Henry VIII (Vol. 82)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Henry VIII, see SC, Volumes 2, 24, 41, 56, 61, and 72.
One of Shakespeare's last plays, Henry VIII (c. 1613) pays tribute to the Tudor dynasty and celebrates the virtues of King Henry and his daughter Elizabeth. In addition to detailing the reign of England's King Henry VIII, the historical drama depicts the rise and fall of various people associated with his court, including the Duke of Buckingham, Cardinal Wolsey, Queen Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, as well as Archbishop Cranmer, who offers a prophetic speech at the close of the drama on the future grandeur of England. Often cited as one of Shakespeare's more structurally problematic histories, Henry VIII was not highly regarded by critics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An additional setback to the play's status resulted from the controversy surrounding its authorship—the disparate thematic elements and seeming lack of structural unity led some scholars to speculate that the play was written in collaboration with John Fletcher. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, an increasing number of critics have argued that the play is more structurally and thematically cohesive than earlier commentators perceived, and many have cited the play as an example of a mature playwright's use of established dramatic form to convey an evolved and more holistic view of life. In his introduction to the Arden edition of Shakespeare's Henry VIII, R. A. Foakes (see Further Reading) writes that like many of Shakespeare's later plays, Henry VIII expands its focus to include an entire “prospect of life,” and in doing so presents a vision of society that goes beyond the concerns of an individual character or isolated events. Instead, Foakes notes, in Henry VIII Shakespeare seems to include a “sweep of life shaped in a restorative pattern,” where different generations of characters work to create a new reality that erases the resentments of the past.
Henry VIII has been popular both with performers and audiences throughout its stage history. During the years immediately following its creation, the play was often performed on royal demand. John Wasson (see Further Reading) notes that some of the best-known Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century vied for parts in the play and observes that in some cases the structure and language of the play were changed in order to accommodate well-known actors. According to Wasson, these changes were so pervasive that by the middle of the nineteenth century it was nearly impossible to obtain an original, unrevised copy of the play. Wasson theorizes that it was these changes and the resulting corruption of the original text that were largely responsible for the critical disfavor into which Henry VIII fell in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the mid-twentieth century, however, most productions of Henry VIII restored Shakespeare's original text. Critics have noted that Henry VIII contains some of the most elaborate pageantry in the entire Shakespeare canon, and many productions tend to focus on the visual aspects of the play. In reviewing Gregory Doran's 1998 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry VIII, Peter Marks (1998) praises the traditional staging and pageantry, including the bejeweled set and gold-flecked costumes, and contends that “this superb new staging brings out just about all the luster one could hope for.” Vincent Canby (1998) also lauds Doran's production, noting that it was “gorgeously designed and costumed” and “acted cleanly and without affectation.”
Modern scholars continue to be interested in Henry VIII's aesthetic merits and thematic complexities. While the characters in the play are not so fully developed as the characters in Shakespeare's romances and tragedies, numerous critics have explored the broad strokes that define the personalities of Henry, Anne Boleyn, Katherine, Wolsey, and others. Kristian Smidt (1982) explores Shakespeare's contradictory and ambiguous portrayal of his characters and posits that unlike Shakespeare's other histories, Henry VIII is a play of character rather than plot. In his commentary on Henry VIII Frederick O. Waage Jr. (1975) notes that while the play was ostensibly written to celebrate the marriage of James's daughter, Elizabeth, Shakespeare used the nuptials to reflect more generally on the nature of monarchy, power, and politics. Glynne Wickham (see Further Reading) views the play and its thematic concerns as articulating the message of peace and harmony that Shakespeare's patron, James I, wanted to express to his subjects. Wickham believes that the main impetus behind the creation of this play was an effort on Shakespeare's part to support James's efforts to redeem the character of Katherine of Aragon in anticipation of his daughter's marriage to the heir of the Spanish throne. Barbara Hodgson (1991) perceives a similar concern with national interest, including the glorification of the monarchy, as the play's main thematic thrust. Such other critics as Hugh M. Richmond (1996) see a link between this play and some of Shakespeare's early work, especially Richard III. According to Richmond, Henry VIII is not only similar to earlier histories in structure and language, but also in its treatment of the fall from power, sexual exploitation, and the human condition.
Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Marks, Peter. “Political Spin Decked in Royal Trappings.” New York Times 147 (28 May 1998): B3; E3.
[In the essay below, Marks reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1998 production of Henry VIII directed by Gregory Doran. He praises the traditional staging of the play and comments on the production's pageantry, including the bejeweled set and gold-flecked costumes.]
The English King's gilded throne positively shimmers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but gold is not all that glisters in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry VIII. Distinguished by the sparkling portrayals of Paul Jesson as Henry and Jane Lapotaire as the first of his six wives, Katherine of Aragon, this superb new staging brings out just about all the luster one could hope for in what has always been considered one of Shakespeare's lesser history plays.
The production, which opened on Tuesday night and runs through Sunday at the Majestic Theater, is an intimate, traditionalist treatment that goes in for none of the text alteration or contemporary commentary of the company's controversial new Hamlet. Under Gregory Doran's crisp, elegant direction, Henry VIII is played mercifully straight. Which means it pays homage to all the pageantry, posturing and human drama that drive this odd piece of monarchist propaganda, which by dint of its cheerleading is no doubt one of...
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SOURCE: Canby, Vincent. “Does Shakespeare Really Need B12 Shots?” New York Times 147 (14 June 1998): AR4.
[In the following excerpted review, Canby evaluates the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry VIII at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, characterizing Gregory Doran's directorial effort as “a vigorous, clear-eyed, unhackneyed delight.”]
There probably isn't a scholar or critic in the world who would rate Henry VIII as one of Shakespeare's great history plays. It possesses no grandly iconic heroes or villains of diabolic ambitions. It contains no patches of soaring verse and commemorates no single splendid event that forever changed the course of the British monarchy. It is essentially a patched-together propaganda piece.
The general belief today is that Shakespeare himself wrote less than half the text, and that John Fletcher and others were responsible for the rest. Part pageant, part history, the play seems to have been composed quickly and to order, possibly to celebrate the marriage of James I's daughter in 1613.
Yet as presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company during its recent 18-day residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Henry VIII is suddenly revealed to be a vivid and compelling theatrical artifact. Here is an emotionally charged, early-17th-century docudrama, gorgeously designed and costumed, acted cleanly and...
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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1996-98: or, The Search for a Policy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 2 (1999): 185-205.
[In the following excerpted review, Jackson lauds Gregory Doran's 1996-97 production of Henry VIII at the Swan Theater as a skillful balance of ceremony and stagecraft.]
At the 1996-97 Swan season the Shakespearean (or part-Shakespearean) attraction was Henry VIII, directed by Greg Doran. High doors at the back of the stage, with All Is True inscribed on them in large, elegant letters, opened periodically to reveal spectacular tableaux, beginning with a representation of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, with Henry on a golden charger, flanked by his queen and his cardinal. The space was later used for more intimate “discoveries,” but its association with spectacle was turned to good account for the final show, the christening of Elizabeth. Here Ann Bullen was brought onstage, to one side of the principal group, and the performance ended not with the text's epilogue but with the lights fading as she raised one hand to her throat.
Paul Jesson was a thoughtful, puzzled Henry, wrestling with his better feelings during the arraignment of Katharine (where he was placed centrally, his thoughts the focus of the proceedings); demonstrative with Ann Bullen, whom he kissed publicly during the scene at York Place; and...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Cook, Albert. “The Ordering Effect of Dramatized History: Shakespeare and Henry VIII.” The Centennial Review 42, no. 1 (winter 1998): 5-28.
[In the following essay, Cook examines the moral and political concerns of Henry VIII and contends that the play is a “historiography that interprets history by organizing it in the process of evoking it.”]
Henry VIII at its most powerful, like Shakespeare's other history plays, redeploys a meditation on and reenactment of actual history on the special, itself tensed space of the stage. It recombines into fulfillment the charged constituents of its themes, rather than just pointing toward any single theme. The fullness of effect comes through the managed combination of contradictory ideological elements as these undergo a represented supersession on stage.
In the domain of public action, which preoccupied Shakespeare through all of his histories and most if not all of his tragedies, a sense of Realpolitik is brought to dramatic realization as one constituent, but only one, of his presentation. We may call this element the Machiavellian, so long as that term may be understood to compass a somewhat broader sense of power actions than those discussed by the important Italian theoretician who shadows this stage. The term “Machiavellian” in this larger sense can be made to include...
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SOURCE: Halio, Jay L. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: King Henry VIII, or All Is True, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jay L. Halio, pp. 1-62. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Halio offers a brief overview of the critical history of Henry VIII, accompanied by an analysis of the main action of the play.]
Whether because of the authorship question, or because the play is, like King John, eccentric to the two great history cycles Shakespeare wrote earlier, critics have tended to slight King Henry VIII.1 This is unfortunate, for the play is fascinating in its own right, and as its performance history shows (see below), it can be most impressive on the stage. Many of the standard critical studies of Shakespeare's work fail to include it, preferring to end their discussions with an analysis and evaluation of The Tempest, as if it were the author's final work.2 When critics deign to consider King Henry VIII, they often dismiss it as almost an irrelevance. Even so astute a critic as Norman Rabkin, while recognizing that it is ‘in many respects a fine play’, regards its structure as ‘cynically arbitrary’, and damns it accordingly. He does not think Shakespeare took his subject seriously (otherwise, it could have been another great chronicle play), but instead he made...
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SOURCE: Waage, Jr., Frederick O. “Henry VIII and the Crisis of the English History Play.” Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 297-309.
[In the following essay, Waage argues that Shakespeare was unable to “mythologize history” in Henry VIII, maintaining that this inability “signalled the virtual end of the reign of the English history play on the Stuart stage.”]
With regard to Shakespeare's Henry VIII, there is no doubt that the “fraction of commentary on the play not worried by the academic question of who wrote it is mostly patronizing and wholly disappointing. Both its foes and its few champions present … not the play as we have it, but some preconception of what the play should be.”1 Unfortunately, many of the reformers of this condition seem to labor under a similar preconception, namely that the play is “mythical,” and must be considered a companion of Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest. In this view Anne Boleyn becomes a venus genetrix,2 and Shakespeare creates a mythical history “of a Tudor golden age emerging under the watchful eye of God from a long ordeal of tyranny and dissension.”3 The latter view, of course, has a place in the earliest Tudor chroniclers; the former assumes what I deny, that the last scene of the last act, predicting the glory of Anne's offspring, is an organic growth...
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SOURCE: Smidt, Kristian. “All Is True, or The Honest Chronicler—King Henry VIII.” In Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays, pp. 145-58. London: Macmillan, 1982.
[In the following essay, Smidt contends that unlike Shakespeare's other histories, Henry VIII is a play of character rather than of action and pageantry—a quality it shares with some of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.]
Probably a majority of critics have seen Henry VIII as a play separated not only in time but in kind from the early histories. It is certainly different, but not because of the amount of pageantry it contains, as is often asserted, nor because of its use of mythic elements, Christian or pagan, nor because of its alleged looseness of plot.1Henry VIII is unlike Shakespeare's English history plays of the 1590s because of its new approach to the treatment of character.
The pageantry is there, and the prologue apparently draws attention to it:
Those that come to see Only a show or two, and so agree The play may pass, if they be still and willing, I'll undertake may see away their shilling, Richly in two short hours.
The citizens, we are told in the beginning of Act IV, ‘have shown at full their royal minds’ by celebrating the coronation of Anne ‘with shows, / Pageants and sights of...
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SOURCE: Hodgson, Barbara. “Uncommon Women and Others: Henry VIII's ‘Maiden Phoenix.’” In The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradictions in Shakespeare's History, pp. 212-34. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Hodgson argues that women play a crucial role in Henry VIII, noting that “only in Henry VIII do they become such spectacular sites, so to speak, for contesting and confirming royal authority.”]
Come over the borne, Bessy Come over the borne, Bessy Sweet Bessy, come over to me; .....I am thy lover fair, Hath chose thee to mine heir, And my name is merry England.
—William Birch, “Come Over the Borne, Bessy”
On 14 January 1559, the day before her coronation, Elizabeth Tudor, “richly furnished, and most honorably accompanied,” rode in an open litter from the Tower through the City of London to Westminster, witness to a resplendent pageant, one of many in which she would be doubly inscribed, presented and re-presented. At Gracechurch Street, she saw a “gorgeous and sumptuous arch” spanning the street, covered with red and white roses and divided into three levels. On the lowest, two children, representing Henry VII, enclosed in a wreath of red roses, and his wife Elizabeth, enclosed in one of white, sat under one cloth of state, holding hands, “with the ring of matrimony...
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SOURCE: Pearlman, E. “The Life of King Henry the Eighth.” In William Shakespeare: The History Plays, pp. 172-86. New York, N. Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
[In the following essay, Pearlman theorizes that despite the prophecy declared by Archbishop Cranmer at the end of Henry VIII which celebrates the perfection of monarchy, the play emphasizes the “fragility, danger, and corruption of human institutions.”]
King Henry VIII stands apart from Shakespeare's other history plays in a number of important particulars. In the first place, it is separated from Henry V by the passing of almost a decade and a half (Henry V is generally dated about 1599, Henry VIII in the spring of 1613). During these years, the drama in general and the plays of Shakespeare in particular had undergone enormous changes. In addition, King Henry VIII is separate from the two sequences into which Shakespeare organized his history plays. In this sense it is similar to that other anomaly King John. But while King John seems to be an unenthusiastic and half-hearted revision of an earlier play, it is a play for which Shakespeare must take full responsibility. Henry VIII, on the other hand, though skillfully designed and fluently written, appears to many thoughtful judges to be composed in the manner of John Fletcher (with whom Shakespeare is known to have collaborated on...
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SOURCE: Richmond, Hugh M. “The Resurrection of an Expired Form: Henry VIII as Sequel to Richard III.” In Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, edited by John W. Velz, pp. 205-27. Binghampton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996.
[In the following essay, Richmond focuses on parallels between Henry VIII and Richard III, theorizing that Shakespeare drew upon Richard III to create the plot elements and structural patterns of Henry VIII.]
Negative critical comment on what is now often considered to be Shakespeare's last complete play1 usually argues that it relapses rather clumsily into what seems an archaic form: the chronicle or history play with which he began his career in Henry VI. The almost medieval complexity of this typically Tudor form draws heavily on diverse historical narratives to the point of risking the sacrifice of elegance in both style and structure to the exigencies of representing a plausible stage facsimile of the historians' consensus (or lack of it) about past events and personalities. After Richard III Shakespeare seems to move steadily away from the genre's characteristically discontinuous structure, which confounds Sir Philip Sidney's Aristotelian approach to the medieval tapestry of plots interwoven throughout such scripts as Henry VI. However, Shakespeare never wholly...
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Berman, Ronald. “King Henry the Eighth: History and Romance.” English Studies: A Journal of English Letters and Philology 48, no. 2 (April 1967): 112-21.
Views Henry VIII as a balanced representation of thematic elements and modes of dramaturgy.
Candido, Joseph. “Fashioning Henry VIII: What Shakespeare Saw in When You See Me, You Know Me.” Cahiers Élisabéthains, no. 23 (April 1983): 47-59.
Comparison of Shakespeare's Henry VIII with Samuel Rowley's When You See Me, You Know Me, proposing Rowley's work had a positive influence on Shakespeare's writing, especially his portrayal of the king.
Foakes, R. A. Introduction to The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: King Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare, edited by R. A. Foakes, pp. xv-lxii. London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1957.
Provides a critical analysis of Henry VIII, focusing primarily on its stagecraft, themes, and characters.
Kurland, Stuart M. “‘A beggar's book Outworths a noble's blood’: The Politics of Faction in Henry VIII.” Comparative Drama 26, no. 4 (winter 1992-93): 237-53.
Examines issues of political factionalism, birth, and personal conduct as they are explored in Henry VIII, noting that these...
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