Henry VIII Henry VIII (Vol. 56)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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Henry VIII

Shakespeare's last history, Henry VIII has until recently been regarded as an inferior example of Shakespeare's chronicle history plays due to its mixing of genres, episodic structure, and uneven characterization. Shakespeare's authorship of the play has been contested, and many critics still debate over whether the work is the result of a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Contemporary critics, however, have become interested in questions internal to the play, such as the blending of historical representation with more familiar dramatic elements, and the potential consequences of this combination. Critics are also interested in the character of Henry VIII, particularly in comparison with the characterizations of the heroes in Shakespeare's earlier histories, as well as Shakespeare’s representation of the political dynamics of Henry VIII’s reign. The status of speech as performance has also become significant, and the portrayal of rhetoric, legislation, prophecy, and silence have increasingly occupied scholarly studies of the play.

One of the most notable features of the play is its complicated use of historical sources. Although Shakespeare clearly used historical documents (principally Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland [1577] and John Foxe's Actes and Monuments [1563]) to generate certain elements of the plot, he did take liberties with chronology and character. Several recent critics have claimed that the play is a sustained inquiry into the nature of historical knowledge, and that Shakespeare used Cranmer's prophecy and the audience's knowledge of what happened after the play's action ends to deepen and complicate the characterization of Henry and the political implications of his reign. Ivo Kamps (1996) excuses the often-criticized structure of the play by contending that Henry VIII is “not a disunified play about history but a play about disunified history.” Barbara Kreps (1999) examines the doubling of historical perspectives in the play—one within the action of the play, and the other of audience retrospection. Tying the issue of truth in the play to visual perception, Anston Bosman (1999) argues that the play suggests a skeptical approach to history, given the extent to which perception of an event is limited by others' representations and one's own distortions. Robert Uphaus (1979) examines how the historical facts of Henry VIII are absorbed by Shakespeare's use of romantic convention and reads the play as presenting “an historical confirmation of the literary experience of romance.” Mark Noll (1994) contends that historians can use the dramatic version of historical events to give life to their own accounts—particularly how the examination of Henry VIII can help in understanding the nature of the English Reformation.

Scholars are also interested in the representation of the political dynamics of Henry VIII's reign, and the implied reflection on the Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. As Krep notes, the characterization of King Henry is considered a departure from the idealized heroes of Shakespeare's earlier histories, especially in the portrayal of Henry's manipulation of the law for his own ends. According to Camille Wells Slights (1990), the pageantry surrounding the king is juxtaposed to questions of conscience, which highlight his increasing “self-legitimating authority” as a Protestant and as a king. The issue of the power of the king also appears in the break from papal authority, and the “triumph of a new Protestant order,” according to Uphaus. The ambivalence of this portrait of Henry VIII complicates any heroic or even sympathetic identification, and draws attention to what David Glimp (1999) calls the theatrical operation of government. This connection between performance and political authority provoked a profound anxiety in the Reformation period about the corrupting force of theatrical productions, particularly in representations of...

(The entire section is 81,969 words.)