Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Westminster Palace. Royal palace in London in which most of the play is set. The vast palace affords the play’s producers rich opportunities for sumptuous spectacle. Life at the royal court often consisted of revels, masques, and displays of splendor. There is plenty of pageantry in Henry VIII, but there is also harsh and cold realism. As Shakespeare shows, King Henry’s court was a place of intrigue and counter-intrigue, of fulsome emotion and eloquence. His play exploits the size and layout of Henry’s palace for the various conflicts that are played out.
The play uses various rooms for different dramatic purposes. An antechamber, for example, is the setting for the duke of Buckingham’s outrage at Cardinal Wolsey and his aim—which is forestalled—to report to the king about the cardinal’s treachery. The palace itself is the place in which news of the birth of the daughter of Anne Bullen (Anne Boleyn) is first heard, and it serves as the locale for the play’s climax, in which the infant Elizabeth is baptized and eulogized by Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, in the final scene. The council chamber is the place where Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, makes suit to the king on behalf of the people who are upset by the court’s extravagance. An anteroom and yard are used for brief scenes in act 5 dealing with the bishop of Winchester’s unsuccessful attempt to destroy...
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Upon first reading, Henry VIII seems obscure and inaccessible to modern readers. Its episodic plot leaps from one group of characters to the next, relying on the audience's background understanding of Tudor history to fill in the gaps. Despite its difficulties, however, the basic format of Henry VIII looks more familiar. It can be seen as an Elizabethan version of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," a glimpse, although fictionalized, into the lives of the most famous public figures of the era. It examines the private and the public lives of England's rulers, and looks at what happens when personal likes and dislikes get tangled up with politics. Henry's desire to find a new wife is not just the story of a man having an affair; he is the king, and the woman he chooses will influence a nation and mother the heir to the throne. The squabble between Buckingham and Wolsey is not just the jealousy of two men competing for their boss's attention; the outcome is a matter of life and death and will determine whether nobles and commoners have equal right to rule. The popularity of stories about the personal lives of the powerful is borne out by the large collection of history plays written and performed during Shakespeare's time. Audiences wanted to know about the lives of their public figures, just as modern audiences are fascinated with the personal lives of the Kennedy family, or the British royal family.
For all its familiarity as a peek into the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baker, Herschel. Introduction to Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare. In The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, 976-79. Chicago: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. This introduction concentrates on the textual problems which have led critics to suspect dual authorship in this play.
Bevington, David. Introduction to Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, edited by David Bevington, 913-16. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1980. Bevington touches on several areas of interest concerning the play, including the question of authorship, the play's relationship to the earlier histories, theme, and character.
Foakes, R. A. Introduction to Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare, xv-lxv. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1957. Foakes provides a detailed discussion of authorship, date, and sources before going into great detail about the structure of the play. His character sketches focus mostly on the main characters.
Knight, G. Wilson. "Henry VIII and the Poetry of Conversion." In The Crown of Life, 256-336. London: Methuen, 1947. The chapter on Henry VIII is a rich source for further character study. Wilson examines Buckingham, Wolsey, Katherine, Henry, as well as many of the more minor characters.
Margeson, John. Introduction to Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare, 1-59. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Donoghue, Denis. The Sovereign Ghost: Studies in Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Emphasizes how Shakespeare portrays artistic as well as political order in Henry VIII.
Frye, Northop. A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance. Ithaca, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1965. Discusses the providential nature of Elizabeth’s birth at the end of the play and the manner in which the prophecy at her birth causes the play to function as a romance as much as a history.
Hamilton, Donna B. Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992. Argues that Shakespeare’s presentation of Henry VIII is a reflection on the religious controversies of Shakespeare’s day. Valuable in glimpsing the political issues behind Shakespeare’s negative portrayal of Wolsey.
Kermode, Frank. “What There Is to Know About Henry VIII.” In Shakespeare: The Histories, edited by Eugene M. Waith. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. Seizes on essential elements of Henry VIII for an understanding of the play’s place in Shakespeare’s canon. A good starting place.
Richmond, Hugh M. King Henry VIII. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. An informative...
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