Frequently—and perhaps erroneously—regarded as an inferior example of Shakespeare's chronicle history plays, Henry VIII has until recently been neglected by many critics, except for those engaged in the at times heated debate over the true nature of its authorship. Included in the First Folio of the dramatist's works, Henry VIII is often seen as the product of two individuals: Shakespeare and John Fletcher, his sometime collaborator (notably on The Two Noble Kinsmen) and successor as chief dramatist for the King's Men. In the latter half of the twentieth century, a number of scholars have endeavored to move beyond this subject of authorship in order to focus on thematic, stylistic, generic, or dramaturgical issues in relation to Henry VIII. Still, contention over the specifics of the play's disputed writing remains a perennial interest.
The earliest claim of dual authorship in the modern era is generally attributed to James Spedding (although the idea itself is said to have originated with Lord Tennyson). Spedding's exploration of the subject in 1850 set the tone of Henry VIII scholarship for the next century, with many critics using the authorship debate as a launching point for discussions of the work as aesthetically flawed, episodic, and lacking in thematic unity. Faced with a dearth of external documentation that would settle the question, proponents of the two-author theory have nonetheless offered a considerable amount of stylistic evidence that would appear to indicate Shakespeare's collaboration with Fletcher on the work. Many have also divided the play into two parts, attributing between one-third and one-half or more of the text to Fletcher. Marco Mincoff (1961) has used both metrical and thematic evidence to support the claim of Fletcher's co-authorship. Members of the opposing camp have often taken a structural, comparative, or thematic approach to the problem. H. M. Richmond (1968) has observed numerous affinities of style, theme, and characterization between Shakespeare's late romances and Henry VIII that would suggest Shakespeare's primacy in writing the history. Paul Bertram (1962) has opted for a somewhat different approach, arguing that those critics who have embraced Spedding's dual author theory have failed to adequately demonstrate their point, and have only succeeded in contriving unpersuasive textual evidence to support an erroneous hypothesis. Because none of these arguments have proved adequate to settle the question of Henry VIII's authorship, critics have most recently decided to acknowledge the debate, but for the time being put this material aside in favor of other, longneglected issues. Among these, the subjects of aesthetic unity and generic variety have gained increasing interest. Responding to critics who see the play as episodic and fragmented, John Margeson (1990) and Peter L. Rudnytsky (1991) have argued for the work's thematic unity, with the former seeing it as a sustained "exposure and celebration of royal power" and the latter as a dramatization of the relativity of historical truth. Edward I. Berry (1979) represents another faction of scholars who have studied the complex question of genre in Henry VIII. Written near the end of Shakespeare's career, at a time when the dramatist was primarily concerned with the so-called late romances—including The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and others—Henry VIII appears to Berry as a blend of dramatic and generic conventions: chronicle history, tragedy, court masque, and romance. Seen as an amalgamation of dramatic forms, Henry VIII has also elicited interest—both as a literary/historical text and in performance—for its emphasis on visual spectacle and imagery. The play itself is punctuated by several scenes of grandiose, aristocratic pageantry, a fact that some critics note has contributed to its viability on stage despite such flaws as weak characterization and lack of a sympathetic hero. Moving beyond such dismissive assessments, F. Schreiber-McGee (1988) has focused on the cultural implications of spectacle in Henry VIII by arguing that the shift of aristocratic pageantry from the royal court to the public stage offered a direct challenge to long-accepted notions of political authority. Others, such as Linda McJ. Micheli (1987), have concentrated on the queens Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn—who many commentators feel are Henry VIII's only compelling characters—and the complex visual imagery with which they are portrayed.