Henry VIII Henry VIII (Vol. 61)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry VIII

Often characterized as one of Shakespeare's inferior history plays because of its perceived stylistic and thematic anomalies, Henry VIII has long been the subject of scholarly debate that focuses almost exclusively on its composition date and on issues of authorship. Many critics have speculated that Shakespeare composed Henry VIII as early as 1593, but more recent studies indicate that it was composed circa 1612. Stylistic and thematic similarities between Henry VIII and Shakespeare's later romances, as well as several topical allusions to the reign of James I (1603-1625), have helped make the case for a later composition date. A more enduring controversy regarding Henry VIII, however, has been the question surrounding its authorship. Prior to the twentieth century many critics characterized the play as disjointed and lacking cohesion, leading to speculation that playwright John Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on the play. Because of the authorship question, Henry VIII has often been excluded from discussions on Shakespeare's history plays in general. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, scholarship shifted from authorship questions to thematic, stylistic, and dramaturgical issues, and even though the specifics of authorship continue to inspire critical interest, the play has now been acknowledged as one of Shakespeare's most mature and cohesive visions of politics and history. In recent years, many critics have acknowledged that the play's concluding vision reveals Shakespeare's hope for the future of England as well as his view of history in the context of the political, cultural, and religious issues that were paramount during the Stuart era.

Henry VIII is primarily a history play, and as such, it draws heavily on chronicle, biographical and historical sources for its plot. It differs vastly from Shakespeare's earlier histories, however, because it does not concentrate on pageantry and historicity. As Jay L. Halio (see Further Reading) notes, it instead focuses on England and indigenous ideas, from both a political and a religious point of view. Even Shakespeare's depiction of the Reformation, according to Halio, does not so much defend reform as it supports English ideas and independence. Shakespeare's alteration of several chronological facts is seen as evidence of his intent to present a vision for the future of England that concentrated deliberately on the use and abuse of power. In his essay examining the historical sources that inspired Shakespeare to write Henry VIII, William M. Baillie (1979) makes a similar point, noting that this play was a theatrical anomaly compared to the other Henry plays—the action does not focus on “fool and fight,” but rather the text purports to tell the truth. In this regard, Baillie points to the alternative title of the play, All Is True, as evidence that Shakespeare intended this play to present his ideal of political rule. Through an examination of Shakespeare's historical sources, Baillie believes that the truth presented in the play consists not so much of literal historicity as psychological realism that probes the personal motivations and conflicts underlying the Reformation. Similarly, in an essay discussing the relationship between history and romance, Paul Dean (1986) argues that debate on Henry VIII should not focus on whether it is a history play, but rather on the type of history play it is. According to Dean, although Henry VIII can be characterized as a romance, its close reliance on chronicle sources also suggests it is a history, albeit an atypical one since it lacks pageantry or a comic sub-plot. Shakespeare was able to keep the audience at a distance, according to Dean, in order to make the thematic point that we apprehend history largely through other people's interpretations of it. In this sense, the critic contends, Henry VIII is less a chronicle play than one that reflects a deliberate, dialectical movement from romance to history in order to...

(The entire section is 61,110 words.)