(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry VIII

One of Shakespeare's last plays, Henry VIII (c. 1613) pays tribute to the Tudor dynasty and celebrates the virtues of King Henry and his daughter Elizabeth. In addition to detailing the reign of England's King Henry VIII, the historical drama depicts the rise and fall of various people associated with his court, including the Duke of Buckingham, Cardinal Wolsey, Queen Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, as well as Archbishop Cranmer, who offers a prophetic speech at the close of the drama on the future grandeur of England. Often cited as one of Shakespeare's more structurally problematic histories, Henry VIII was not highly regarded by critics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An additional setback to the play's status resulted from the controversy surrounding its authorship—the disparate thematic elements and seeming lack of structural unity led some scholars to speculate that the play was written in collaboration with John Fletcher. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, an increasing number of critics have argued that the play is more structurally and thematically cohesive than earlier commentators perceived, and many have cited the play as an example of a mature playwright's use of established dramatic form to convey an evolved and more holistic view of life. In his introduction to the Arden edition of Shakespeare's Henry VIII, R. A. Foakes (see Further Reading) writes that like many of Shakespeare's later plays, Henry VIII expands its focus to include an entire “prospect of life,” and in doing so presents a vision of society that goes beyond the concerns of an individual character or isolated events. Instead, Foakes notes, in Henry VIII Shakespeare seems to include a “sweep of life shaped in a restorative pattern,” where different generations of characters work to create a new reality that erases the resentments of the past.

Henry VIII has been popular both with performers and audiences throughout its stage history. During the years immediately following its creation, the play was often performed on royal demand. John Wasson (see Further Reading) notes that some of the best-known Shakespearean actors of the nineteenth century vied for parts in the play and observes that in some cases the structure and language of the play were changed in order to accommodate well-known actors. According to Wasson, these changes were so pervasive that by the middle of the nineteenth century it was nearly impossible to obtain an original, unrevised copy of the play. Wasson theorizes that it was these changes and the resulting corruption of the original text that were largely responsible for the critical disfavor into which Henry VIII fell in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the mid-twentieth century, however, most productions of Henry VIII restored Shakespeare's original text. Critics have noted that Henry VIII contains some of the most elaborate pageantry in the entire Shakespeare canon, and many productions tend to focus on the visual aspects of the play. In reviewing Gregory Doran's 1998 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry VIII, Peter Marks (1998) praises the traditional staging and pageantry, including the bejeweled set and gold-flecked costumes, and contends that “this superb new staging brings out just about all the luster one could hope for.” Vincent Canby (1998) also lauds Doran's production, noting that it was “gorgeously designed and costumed” and “acted cleanly and without affectation.”

Modern scholars continue to be interested in Henry VIII's aesthetic merits and thematic complexities. While the characters in the play are not so fully developed as the characters in Shakespeare's romances and tragedies, numerous critics have explored the broad strokes that define the personalities of Henry, Anne Boleyn, Katherine, Wolsey, and others. Kristian Smidt (1982) explores Shakespeare's contradictory and ambiguous portrayal of his characters and posits that unlike Shakespeare's other histories, Henry VIII is a play of character rather than plot. In his commentary on Henry VIII Frederick O. Waage Jr. (1975) notes that while the play was ostensibly written to celebrate the marriage of James's daughter, Elizabeth, Shakespeare used the nuptials to reflect more generally on the nature of monarchy, power, and politics. Glynne Wickham (see Further Reading) views the play and its thematic concerns as articulating the message of peace and harmony that Shakespeare's patron, James I, wanted to express to his subjects. Wickham believes that the main impetus behind the creation of this play was an effort on Shakespeare's part to support James's efforts to redeem the character of Katherine of Aragon in anticipation of his daughter's marriage to the heir of the Spanish throne. Barbara Hodgson (1991) perceives a similar concern with national interest, including the glorification of the monarchy, as the play's main thematic thrust. Such other critics as Hugh M. Richmond (1996) see a link between this play and some of Shakespeare's early work, especially Richard III. According to Richmond, Henry VIII is not only similar to earlier histories in structure and language, but also in its treatment of the fall from power, sexual exploitation, and the human condition.

Peter Marks (review date 28 May 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Marks, Peter. “Political Spin Decked in Royal Trappings.” New York Times 147 (28 May 1998): B3; E3.

[In the essay below, Marks reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1998 production of Henry VIII directed by Gregory Doran. He praises the traditional staging of the play and comments on the production's pageantry, including the bejeweled set and gold-flecked costumes.]

The English King's gilded throne positively shimmers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but gold is not all that glisters in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry VIII. Distinguished by the sparkling portrayals of Paul Jesson as Henry and Jane Lapotaire as the first...

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Vincent Canby (review date 14 June 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Canby, Vincent. “Does Shakespeare Really Need B12 Shots?” New York Times 147 (14 June 1998): AR4.

[In the following excerpted review, Canby evaluates the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry VIII at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, characterizing Gregory Doran's directorial effort as “a vigorous, clear-eyed, unhackneyed delight.”]

There probably isn't a scholar or critic in the world who would rate Henry VIII as one of Shakespeare's great history plays. It possesses no grandly iconic heroes or villains of diabolic ambitions. It contains no patches of soaring verse and commemorates no single splendid event that forever changed the...

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Russell Jackson (review date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1996-98: or, The Search for a Policy.” Shakespeare Quarterly 50, no. 2 (1999): 185-205.

[In the following excerpted review, Jackson lauds Gregory Doran's 1996-97 production of Henry VIII at the Swan Theater as a skillful balance of ceremony and stagecraft.]

At the 1996-97 Swan season the Shakespearean (or part-Shakespearean) attraction was Henry VIII, directed by Greg Doran. High doors at the back of the stage, with All Is True inscribed on them in large, elegant letters, opened periodically to reveal spectacular tableaux, beginning with a representation of the Field of the Cloth of...

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Albert Cook (essay date winter 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Cook, Albert. “The Ordering Effect of Dramatized History: Shakespeare and Henry VIII.The Centennial Review 42, no. 1 (winter 1998): 5-28.

[In the following essay, Cook examines the moral and political concerns of Henry VIII and contends that the play is a “historiography that interprets history by organizing it in the process of evoking it.”]


Henry VIII at its most powerful, like Shakespeare's other history plays, redeploys a meditation on and reenactment of actual history on the special, itself tensed space of the stage. It recombines into fulfillment the charged constituents of its themes, rather than...

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Jay L. Halio (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Halio, Jay L. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: King Henry VIII, or All Is True, by William Shakespeare, edited by Jay L. Halio, pp. 1-62. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Halio offers a brief overview of the critical history of Henry VIII, accompanied by an analysis of the main action of the play.]


Whether because of the authorship question, or because the play is, like King John, eccentric to the two great history cycles Shakespeare wrote earlier, critics have tended to slight King Henry VIII.1 This is unfortunate, for the play is fascinating in its...

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Frederick O. Waage, Jr. (essay date 1975)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Waage, Jr., Frederick O. “Henry VIII and the Crisis of the English History Play.” Shakespeare Studies 8 (1975): 297-309.

[In the following essay, Waage argues that Shakespeare was unable to “mythologize history” in Henry VIII, maintaining that this inability “signalled the virtual end of the reign of the English history play on the Stuart stage.”]

With regard to Shakespeare's Henry VIII, there is no doubt that the “fraction of commentary on the play not worried by the academic question of who wrote it is mostly patronizing and wholly disappointing. Both its foes and its few champions present … not the play as we have it, but...

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Kristian Smidt (essay date 1982)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Smidt, Kristian. “All Is True, or The Honest Chronicler—King Henry VIII.” In Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays, pp. 145-58. London: Macmillan, 1982.

[In the following essay, Smidt contends that unlike Shakespeare's other histories, Henry VIII is a play of character rather than of action and pageantry—a quality it shares with some of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies.]

Probably a majority of critics have seen Henry VIII as a play separated not only in time but in kind from the early histories. It is certainly different, but not because of the amount of pageantry it contains, as is often asserted, nor because of its use of...

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Barbara Hodgson (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hodgson, Barbara. “Uncommon Women and Others: Henry VIII's ‘Maiden Phoenix.’” In The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradictions in Shakespeare's History, pp. 212-34. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Hodgson argues that women play a crucial role in Henry VIII, noting that “only in Henry VIII do they become such spectacular sites, so to speak, for contesting and confirming royal authority.”]

Come over the borne, Bessy
Come over the borne, Bessy
Sweet Bessy, come over to me;
.....I am thy lover fair,
Hath chose thee to mine heir,
And my name is merry England.


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E. Pearlman (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Pearlman, E. “The Life of King Henry the Eighth.” In William Shakespeare: The History Plays, pp. 172-86. New York, N. Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1992.

[In the following essay, Pearlman theorizes that despite the prophecy declared by Archbishop Cranmer at the end of Henry VIII which celebrates the perfection of monarchy, the play emphasizes the “fragility, danger, and corruption of human institutions.”]

King Henry VIII stands apart from Shakespeare's other history plays in a number of important particulars. In the first place, it is separated from Henry V by the passing of almost a decade and a half (Henry V is generally dated...

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Hugh M. Richmond (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Richmond, Hugh M. “The Resurrection of an Expired Form: Henry VIII as Sequel to Richard III.” In Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, edited by John W. Velz, pp. 205-27. Binghampton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996.

[In the following essay, Richmond focuses on parallels between Henry VIII and Richard III, theorizing that Shakespeare drew upon Richard III to create the plot elements and structural patterns of Henry VIII.]

Negative critical comment on what is now often considered to be Shakespeare's last complete play1 usually argues that it relapses rather clumsily...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Berman, Ronald. “King Henry the Eighth: History and Romance.” English Studies: A Journal of English Letters and Philology 48, no. 2 (April 1967): 112-21.

Views Henry VIII as a balanced representation of thematic elements and modes of dramaturgy.

Candido, Joseph. “Fashioning Henry VIII: What Shakespeare Saw in When You See Me, You Know Me.Cahiers Élisabéthains, no. 23 (April 1983): 47-59.

Comparison of Shakespeare's Henry VIII with Samuel Rowley's When You See Me, You Know Me, proposing Rowley's work had a positive influence on Shakespeare's writing, especially...

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