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.