Henry VIII (Vol. 72)


Henry VIII

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.)

Criticism: Character Studies

Gordon McMullan (essay date 2000)

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 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...

(The entire section is 5151 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Ben Brantley (review date 27 June 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 1015 words.)

Greg Evans (review date 30 June 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Robert Smallwood (review date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 1429 words.)

Criticism: Themes

John D. Cox (essay date spring 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 8200 words.)

Alan R. Young (essay date spring 1981)

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...

(The entire section is 7217 words.)

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 9249 words.)

Stuart M. Kurland (essay date 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 6474 words.)

Thomas Healy (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 7242 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 867 words.)