beginning of the play he is under Wolsey's control; at the end, he is protecting Cranmer, his diseased realm cured. Somehow he has grown in wisdom. The stages are easily traced, but the process is not psychologically or morally articulated.20 Nor can we be certain that Henry ever becomes completely self-aware. His response to Cranmer's prophecy poses that problem acutely. "Thou hast made me now a man," he exclaims, "never before / This happy child did I get anything" (V.iv.64-65). Ironic ambiguities crowd into the language, but do they reflect the limitations of Henry's wisdom, even at this point in the play, or its ultimate fulfillment? Has this moment made him a man because he suddenly perceives the glories of Elizabeth's reign or because his masculinity has been proved, his disappointment in his failure to produce a male heir now forgotten in the unlooked for triumphs of a daughter? Does the word get mean "achieve" or "have given to me" (in recognition of God's grace) or "beget" (in celebration of his own sexual potency)? Clearly, all three possibilities are relevant—these are meaningful ambiguities—but the treatment of Henry has not been psychologically penetrating enough to enable us to control them. Shakespeare has similar and even more serious difficulties with Cymbeline, whose realm is also perfected around him yet whose own role in the process remains obscure. The problem derives in part, I suspect, from the dramatic difficulty in explaining events from a providential as well as a psychological perspective. In Henry VIII it is compounded by the difficulty of combining elements of masque and drama and by the recalcitrance of history. Henry, unlike Buckingham, Katherine, or Wolsey, and unlike the dramatically convincing figure of Prospero, never suffered a fortunate fall. As a result, the peace he "gets" seems somehow unearned.

Henry VIII seems destined to remain at the periphery of the Shakespeare canon. The question of authorship alone is likely to keep the play in a critical limbo. The argument outlined above, moreover, even if reasonably convincing, is not without its limitations. Our preference for drama over masque, history over prophecy, tragedy over romance, if a modern prejudice, seems still an unarguable one. Few would prefer Henry VIII to 1 Henry IV or Richard II Yet our preferences for one form should not blind us to the distinctive values of others. Henry VIII provides a dramatic experience and a vision of reality that the mode of the earlier histories cannot accommodate. And surely we would not expect Shakespeare, in turning to history after the romances, to attempt anything less than a radically new form. By 1612 the history play was dead, not only on the public stage but in Shakespeare's imagination. The hybrid that takes its place is a strange blend—perhaps of authors as well as dramatic modes—but it is a rich one and a fitting end to a career of remarkable assimilations.


1 For the most important negative views, see James Spedding, "Who Wrote Shakespeare's Henry VIII?" The Gentleman's Magazine (August, 1850), pp. 115-22; Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York: Henry Holt, 1939), pp. 332-36; Eugene M. Waith, The Pattern of Tragicomedy in Beaumont and Fletcher (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1952), pp. 117-24; Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, rev. ed. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965), pp. 287-90; Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 203-20; Howard Felperin, Shakespearean Romance (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 196-210. The question of authorship is irrelevant to critical discussion, but it often obtrudes; my own view is that, although Fletcher may have contributed to the play, it is substantially Shakespeare's.

2 "What Is Shakespeare's Henry VIII About?" Durham University Journal, N.S., 9 (1948), 48-55. Citations are to the rpt. in Eugene M. Waith, ed., Shakespeare: The Histories (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965), pp. 168-79.

3 Felperin, p. 202.

4 Ornstein, p. 204n.

5An Apologie for Poetry, in G. Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays, I (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1904), 162.

6 Citations are to the Arden ed. of R. A. Foakes (London: Methuen, 1957).

7Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (1938; rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), p. 68.

8 Stephen K. Orgel, ed., Ben Jonson: Selected Masques (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 13-14.

9 Waith, for example, says the play is "more like a masque than like a tragedy" (p. 119).

10 Ornstein notices the equivocation but finds it meaningless: "There is no artistic 'reason' for the ambiguity of Fletcher's portrait of Buckingham except to allow the noble attitudinizing with which Buckingham greets his fate" (p. 21On).

11 Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, IV (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), 461.

12Apologie, p. 170.

13 Bullough, p. 463. Holinshed depends upon Hall for this judgment, which leads him to contradict his earlier insistence on the ambiguity of Buckingham's guilt.

14 Kermode, p. 177.

15 Orgel, The Jonsonian Masque (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967), p. 73.

16 Ornstein criticizes it as "fulsome flattery of James" (p. 220), Felperin as "glorified propaganda" (p. 209).

17 "The Wheel of Fortune and the Maiden Phoenix of Shakespeare's King Henry the Eighth," ELH, 42 (1975), 20-23. Although its emphasis is quite different, Bliss's essay, which I discovered only after formulating my own views, offers a reading generally complementary to my own. On the play's resistance to flattery of the king, I am also indebted to John D. Cox, "Henry VIII and the Masque," ELH, 45 (1978), 390-409.

18 Anthony Gilby, A Commentarye upon the Prophet Mycha (London, 1551), G4r.

19 John T. McNeill, ed., and Ford Lewis Battles, trans., Institutes of the Christian Religion, I (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 447; see also p. 426.

20 Two of the more plausible attempts to justify the characterization of Henry are found in Paul Bertram, "Henry VIII: The Conscience of the King," in Reuben A. Brower and Richard Poirier, ed., In Defense of Reading (New York: Dutton, 1962), pp. 153-73, and H. M. Richmond, "Shakespeare's Henry VIII: Romance Redeemed by History," Shakespeare Studies, 4 (1968), 334-49.

John Margeson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Introduction to King Henry VIII, edited by John Margeson, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. 1-59.

[In the following excerpt, Margeson surveys the topic of authorship in relation to Henry VIII and critical reaction to the play, arguing that the work possesses an aesthetic unity as "an exposure and celebration of royal power" and a dramatization of the "conflict between worldly and eternal values."]


Heminges and Condell, the editors of the First Folio and actors in Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, printed Henry VIII as the final play in the long series of Shakespeare's history plays. No one doubted Shakespeare's authorship until the middle of the nineteenth century, though there had been questions asked about the Prologue and the Epilogue, and whether the section on King James in Cranmer's prophecy had not been added later to an Elizabethan play.1 In 1850, however, James Spedding announced his dissatisfaction with the idea that Shakespeare had written the whole of Henry VIII and suggested that he must have had a collaborator, probably John Fletcher. About the same time, Samuel Hickson revealed that he had independently come to the same conclusion, and that his division of the play between collaborators was almost identical with that of Spedding.2

Spedding claimed that the design of the play was not worthy of Shakespeare's craftsmanship; he also said that he had become aware of two distinct styles in the play, in part through a suggestion from Tennyson:

The resemblance of the style, in some parts of the play, to Fletcher's, was pointed out to me several years ago by Alfred Tennyson . . . and long before that, the general distinctions between Shakespeare's manner and Fletcher's had been admirably explained by Charles Lamb in his note on the Two Noble Kinsmen, and by Mr Spalding in his Essay.3

One style, he claimed, was syntactically difficult and charged with images, full of vigour and freshness, the other easy, familiar, 'diffuse and languid'. He then devised metrical tests based on the occurrence of feminine and masculine endings, the use of an extra accented syllable at the end of a line, and the number of run-on lines and end-stopped lines, all of which proved conclusively, in his view, that there were two distinct kinds of prosody in the play, one Shakespeare's and the other most probably Fletcher's. He divided the play between the two on this basis, scene by scene, with the following result:

Shakespeare: 1.1 and 1.2
2.3 and 2.4

Fletcher: Prologue and Epilogue
1.3 and 1.4
2.1 and 2.2
3.1 and 3.2.204-459
4.1 and 4.2
5.2, 5.3 and 5.4

This division gives Fletcher over two-thirds of the play on the basis of the number of lines; it is also assumed that each author was responsible for complete scenes, with the single exception of 3.2. The table is worth quoting because it has been accepted by many editors and scholars since Spedding's time, although the evidence for dual authorship is now largely of a different kind from Spedding's and various modifications have been made in the traditional division.

The evidence for Fletcher's hand in the play (or the hand of any other playwright of the time) is entirely internal since there is no external evidence of any kind pointing to his contribution. The external evidence that does exist seems to show Shakespeare's authorship clearly. Henry VIII was included in the First Folio with Shakespeare's other plays, which are declared to be 'absolute in their numbers, as he conceived them'. The Folio editors, Heminges and Condell, would certainly have known, Peter Alexander observes, if Fletcher had written the major portion of the play: they were managing the King's Men at the time of its composition and would have been responsible for paying him for his share.4The Two Noble Kinsmen, ascribed to Shakespeare and Fletcher on the title page of the 1634 quarto, was apparently close in date to Henry VIII but was not included by Heminges and Condell in the Folio.5

However, Spedding's hypothesis was widely accepted, as we have noted. His argument was cogently presented, and was supported by carefully worked-out metrical data from particular scenes. Spedding disliked the play, finding that it lacked a clear moral design, and did not believe that Shakespeare could have written the whole of it at the end of his career, even though he recognised that certain scenes showed the master's hand. Following Spedding, Farnham and Thorndike began to study the linguistic data which seemed to strengthen the case he had put forward.6

Early scepticism about the theory found supporters in Baldwin Maxwell, Peter Alexander and G. Wilson Knight. Maxwell in his essay 'Fletcher and Shakespeare' (1923) doubted if the scenes assigned to Fletcher were entirely his.7 He gave examples of his own tests—for instance, the immediate repetition of single words or of words with a modifying phrase, where the Fletcher scenes of Henry VIII showed far fewer examples than scenes from Fletcher's known works. He also laid much stress on the use of sources. The scenes assigned to Fletcher make as close a verbal use of Holinshed as the scenes given to Shakespeare, but in Bonduca, Fletcher's only historical play, there is no verbal borrowing whatever from Holinshed or Tacitus, its obvious sources. This argument was to be repeated and developed further by Geoffrey Bullough and R. A. Foakes.

Peter Alexander argued strongly in his 'Conjectural history, or Shakespeare's Henry VIII' (1930) against the manipulation of evidence by those who wished to make conjectures about the authorship and provenance of literary works, and used Henry VIII as an example. He pointed out that the differences of style in the play have an important dramatic function in relation to widely differing speeches and situations, and yet these very differences are made the basis for disintegration.8 In a careful analysis of Spedding's evidence, he showed how the so-called peculiarities of style in the scenes given to Fletcher can be paralleled in Shakespeare's late plays in varying proportions from play to play. Spedding, he claimed, never considers how metrical variations arise in the development of Shakespeare's verse. Alexander also gave considerable weight to the external evidence pointing to Shakespeare, and saw in the play themes and attitudes characteristic of Shakespeare.

Wilson Knight in Principles of Shakespearean Production (1936) and particularly in The Crown of Life (1948) stressed the unity of the play and its special relationship with Shakespeare's last plays. Like Alexander, Knight saw the different styles in the play as deliberate variations for dramatic purposes which he found paralleled in other of Shakespeare's plays.9 His analysis of structure is closely related to his analysis of central themes, themes which he found elsewhere in Shakespeare but nowhere in Fletcher.

Although the kind of evidence presented by Spedding was cast seriously in doubt by Alexander and other critics, many scholars continued to believe that the play was not solely by Shakespeare and were assiduous in collecting other evidence, stylistic and linguistic, of a more convincing kind. The most persuasive of these, in terms of the evidence presented, have been A. C. Partridge (1949, 1964) and Cyrus Hoy (1962).10 Partridge uses the Spedding division of the play as a basis for comparison and points to characteristic linguistic habits of the two authors. In particular, he cites the use of the auxiliary verb 'do' as a mere expletive and the common use of 'hath' in the Shakespearean scenes, whereas Fletcher avoids 'do' and prefers 'has' to 'hath'. Partridge also stresses Shakespeare's use of 'you' where Fletcher uses 'ye', and Shakespeare's preference for 'them' as against Fletcher's use of the clipped form "em'. Partridge notes differences between the often tortured syntax in the Shakespearean scenes and the more orderly syntax of the passages assigned to Fletcher. However, he is inclined to give more of the play to Shakespeare than Spedding and Hickson had done in Acts 3 to 5; for example, he gives 4.2 to Shakespeare, and also Cranmer's final speech in 5.5 (5.4 in this edition).11 He speculates that Shakespeare had left an unfinished play with his company on his retirement which Fletcher was asked to complete when it was required for production, a theory which he believes is better than the less probable theory of 'simultaneous collaboration'.12

Cyrus Hoy's work on the play is firmly based on a thorough linguistic study of all of Fletcher's non-collaborative plays and of Shakespeare's later plays. Hoy observes that the linguistic practices of authors involve questions about the nature of the manuscript behind the printed text, the possibility of scribal interference where the copy for the printer is not the author's foul papers, and the habits of the compositors of the printed text where these are known.13 He finds that the linguistic practices of Shakespeare and Fletcher are often similar, but that the most noteworthy differences occur in their use of 'hath' and 'has', 'you' and 'ye', and 'them' and "em'. Hoy and Partridge agree on these usages, but Hoy's work is based on a larger body of evidence.

Hoy also observes, on the basis of Foakes's and Hinman's studies of the compositors' work on the text, that Compositor B, who set rather less than half the play, is known to be inclined to alter 'ye' to 'you', so that there may be fewer 'ye's than one might expect in a scene ascribed to Fletcher.

From his study of linguistic preferences by the two authors, Hoy supports some of the traditional ascriptions and alters others. Thus he thinks that 1.3 and 1.4 are probably Fletcher's because of the frequent use of "em' even though there is no clear evidence from 'ye' and 'you'. However, he gives 2.1 and 2.2 to Shakespeare because the 'ye's occur grouped in clusters of two or three lines, as if a few lines here and there were interpolated or rewritten by Fletcher. Act 3, Scene 1 presents, he thinks, the clearest evidence of Fletcher's hand, but 3.2 is probably entirely Shakespeare's because again the 'ye's occur in a cluster. The same argument applies to both scenes of Act 4, which Hoy assigns to Shakespeare. In Act 5, Hoy agrees that Scene 1 is Shakespeare's, but is inclined to think that Scenes 2 to 4 are Fletcher's because of the general spread of 'ye's throughout each scene, although he does note a majority of 'you's in 5.2 and 5.3. Since Compositor X, who is not known to prefer one form to the other, set this act, no argument can be based on the compositor.

In sum, Hoy would tentatively ascribe to Shakespeare ten of the sixteen scenes (or 1,848 lines) and six to Fletcher (736 lines), thus reducing Fletcher's share of the play from over two-thirds in the traditional division to less than one-third. He also appends some nonlinguistic evidence, pointing out that there are clear signs of Fletcher's modes of syntax and rhetorical habits in the six scenes which linguistic evidence shows are probably his. He believes that 'the truth about Fletcher's share in Henry VIII is to be found where truth generally is: midway between the extreme views that have traditionally been held regarding it'.14 Hoy does not develop a theory of how collaboration may have worked, beyond the suggestion that Fletcher touched up certain of Shakespeare's scenes and added a few more of his own.

Non-linguistic tests for authorship based on style, structure, characterisation and the use of imagery have tended to cancel one another out because of their widely differing conclusions and their apparently subjective nature. Probably the most objective of these tests involves a comparison of the handling of sources by Shakespeare and Fletcher, though here too there are differences of opinion. A comparison is difficult since Fletcher wrote only one history play, Bonduca. As already mentioned, Baldwin Maxwell has shown that there is no verbal borrowing in Bonduca from its sources in Holinshed and Tacitus, but close borrowing from Holinshed and Foxe occurs throughout Henry VIII in the Shakespearean manner. Maxwell's conclusion is that 'a comparison of Henry VIII with its sources argues strongly against Fletcher's participation'.15 However, R. A. Law argues for Fletcher's share, noting that there are distinct differences in the handling of source material in the scenes ascribed to the two supposed authors. Law maintains that Shakespeare modifies his source material to clarify motivation, strengthen characterisation and increase dramatic power, whereas Fletcher uses the sources in a pedestrian way, without development of character or other signs of dramatic imagination.16

In the view of R. A. Foakes, there is much evidence in Henry VIII of a close reading of Holinshed and Foxe, often of material in widely separated sections of the chronicles which is then used in a single scene. This evidence of close reading, the compression of chronology for dramatic purpose, and the reshaping of material to bring out aspects of character are all in keeping with what we know of Shakespeare's practice and not typical of Fletcher. In any theory of collaboration, Foakes observes, 'it would have to be assumed that each author read independently not merely the sections in the histories relevant to the scenes he wrote, but all the material on the reign of Henry'.17 Bullough reaches a very similar conclusion in his study of the sources of the play.18

The argument of Spedding and some of his followers that metrical analysis could differentiate between two distinct styles in the play has been largely discounted. The argument from style is on stronger ground when it is concerned with syntax and rhetorical practice. Like Spedding, A. C. Partridge compares the 'difficult syntactical progression of Shakespeare' in the early scenes with the 'clarity of Fletcher' in certain later scenes19 and claims that Shakespeare neglects grammatical relationships for the sake of ideas and images: 'Few dramatists, except Shakespeare, could have drafted such structurally entangled accounts of events.' 20 However, after a number of examples, Partridge admits the possibility that complications of syntax may be the result of heightened feeling in particular scenes. Hoy likewise finds indications of Fletcher's syntactical and rhetorical habits in the scenes where there is clear evidence of his linguistic preferences. He gives a number of examples of Fletcher's favourite line structures, the use of repetition with different modifiers ('O very mad, exceeding mad, in love too', 1.4.28), the use of a second subject after the verb, and what he calls 'rhetorical cascades'.21

Other scholars have claimed that the different styles apparent in the play are functional and dramatically appropriate to the scenes where they are used. Alexander argues that the play would have been 'intolerably monotonous' had it been written throughout in the manner of Buckingham's farewell, 22 and Wilson Knight recognises three major variations in the style of the play, each with a particular dramatic function. 23 Northrop Frye points out that the low-keyed quality of the writing in much of the play is appropriate to its nature as pageant, that 'obtrusively magnificent poetry in the text accompanying such spectacle' would violate decorum.24

The division of critical opinion is as marked with respect to structure as it is over the question of style. Most of those critics who find serious faults in the play's structure blame dual authorship and a lack of close collaboratio

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Marco Mincoff (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Henry VIII and Fletcher," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XII, No. 3, Summer, 1961, pp. 239-60.

[In the following excerpt, Mincoff offers stylistic evidence to support his claim that Henry VIII consists of two portions: one written by Shakespeare and the other by John Fletcher.]

The appearance of a new edition of Henry VIII1 in which Fletcher's share in the play is regarded as unproven calls for an assessment of the more recent evidence for and against Fletcher. In an article on the authorship of The Two Noble Kinsmen2 not very long ago, I argued that the...

(The entire section is 18794 words.)

Language, Imagery And Spectacle

Linda McJ. Micheli (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "'Sit By Us': Visual Imagery and the Two Queens in Henry VIII" in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 452-66.

[In the following essay, Micheli investigates the contrasting visual images associated with Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and the significance of these to the play as both a romance and a chronicle history.]

The rewards that await the critic, director, or spectator who is attentive to the visual as well as the verbal elements of Shakespeare's plays have been amply demonstrated by Maurice Charney, Sidney Homan, Anne Slater, David...

(The entire section is 18097 words.)

Further Reading

Anderson, Judith H. "Shakespeare's Henry VIII: The Changing Relation of Truth to Fiction." In Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing, pp. 124-54. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Studies the "disjunction between fact and credibility and the tie between fabrication, or perhaps deception, and insight .. . in the characters of Henry VIII."

Baillie, W. M. "Authorship Attribution in Jacobean Dramatic Texts." In Computers in the Humanities, edited by J. L. Mitchell, pp. 73-81. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974.

Applies computer technology to the texts of Shakespeare and...

(The entire section is 1175 words.)