(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 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.

William M. Baillie (essay date 1979)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Henry VIII: A Jacobean History,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 12, 1979, pp. 247-66.

[In the following essay, Baillie compares Henry VIII to other Shakespearean history plays, remarks on its realistic portrayal of Jacobean politics, and examines selected events and issues that occurred in the months immediately preceding the play's publication.]

On 29 June 1613 the first Globe Theater burned to the ground during one of the first performances of a “new” historical drama “representing some principal pieces of the Reign of Henry 8.”1 That play, without question, is the Henry VIII placed last among the Histories in the...

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Paul Dean (essay date 1986)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dramatic Mode and Historical Vision in Henry VIII, in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 175-89.

[In the following essay, Dean contends that while Henry VIII shares many of the dramatic elements of the late romances, it also adheres closely to its chronicle sources.]

In her recent book Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing, Judith H. Anderson includes a chapter on Henry VIII in which she neatly observes, “Divorce is more than an historical problem and event in Henry VIII. It is a theme in a broader and more conceptual way, involving the disjunction of...

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Annabel Patterson (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘All Is True’: Negotiating the Past in Henry VIII,” in Elizabethan Theater: Essays in Honor of S. Schoenbaum, edited by R. B. Parker and S. P. Zitner, University of Delaware Press, 1996, pp. 147-66.

[In the following essay, Patterson explores the relationship of Henry VIII to Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, noting that Shakespeare often modified facts in order to achieve a desired dramatic or thematic outcome.]

Wherein we are to crave pardon that we may plainelie declare and tell the truth: for in all histories the perfect and full truth is to be alwaies opened, and without it the same wanteth both authoritie and...

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Kim H. Noling (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Grubbing Up the Stock: Dramatizing Queens in Henry VIII,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn, 1988, pp. 291-306.

[In the following essay, Noling suggests that through the characters of Queen Katherine and Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare was endorsing kingly authority and the notion that the proper function of queens was to produce male heirs.]

In the romance world of The Winter's Tale, Leontes learns in his widowerhood to “care not for issue” (V.i.46),1 vowing not to remarry for the sake of the succession; with Paulina's prompting, he concludes that Hermione is irreplaceable. But for anyone dramatizing the reign of King...

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Gordon McMullan (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Thou Hast Made Me Now a Man’: Reforming Man(ner)liness in Henry VIII,” in Shakespeare's Late Plays: New Readings, edited by Jennifer Richards and James Knowles, Edinburgh University Press, 1999, pp. 40-56.

[In the following essay, McMullan explores Henry VIII's treatment of contemporary definitions of manliness, examining standards of masculinity and appropriate social conduct.]


‘Thou hast made me now a man’, Henry tells Cranmer after the archbishop has spoken prophetic words over the baby Elizabeth in the christening scene at the close of Henry VIII, announcing ‘never before / This happy child did...

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Alan R. Young (essay date 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Henry VIII and the Theme of Conscience,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. VII, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 38-53.

[In the following essay, Young examines the theme of conscience as exemplified by the character of King Henry, remarking that the historical events that inspired this play dramatized a fundamental difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant points of view.]

Shakespeare's Henry VIII has been criticized for its lack of structural coherence; for its inconsistent presentation of characters; for its lack of sustained thematic unity; and for its linguistic deficiencies. Various theories, among them that Shakespeare...

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Roy Battenhouse (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare's Henry VIII Reconsidered in the Light of Boethian and Biblical Commonplaces,” in Shakespeare and the Christian Tradition, edited by E. Beatrice Batson, Edwin Mellen Press, 1994, pp. 51-82.

[In the following essay, Battenhouse traces several parallels between Henry VIII and Boethian philosophy, remarking that the Boethian belief in God and providence reopens the debate regarding Shakespeare's stance toward Tudor-Stuart politics.]

The Prologue to Shakespeare's Henry VIII invokes as the play's frame the tradition of De Casibus tragedy, which scholarship has traced to contexts in Christian tradition and the Consolatio...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Anderson, Judith H. “Shakespeare's Henry VIII: The Changing Relation of Truth to Fiction.” In Biographical Truth: The Representation of Historical Persons in Tudor-Stuart Writing, pp. 124-54. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Presents a comparative analysis of the treatment of actual historical figures in Henry VIII and the biographical sources Shakespeare used to compose his play.

Champion, Larry S. “Shakespeare's Henry VIII: A Celebration of History.” South Atlantic Bulletin 44, No. 1 (January 1979): 1-18.

Argues that despite an apparent lack of narrative coherence,...

(The entire section is 544 words.)