Henry VIII Henry VIII (Vol. 72)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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Henry VIII

One of Shakespeare's last plays, Henry VIII is considered by many scholars to have been written collaboratively by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. The historical drama details the reign of the English monarch King Henry VIII, and depicts the rise and fall of four individuals close to the king: Buckingham, Queen Katherine, Cardinal Wolsey, and Archbishop Cranmer, the last of whom offers a prophetic speech at the close of the drama on the future grandeur of England. While historically among the most frequently performed of Shakespeare's dramas, Henry VIII suffered a general decline in critical esteem during the twentieth century as scholars debated theories of joint authorship and focused on its apparently disorderly structure and lack of aesthetic unity. In the latter decades of the century, however, scholarship on the drama shifted from authorship questions to thematic, stylistic, and dramaturgical issues. Contemporary critics, H. M. Richmond (1968) among them, have been more likely to view Henry VIII as one of Shakespeare's more mature and cohesive dramas. Others, such as Larry S. Champion (1979), continue to acknowledge structural flaws in the work when compared with Shakespeare's earlier chronicle history plays, but suggest that the play's lack of unity is outweighed by its artistic merits, especially its visual spectacle and masque-like pageantry. Along similar lines, Edward I. Berry (1979) and others have suggested that Shakespeare successfully blended a number of generic modes in the work—history, romance, tragedy, and masque—and that its seemingly episodic plot reveals a subtle structural and thematic unity as it culminates in Cranmer's expression of hope for the future of England.

Near the close of the twentieth century, character-based study of Henry VIII has notably focused on the drama's female figures as well as its frequently denigrated or dismissed title character. In her 1995 essay, Jo Eldridge Carney (see Further Reading) examines the feminine roles in Henry VIII. Arguing that prior criticism has tended to emphasize dissimilarities between Queens Katherine and Anne, Carney highlights their similar identities as circumscribed females whose function is limited only to their reproductive potential. Gordon McMullan, in his introduction to the 2000 Arden edition of Henry VIII, also abandons the trend of contrasting the drama's queens in terms of Katherine's Catholicism and Anne's Protestantism, maintaining that such metaphorical distinctions fade as the play progresses and Shakespeare complicates his depiction of the English Reformation. In a 1999 essay, McMullan shifts his focus to King Henry, whom he suggests presents a portrait of masculine failings, describing the monarch as a counterexample to the Renaissance virtues of temperance, restraint, and moderation that comprised an ideal masculinity.

The status of Henry VIII as a contemporary stage drama in many ways mirrors traditional critical debate concerning the work, with modern productions generally designed to emphasize character, spectacle, political intrigue, and the sweep of historical fortune in order to overcome perceived limitations in its dramatic text. Ben Brantley reviews Mary Zimmerman's 1997 production of the drama at the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, and finds Jayne Atkinson's Queen Katherine a moving and sympathetic figure, but describes the remainder of the performances as less than compelling. Brantley contends that the overall staging was “patchy” despite its moments of extraordinary visual opulence. Assessing the same production, Greg Evans faults Shakespeare's text for the episodic nature of the performance, but praises Zimmerman's elegant and lavish direction for overcoming some of the textual flaws. Evans also argues that Josef Sommer's villainous Cardinal Wolsey was the highlight of the show. Evaluating a British production, Gregory Doran's 1997 Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of Henry VIII at the Swan Theatre, Robert...

(The entire section is 71,441 words.)