Henry VIII The modernity of Henry VIII
by William Shakespeare

Henry VIII book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Henry VIII Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The modernity of Henry VIII

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Hugh M. Richmond, University of California, Berkeley

When the Shakespeare Program at the University of California, Berkeley, announced its production of Henry VIII—the first I know of in northern California—the very existence of so neglected a Shakespeare play was unknown to many students on our campus. Some of the more knowing argued that so unfamiliar a play could not have been written by Shakespeare and was therefore unworthy of revival. Initially my cast was hardly less doubtful, swayed only by the fact that our previous productions of such marginal texts as Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen had confounded pessimistic expectations by exciting their audiences to enthusiasm and delight by their distinctive theatrical impact. For all three of these late plays diverge from the critical expectations of most Shakespearians to the point that many scholars are still tempted to assert that they are at least in part by other authors, and therefore necessarily inferior. In practice, we found that the three plays display a unique stage blending of unpretentious naturalism of style (as in the crowd scene before the christening in Henry VIII, V.iii.l-90) unexpectedly combined with exploitation of the new scenic effects which Inigo Jones had recently imported from Italy (as in Katherine's deathbed vision, IV.ii.82). This bold combination of opposites displays the characteristic theatrical imagination of Shakespeare. In the case of Henry VIII, its diverse qualities of verbal realism and physical spectacle are so distinctive that they have had a sustained and decisive influence on the history of the English stage and even on the evolution of historical realism in the medium of cinematic film itself, as I propose to demonstrate. Without such performances as Sarah Siddons's playing of Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, the history of the modern stage would have lacked a formative influence in the development of naturalistic acting styles of which Method acting is only one example. In the event, such is this play's power to exact attention that our student production of Henry VIII was noticed twice in the august pages of the New York Times (6/5/89, 7/5/89).

Despite our minimal resources, the effect of our opening scene for the play was true to the theatrical tradition of its splendour, thanks largely to the costumes of our Dramatic Arts Department, for we anticipated the documentary sentiments of the play's Prologue by progressively assembling our whole cast on stage in period dress:

                           Think ye see
The very persons of our noble story
As they were living.

This required the marshalling of no less than forty-five distinctive characters, all attired in the extravagant Tudor costumes required by the text—since the script is uniquely exact for its times in specifying highly elaborate costume details (as in the stage directions for the coronation procession at IV.i.36). From the start, our audience was overpowered by this massive evocation of a whole Renaissance society, involving numerous historical characters, and not limited just to the obviously familiar major roles of King Henry, Cardinal Wolsey, Queen Katherine and Anne Bullen, but extending to Sir Thomas More, Archbishop Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell and a host of a scarcely less significant historical personalities. We cast our Prologue as a Court Lady, to match the importance of the female roles in the play (following the precedent of Tyrone Guthrie in 1949, who assigned it to the Old Lady for the same reason). Indeed, we altered the gender of the Lord Chamberlain to that of a duchess, identified as 'the King's Sister', for the same reason, and similarly transposed the sex of Lord Abergavenny to diversify Buckingham's faction. Women were a very significant part of Tudor culture, dating back to the time of Henry VII's dominant mother, Margaret Beaufort (see Richard III,

(The entire section is 3,647 words.)