Study Guide

Henry VIII

by William Shakespeare

Henry VIII Essay - Henry VIII (Vol. 72)

Henry VIII (Vol. 72)

Introduction

Henry VIII

For further information on the critical and stage history of Henry VIII, see SC, Volumes 2, 24, 41, 56, and 61.

One of Shakespeare's last plays, Henry VIII is considered by many scholars to have been written collaboratively by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. The historical drama details the reign of the English monarch King Henry VIII, and depicts the rise and fall of four individuals close to the king: Buckingham, Queen Katherine, Cardinal Wolsey, and Archbishop Cranmer, the last of whom offers a prophetic speech at the close of the drama on the future grandeur of England. While historically among the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's dramas, Henry VIII suffered a general decline in critical esteem during the twentieth century as scholars debated theories of joint authorship and focused on its apparently disorderly structure and lack of aesthetic unity. In the latter decades of the century, however, scholarship on the drama shifted from authorship questions to thematic, stylistic, and dramaturgical issues. Contemporary critics, H. M. Richmond (1968) among them, have been more likely to view Henry VIII as one of Shakespeare's more mature and cohesive dramas. Others, such as Larry S. Champion (1979), continue to acknowledge structural flaws in the work when compared with Shakespeare's earlier chronicle history plays, but suggest that the play's lack of unity is outweighed by its artistic merits, especially its visual spectacle and masque-like pageantry. Along similar lines, Edward I. Berry (1979) and others have suggested that Shakespeare successfully blended a number of generic modes in the work—history, romance, tragedy, and masque—and that its seemingly episodic plot reveals a subtle structural and thematic unity as it culminates in Cranmer's expression of hope for the future of England.

Near the close of the twentieth century, character-based study of Henry VIII has notably focused on the drama's female figures as well as its frequently denigrated or dismissed title character. In her 1995 essay, Jo Eldridge Carney (see Further Reading) examines the feminine roles in Henry VIII. Arguing that prior criticism has tended to emphasize dissimilarities between Queens Katherine and Anne, Carney highlights their similar identities as circumscribed females whose function is limited only to their reproductive potential. Gordon McMullan, in his introduction to the 2000 Arden edition of Henry VIII, also abandons the trend of contrasting the drama's queens in terms of Katherine's Catholicism and Anne's Protestantism, maintaining that such metaphorical distinctions fade as the play progresses and Shakespeare complicates his depiction of the English Reformation. In a 1999 essay, McMullan shifts his focus to King Henry, whom he suggests presents a portrait of masculine failings, describing the monarch as a counterexample to the Renaissance virtues of temperance, restraint, and moderation that comprised an ideal masculinity.

The status of Henry VIII as a contemporary stage drama in many ways mirrors traditional critical debate concerning the work, with modern productions generally designed to emphasize character, spectacle, political intrigue, and the sweep of historical fortune in order to overcome perceived limitations in its dramatic text. Ben Brantley reviews Mary Zimmerman's 1997 production of the drama at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, and finds Jayne Atkinson's Queen Katherine a moving and sympathetic figure, but describes the remainder of the performances as less than compelling. Brantley contends that the overall staging was “patchy” despite its moments of extraordinary visual opulence. Assessing the same production, Greg Evans faults Shakespeare's text for the episodic nature of the performance, but praises Zimmerman's elegant and lavish direction for overcoming some of the textual flaws. Evans also argues that Josef Sommer's villainous Cardinal Wolsey was the highlight of the show. Evaluating a British production, Gregory Doran's 1997 Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of Henry VIII at the Swan Theatre, Robert Smallwood notes the excellent possibilities that Shakespeare's history has to offer a skilled director and troupe. Smallwood admires not only the thought-provoking direction and set design, but also the outstanding performances by actors in the roles of Wolsey, Katherine, and Henry, whose interpretations emphasized an array of emotions—from the ruthlessness of male power to the tenderness of conscience.

Recent criticism of Henry VIII has frequently concentrated on one or more of three major subjects: the play's hybrid genre, its structural coherence, and its treatment of politics and history. Considering the generic qualities of Henry VIII and its relative merits as a stage drama, John D. Cox (1978) claims that the work should be viewed as a public adaptation of the courtly masque, a theatrical subgenre marked by lavish displays of royal power, authority, and opulence. Cox additionally argues that as an imitation of the masque, Henry VIII offered Shakespeare the chance to express Jacobean political ideals. Stuart M. Kurland (1987) explores a somewhat contrasting theme, contending that the fictionalized King Henry VIII of the play was a critique of Shakespeare's own monarch, King James I. Turning to combined thematic and structural issues, Alan R. Young (1981) contends that the central theme of conscience in Henry VIII endows the drama with an aesthetic unity, and suits its epic rather than tragic focus on character. In a complementary study, Alexander Leggatt (1985) concentrates on Archbishop Cranmer's prophetic speech at the end of Henry VIII, finding that its summarizing and idealizing sentiments about England and English history lend an overall harmony to the play. A final concern of particular interest to critics near the turn of the twenty-first century has been the subject of historiography. Albert Cook (1998, see Further Reading) examines Shakespeare's unique recombination of historical fact in Henry VIII, and highlights the ideological implications of the drama's alternate title All Is True. Similarly, Thomas Healy (1999) discusses historical rendition in Henry VIII, concentrating on Shakespeare's efforts to draw together differing, sometimes contradictory, historical perspectives in order to construct a Protestant vision of English history.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

H. M. Richmond (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Richmond, H. M. “Shakespeare's Henry VIII: Romance Redeemed by History.” Shakespeare Studies 4 (1968): 334-49.

[In the following essay, Richmond evaluates the merits of Henry VIII, including its unity, structure, characters, historical theme, and affinity with other Shakespearean dramas, and considers the issue of Shakespeare's collaboration with John Fletcher in the composition of the play.]

One of the more paradoxical statements in Hardin Craig's Complete Works of Shakespeare appears in his preface to Henry VIII, where he writes: “There seems no very close correlation in Shakespeare's plays between literary excellence and...

(The entire section is 7392 words.)

Larry S. Champion (essay date January 1979)

SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “Shakespeare's Henry VIII: A Celebration of History.” South Atlantic Bulletin 44, no. 1 (January 1979): 1-18.

[In the following essay, Champion analyzes the structure, characters, and themes of Henry VIII, suggesting that the play's lack of unity is outweighed by its artistic merits.]

To some degree each of Shakespeare's history plays was of political and social relevance to its original audiences. The interest in large part stemmed from the Elizabethans' fascination with their past; and, while on occasion particular contemporary political issues and problems were mirrored in an earlier historical context, in more general...

(The entire section is 7988 words.)

Edward I. Berry (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Berry, Edward I. “Henry VIII and the Dynamics of Spectacle.” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 229-46.

[In the following essay, Berry argues that Henry VIII, though not without its flaws, offers a successful blend of history, tragedy, masque, and romance. In addition, Berry examines the drama's structural pattern of four successive tragedies that culminate in Cranmer's prophetic vision.]

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...

(The entire section is 7720 words.)