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 showcase political reality, personal ambition, power, and religion.
The personification of power, as well as the dangers surrounding its use and abuse, is most clearly represented by the character of King Henry, especially in his dealings with Katherine, and to a lesser extent, with Anne Boleyn. Critical interest in Shakespeare's female characters in general has prompted many studies of Katherine and Anne. Kim H. Noling (1988) cautions that these powerful and sympathetic characterizations should not be misconstrued as a sign of Shakespeare's feminism. Rather, the play, by making the future Queen Elizabeth a virgin who would die a “most unspotted lily,” ultimately authorizes Henry's will to obtain a male successor for his throne. Ironically, however, while the work reflects Henry's anxiety regarding his dependence on women for a male heir, it also allows Katherine, both by physical placement and dramaturgy, to challenge, at least for a short while, the patriarchal ideology that dominates the play. In contrast, the character of Anne Boleyn receives approval and acceptance entirely from the male characters. Regardless, contends Noling, Henry VIII ultimately defines its queens by a dramaturgy that fully supports kingly power.
This focus on power and politics in the context of the Reformation was an issue of great interest to Jacobean audiences and has led many critics to analyze Shakespeare's use of Christian elements in Henry VIII. For example, Albert Cook (see Further Reading) claims that Shakespeare juxtaposed politics and Christianity within the play's action. The critic contends that in the end, although there is a strong Christian note, the play resolves itself via a paean of national affirmation—a combination of ideas that includes both politics and Christianity, ultimately defeating the sinister or Machiavellian powers that threaten the realm. In contrast, Roy Battenhouse (1994) proposes that in Henry VIII Shakespeare was presenting a clearly Christian vision of reality, where the theme of the vanity of worldly ambition resonates at the climax. According to Battenhouse, the earthly glory exhibited by the characters of King Henry and later prophesied for Elizabeth and James has led many readers and critics to assume that Shakespeare endorsed this success. Instead, contends Battenhouse, this play is centered very clearly on the Christian belief in God and providence, and should lead us to re-examine Shakespeare's stance toward Tudor and Stuart politics in the context of deeply-held Christian beliefs.