Critical Evaluation

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Although he had not written a history play since completing Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600), near the end of his career William Shakespeare wrote one more history play, this time in collaboration with John Fletcher. Henry VIII is thus the last of Shakespeare’s histories not only in the date of its setting but also in its time of composition. The events of the play are much closer to Shakespeare’s own time than those of his other histories: Henry VIII died about eighteen years before Shakespeare was born. Moreover, Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, whose birth is hailed at the end of the play and who died in 1603, was queen of England during most of Shakespeare’s lifetime. Accordingly, Shakespeare had to treat certain political themes that might still have had current relevance more gingerly than he did events that had occurred two or three centuries before.

Another difference between Henry VIII and the rest of the history plays is its genre. By the time of the play’s composition, Shakespeare had written several of his most successful late romances, including Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610, pb. 1623), The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623), and The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). The modes of treatment used by Shakespeare in these plays were also applied to Henry VIII. This is particularly demonstrated by the way the play ends not tragically, but amid joy and reconciliation—as did Henry V. The play is also more episodic than Shakespeare’s later plays and is similar to the chronicle plays of an earlier era, showing another marked difference between this history play and its predecessors—again, except possibly Henry V.

King Henry himself does not so much dominate the action as coordinate it. The actions of all the major characters stand in reference to him, for all the participants in political intrigue wish to gain his ear or influence. Although he is personally involved in the play’s events, as evidenced by his divorce from Katharine and his courtship of Anne Boleyn, he is always somewhat above the fray, an image of the play’s wish for harmony.

If there is tragedy in Henry VIII, it is not that of the king himself but of Cardinal Wolsey, much as it is Brutus, not the title character, who is the tragic figure in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623). The audience sees Wolsey at the height of his power and intrigue, as he successfully maneuvers against Buckingham—until, like one of Christopher Marlowe’s “over-reachers,” he goes too far, and the wheel of fortune turns against him. Even though Wolsey is sentenced to death, Shakespeare, with his characteristic late insights into the mixed nature of much human motivation, gives Wolsey’s character a graceful and sympathetic turn as he goes to his end. In Wolsey’s final speech, he reveals to the audience how he feels about the way he has brought about his own fall. The cardinal faces his downfall and demise in a spirit of Christian humility and self-knowledge.

Scholars have speculated that Henry VIII was influenced by the masques prominent in the Jacobean court of the early 1600’s, as shown, for example, in the ball scene in act 1, scene 4. These masques, which integrated music and ceremony into the pattern of drama, prized a kind of serenity and a pleasing overall composition. For all the historical material and political jostling in the play, it concludes on a strongly positive note, with perhaps an implied exhortation to the reigning sovereign to develop the qualities that contribute to the making of a great monarch.

There is controversy...

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in abundance in the historical material of which the play is composed. The reign of Henry VIII was among the most eventful periods of English history. At the beginning of Henry’s reign, England was a minor country in an overwhelmingly Catholic Europe. At its end, England was a rising power of the north, a bulwark of Protestantism, and a pioneer in maritime exploration and trade. This development is shown in the play. Before it opens, Henry meets with the king of France at the Field of Cloth of Gold. This lavish and splendid occasion, eloquently described in the opening dialogue between Norfolk and Buckingham, celebrates Henry’s sovereignty. He is, however, one European crowned head in the company of another. At the end of the play, Henry, for better or for worse, has set England on its own course, in control of its own destiny. His divorce from Katharine of Aragon, potentially the most pettily personal of issues, is developed into a metaphor for wresting control of law and morality away from the pope and into the power of the English crown. At the end of the play, when the prophecies are made concerning Elizabeth, Cranmer says that her successor shall “make new nations,” a possible reference to the English colonization of Virginia that was occurring as Shakespeare was writing the play. The path of English history was changed forever.

The English Reformation—that is, England’s religious changeover from Catholicism to Protestantism—is not at the center of Shakespeare’s play. Neither a polemicist nor an ideologue, Shakespeare was concerned to honor the grandeur of the English royal family and the society for which it stood. Although Shakespeare’s positive portraits of Cranmer and the accused heretic Cromwell show that his sympathies lie with Protestantism, the play’s spiritual heart is not sectarian. Cranmer’s response of providential joy at the birth of Elizabeth is less political or religious than a kind of miraculous wonder reminiscent of the endings of Shakespeare’s romances. Elizabeth’s birth, like Leontes’ reunion with his daughter and heir Perdita in The Winter’s Tale, signifies that there is a bright future ahead for England. The unusually auspicious portents that arrive with the birth of the child operate to soothe the tensions and rivalries that have just transpired and to open the way for a hoped-for calmer, more serene era.

Although at the time of its first performances Henry VIII was called All Is True, Shakespeare treats English history, as he usually does, somewhat cavalierly—more as a dramatist than as a historian. Some of the events he dramatizes do not follow actual historical chronology, and occasionally he alters facts for dramatic effect. For example, in act 1, scene 1, the duke of Norfolk describes what happened at the Field of Cloth of Gold to Buckingham, who says that an “untimely ague” prevented him from being there. In fact, he was there, and Norfolk was not. Shakespeare alters these facts so he can show Buckingham’s reactions to the account that Norfolk gives. Elsewhere, Shakespeare again does not strictly follow his main source, Raphael Holinshed’s The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577; revised, 1587). For example, in act 3, scene 1, he expands Holinshed’s account of events for his own dramatic purpose, which is to show more vividly Katharine in a domestic situation and then in discussion with Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius. While these are not terribly serious alterations, comparison of the play with its sources provides some insight into the operation of Shakespeare’s creative imagination, as well as that of his collaborator, Fletcher.


Henry VIII (Vol. 41)