(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 Although Shakespeare clearly used historical documents (principally Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland [1577] and John Foxe's Actes and Monuments [1563]) to generate certain elements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 political power and the social order. Noll contends that “Shakespeare may very well have intended a note of doubt about England's future as well as affirmation,” given the implicit reflection on James I's rule, including suspicions of corruption and the circumstances of his ascension to the throne.

Many critics have studied Cranmer's prophecy, which occurs during Elizabeth's baptism at the very end of the play. Some critics feel that the prophecy draws together the two themes of history and political authority, and that his anticipatory celebration of Elizabeth's virtues and accomplishments is for Shakespeare's audience retrospective praise. However, as Maurice Hunt (1994) suggests, “it is possible to hear Cranmer's oracle as heavily ironic speech, unintended as such by the speaker but not by the playwright.” The significance of speech within the structure of the play is also emphasized by several recent critics. A. Lynne Magnusson (1992) comments on the uses of polite rhetoric as a mode of characterization, especially for Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon. In addition, the force of rhetoric—the slander that instigates some of the trials, the testimony offered during them, and the general silence of the two queens—contributes strongly to the development of the plot. Hunt claims that Henry VIII dramatizes the corruption and misuse of speech, as well as its redemptive power, and celebrates the political and historical events that made possible the writing and performance of dramatic histories—“the eventual triumph of speech over an impasse that the failure of language has brought about.”

Robert W. Uphaus (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “History, Romance, and Henry VIII,” in Iowa State Journal of Research, Vol. 53, No. 3, February, 1979, pp. 177-83.

[In the following essay, Uphaus examines how the historical facts of Henry VIII are absorbed by Shakespeare's use of romantic convention, and claims that the play “presents an historical confirmation of the literary experience of romance.”]

There are several ways that we can see how Henry VIII conjoins the events of history with the conventions of romance in such a way that the play presents an historical verification of the literary experience of romance. The first way is to examine the falls of Buckingham, Wolsey, and...

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Mark A. Noll (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Reformation and Shakespeare: Focus on Henry VIII,” in Shakespeare and the Christian Tradition, edited by E. Beatrice Batson, Edwin Mellen Press, 1994, pp. 83-101.

[In the essay that follows, Noll looks to Shakespeare's Henry VIII for help in understanding the nature of the English Reformation, as well as how the history of the English Reformation informs Henry VIII.]

William Shakespeare was born the year after John Foxe published the first English edition of his famous Acts and Monuments, a work that demonstrated how the testimony of martyrs—from the earliest centuries to the England of Mary Tudor only five years earlier—had...

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Ivo Kamps (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII,” in College English, Vol. 58, No. 2, February, 1996, pp. 192-215.

[In the following essay, Kamps claims that Henry VIII emphasizes the “relative unimportance of individuals in the historical process” and resists the idealizing tendencies of literary history.]

The methods and politics of history writing intrigued Shakespeare throughout his career as a dramatist. Among his earliest plays, Shakespeare's first tetrology already offers a full-blown conception of the shape of English history, interlacing Machiavellian ideas, providentialism, and Tudor ideology (see Rackin 27-9). The...

(The entire section is 10604 words.)

Anston Bosman (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Seeing Tears: Truth and Sense in All Is True,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 4, Winter, 1999, pp. 459-76.

[In the following essay, Bosman examines the “sensory orientation” of Henry VIII in order to observe the theatrical relation of truth and vision in the play.]


In 1986 the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare restored to one of Shakespeare's last plays the title by which it had been known to its first audiences: All is True. We now know the play as Henry VIII; but this title does not appear in print before the First Folio of 1623. In fact, spectators of the performance on 29 June 1613,...

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Barbara Kreps (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “When All Is True: Law, History and Problems of Knowledge in Henry VIII,” in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 52, 1999, pp. 166-82.

[In the essay that follows, Kreps studies Henry VIII, claiming that the play is preoccupied with issues of time, particularly with the retrospective glance of history and the anticipatory impact of law.]

In the last scene of The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight,1 Cranmer's prophecy provides Elizabeth's father with knowledge of the future not available at the play's ostensible chronological cut-off point in 1533; nor, because of the...

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Camille Wells Slights (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Conscience in All Is True (or Henry VIII),” in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespeare Studies and Production, Vol. 43, 1991, pp. 59-68.

[In the essay that follows, Slights argues that Henry VIII represents the politically subversive potential of Christian conscience, in a way that negotiates between a glorification of Henry VIII's reign and an examination of its undermining.]

Most historians today see the religious changes that took place during the reign of Henry VIII as a series of discrete events that only gradually were understood to constitute a Protestant Reformation. The text that was published in...

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David Glimp (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Staging Government: Shakespeare's Life of King Henry the Eighth and the Government of Generations,” in Criticism, Vol. 41, No. 1, Winter, 1999, pp. 41-65.

[In the following essay, Glimp discusses the interaction between political authority and anxieties regarding theatrical representation in the Elizabethan period, particularly in relation to Shakespeare's Henry VIII.]

From the very earliest moments of their emergence in the late 1570s, England's popular stages prompted fears that they were multiplying out of control. This was the case not only insofar as some people—including at one point Queen Elizabeth and her privy councilors—worried that...

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A. Lynne Magnusson (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Rhetoric of Politeness and Henry VIII,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 391-409.

[In the essay below, Magnusson examines the “social rhetoric of politeness” in Shakespeare's Henry VIII. The critic maintains that gender and class have an effect on speech patterns and attempts to “help us toward a new understanding of the social construction in language of dramatic character.”]

In Henry VIII, when the class-conscious Duke of Buckingham, conversing with the Duke of Norfolk and the Lord Abergavenny, becomes increasingly heated in his criticisms of the upstart Cardinal Wolsey, Norfolk offers this...

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Maurice Hunt (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's King Henry VIII and the Triumph of the Word,” in English Studies, Vol. 75, No. 3, May, 1994, pp. 225-45.

[In the following essay, Hunt argues that Henry VIII shares with Shakespeare's late romances an attention to the redemptive function of speech.]

For several decades, critics have recognized that Shakespeare's interest in the proper use of language, most intense during the phase of the great tragedies, extends to the late romances.1 Recently a paradigm of unusual kinds of speech that either rectify or offset inadequate language has been described in the group of plays beginning with Pericles and ending with...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Bliss, Lee. “The Wheel of Fortune and the Maiden Phoenix of Shakespeare's King Henry the Eighth.” In King John and Henry VIII: Critical Essays, edited by Frances A. Shirley, pp. 313-39. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988.

Contends that the “moral complexity” dramatized in Henry VIII is reflected in the appropriately contradictory elements and uneven structure of the play.

Brownlow, F. W. “From Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens.” In King John and Henry VIII: Critical Essays, edited by Frances A. Shirley, pp. 341-59. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.,...

(The entire section is 445 words.)