Henry VIII (Vol. 72)
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
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 stage success. Indeed, Henry VIII, comparatively speaking is not a great play … Henry VIII has, nevertheless, a rather illustrious stage history.”1 This sharp discrepancy between aesthetic theory and theatrical fact is no mere invention of Craig's; in 1957 R. A. Foakes made similar observations in his introduction to the New Arden edition of the play. After noting the success of past productions like Henry Irving's, which “was immensely popular,”2 he went on (p.lxvii) to predict that, though the play “has long been subjected to a barrage of hostile criticism, it will probably continue to tempt actors by the fine parts it offers, and producers by its colour and pageantry.”
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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 terms the dramatization of the preceding years of political turbulence became a means of expressing a new communal sense of identity stemming from present unity and national power. Nowhere, however, do these plays so directly celebrate the contemporary age as in The Famous Victory of the Life of King Henry the Eighth. What provoked Shakespeare's return to the theme of British history well over a decade after the composition of Henry V1 and precisely how much he contributed to the writing of the play2 are points of continuing debate. To be sure, the popularity of the chronicle play had long since waned; whereas seventy plays based directly on British history were written between 1590 and 1604, only nineteen...
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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 as meaningless, its language as inflated, its treatment of history as evasive and propagandistic.1 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...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: McMullan, Gordon. “‘Thou Has Made Me Now a Man’: Reforming Man(ner)liness in Henry VIII.” In Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings, edited by Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, pp. 40-56. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, McMullan assesses Shakespeare's Henry VIII in relation to the Renaissance masculine ideal based upon restraint and moderation.]
‘Thou hast made me now a man’, Henry tells Cranmer after the archbishop has spoken prophetic words over the baby Elizabeth in the christening scene at the close of Henry VIII, announcing ‘never before / This happy child did I get anything’ (V, iv, 64-5). This claim of the king's that his masculinity has only now finally been established by his fathering (or perhaps more accurately, by Cranmer's christening) of a baby girl is a puzzling one, and one which has generally been ignored by critics. Yet Henry's appalling treatment of the two of his wives who are represented in the play, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Bullen, requires us to examine his (and the play's) definitions of what it means to ‘be a man’, to assess the relationship the play sets up between manliness and mannerliness—between the social parameters for appropriate conduct and the construction of masculinity—and to analyse the play's representation of Henry VIII as an intemperate...
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SOURCE: McMullan, Gordon. Introduction to King Henry VIII (All Is True), by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, edited by Gordon McMullan, pp. 1-200. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000.
[In the following excerpt, McMullan concentrates on the characterization of Queens Katherine and Anne in Henry VIII, noting the lack of more than superficial distinctions between the two figures in regard to the play's ambivalent treatment of the English Reformation.]
THE CHARACTER OF THE QUEEN
The crisis of the ‘late plays’ is always, in one way or another, a family crisis, and the breaking of deadlock in each of the plays is effected by or through women: Marina, Imogen, Perdita and Miranda unwittingly, Paulina consciously. As Wotton's emphasis on the problems of the ‘familiar’ might unintentionally suggest, much of the trouble in Henry VIII takes place within or in relation to the institution of the family, yet one crucial difference between Henry VIII and the ‘late plays’ is that the collaboration contains no itinerant, independent heroine. Katherine is perhaps the nearest in quality to a ‘late play’ heroine as she attempts to maintain an independent relationship with the King, yet she is consistently outmanoeuvred and finally effectively incarcerated. Anne appeals to Henry at least in part because of her apparent independence (which we judge, when we first...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. Review of Henry VIII. New York Times (27 June 1997): C3.
[In the following review of director Mary Zimmerman's 1997 production of Henry VIII, Brantley praises Jayne Atkinson's sympathetic Queen Katherine, but finds that the remainder of the cast members were unable to offer compelling interpretations of character. Brantley also comments favorably on the stage design, costuming, and blocking of the performance.]
Sometimes nature, not always known for its helpful stagecraft, can show a masterly sense of theatrical timing. In a recent performance of the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Henry VIII, which officially opened last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, a brisk wind swept the stage just as the wronged Katherine of Aragon (the first of Henry's six wives) was pleading that the monarch not divorce her.
The trees in the park seemed to sigh in sympathy as Katherine, played by Jayne Atkinson, presented her case to a less than sympathetic court; the documents in the hands of Katherine's nemesis, the ambitious Cardinal Wolsey (Josef Sommer), threatened to blow away, and as the words of the menaced queen melted from offended dignity into regal anger, there was little question which side the angels were on in this trial.
In this instance, nature was also showing sound critical judgment, coming down in...
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SOURCE: Evans, Greg. Review of Henry VIII. Variety 367, no. 9 (30 June 1997): 72.
[In the following review of Mary Zimmerman's staging of Henry VIII in New York's Central Park, Evans lauds the period design and costumes, and assesses the main figures in the drama—King Henry, Queen Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey—finding Josef Sommer's villainous clergyman the outstanding role.]
The Public Theater's 36-play Shakespeare Marathon that Joseph Papp started nine years ago comes to a fitting end with the play that closed the Bard's stage career, Henry VIII. Rarely performed for reasons of quality (the title character is, as written, thoroughly unremarkable) and superstition (legend has it that Papp thought the play cursed since the Old Globe Theater burned down during a performance), Henry VIII certainly won't convince anyone that it's top-drawer Shakespeare, but under Mary Zimmerman's efficient, often elegant direction the play, presented outdoors in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, at least seems sleeker than its untidy, episodic construction would suggest.
Best known for its pomp and pageantry—the Globe blaze was ignited by the production's use of cannonfire—Henry VIII here receives a streamlined staging that's almost miraculous in untangling the convolutions of the story. Zimmerman wisely avoids the avant-garde trappings that became de rigueur for...
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SOURCE: Smallwood, Robert. Review of Henry VIII. Shakespeare Survey 51 (1998): 219-56.
[In the following excerpted review, Smallwood comments on the excellently staged, designed, and performed Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry VIII directed by Gregory Doran.]
Gregory Doran's RSC production of Henry VIII at the Swan Theatre made splendid use of that exciting space. Robert Jones's simple and effective set had large double doors upstage, beneath a gallery where the musicians sat, with the words ‘All is True’ engraved across them in large roman capitals. The doors opened at intervals through the play (thus obscuring their ominous legend) for its great public shows to spill onto the stage: a version of the Field of the Cloth of Gold at the beginning, bass drum thudding, the entire company singing ‘Deo Gratias’, and a resplendent Henry trucked down stage astride a golden horse; the elaborate coronation procession for Anne Boleyn in her golden robe; and the christening at the end, Henry again trucked in, enthroned, more of ‘Deo Gratias’ in chorus, lots more gold, drumbeats and pomp, and a little bundle (palpably not a baby) to prophesy over. It was all ‘sufficient’, as Sir Henry Wotton wrote about that fateful early performance, ‘to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous’—and that was clearly the intention, for as each of these glamorous, carefully...
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SOURCE: Cox, John D. “Henry VIII and the Masque.” ELH 45, no. 1 (spring 1978): 390-409.
[In the following essay, Cox contends that Henry VIII can be understood “as an experiment in adapting the principles of the court masque to the dramatic tradition of the public theaters.”]
One of the few virtues that has consistently been allowed Shakespeare's Henry VIII is its success on the stage. To be sure, this virtue is usually regarded as compensatory, something a critic can talk about conclusively after giving one more inconclusive opinion on the play's dual authorship. Yet the virtue is real, if we can trust the consensus that traces it to the play's unusual concern with pageantry and spectacle. In the opening conversation between Norfolk and Buckingham we are immediately confronted with an elaborate description of sixteenth-century England's most extraordinary royal show: the Field of the Cloth of Gold. “Now this masque / Was cried incomparable,” remarks Norfolk; and while he clearly uses the term “masque” in a broad generic sense, he nevertheless serves notice of the play's preoccupation with royal entertainment.1 Late in the first act Henry entertains Wolsey in a rudimentary pastoral masque, accidentally infamous for its theatricality because it was announced with a discharge of small cannon whose wadding fired the thatch of the old Globe during the play's...
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SOURCE: Young, Alan R. “Shakespeare's Henry VIII and the Theme of Conscience.” English Studies in Canada 7, no. 1 (spring 1981): 38-53.
[In the following essay, Young identifies the theme of conscience as the central and unifying element of Henry VIII.]
Shakespeare's Henry VIII has been criticized for its lack of structural coherence; for its inconsistent presentation of characters; for its lack of sustained thematic unity; and for its linguistic deficiencies. Various theories, among them that Shakespeare wrote the play in collaboration with John Fletcher, have been argued in explanation (if not always in defence) of these supposed inadequacies. It has been suggested, for example, that the play's structure is epic rather than tragic and that the presentation of characters is consistent once that structure is understood.1 It has also been suggested that readers and actors have in the past mistakenly substituted popular misconceptions about the historical Henry VIII for the character presented in the play,2 and that, appearances to the contrary, the play is built around certain unifying themes, identified by R. A. Foakes as those of justice and injustice, and of patience in adversity.3
However, it has always seemed curious to me that the very obvious central theme of conscience has never been examined in any great detail. Paul Bertram offers...
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SOURCE: Leggatt, Alexander. “Henry VIII and the Ideal England.” Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 131-43.
[In the following essay, Leggatt examines the idealized image of England and its history intimated in the body of Henry VIII and fully expressed in Cranmer's prophecy at the end of the drama.]
At the end of Henry VIII Cranmer delivers a prophecy of the golden age of Queen Elizabeth, in a speech that seems designed both as the last in a series of striking set-pieces and as the culmination of the play's action. The elaborate and sometimes devious historical process the play has shown has been designed, we now realize, to allow Elizabeth to be born and to make this golden age possible. For the characters in the play, however, the age of Elizabeth lies in the future and, we are told, ‘Few now living can behold that goodness’ (5.4.22).1 For the audience it lies in the past. Like all golden ages it is just the other side of the horizon.2 If the author had been content to leave it there we might have been content to accept the convention. But Cranmer extends his idealizing vision to the present, to the reign of James; this too is part of the golden age. At this point the more realistic spectators might have reflected on the difference between dream and reality, and concluded that nothing gold can stay. The same train of thought might have prompted memories of...
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SOURCE: Kurland, Stuart M. “Henry VIII and James I: Shakespeare and Jacobean Politics.” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 203-17.
[In the following essay, Kurland traces affinities between King Henry of Shakespeare's Henry VIII and the historical King James I of England, the reigning monarch at the time of the drama's premiere.]
The allusion to James I in Cranmer's prophecy in the last scene of Henry VIII is unmistakable. Cranmer foresees an ideal reign not only for the “royal infant” Elizabeth but for her successor,1
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was, And so stand fix'd. Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror, That were the servants to this chosen infant, Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him; Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, His honour and the greatness of his name Shall be, and make new nations. He shall flourish, And like a mountain cedar, reach his branches To all the plains about him: our children's children Shall see this, and bless heaven.
The play's commentators have explained both the appropriateness of the prophecy and the function of its flattery variously.2 Perhaps the most convincing analysis is that of Lee Bliss, who calls attention to “the didactic function of panegyric in the Renaissance: idealized...
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SOURCE: Healy, Thomas. “History and Judgement in Henry VIII.” In Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings, edited by Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, pp. 158-75. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Healy highlights the theme of historiography in Henry VIII, exploring the drama's concern with the evaluation, interpretation, and malleability of historical “truth.”]
I love a ballad in print, alife, for then we are sure they are true.
Here's one to a very doleful tune, how a usurer's wife was brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a burden, and how she longed to eat adders' heads and toads carbonadoed.
Is it true, think
(The Winter's Tale, IV, iv, 251-6)
[D]id you not late days
A buzzing of a separation
Between the king and Katherine?
Yes, but it held not;
For when the king once heard it, out of anger
He sent command to the lord mayor straight
To stop the rumour, and allay those tongues
That durst disperse it.
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Baillie, William M. “Henry VIII: A Jacobean History.” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 247-66.
Places Henry VIII within the historical context of its first performance at the Globe Theatre in June 1613.
Berman, Ronald. “King Henry the Eighth: History and Romance.” English Studies 48, nos. 1-6 (1967): 112-21.
Surveys the major character-centered and dramaturgical (particularly masque-like) elements of Henry VIII.
Carney, Jo Eldridge. “Queenship in Shakespeare's Henry VIII: The Issue of Issue.” In Political Rhetoric, Power, and Renaissance Women, edited by Carole Levin and Patricia A. Sullivan, pp. 189-202. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
Studies Queens Katherine and Anne and the future Queen Elizabeth in Henry VIII, focusing on their principal connection to the issue of reproduction and the creation of an heir to the English throne.
Cook, Albert. “The Ordering Effect of Dramatized History: Shakespeare and Henry VIII.” Centennial Review 42, no. 1 (winter 1998): 5-28.
Presents a historiographical interpretation of Henry VIII that illuminates its emphasis on Machiavellian power politics, the ideological components of history, and the schematic function of binary...
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