Henry VIII Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII
by William Shakespeare

Henry VIII book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Download Henry VIII Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII

Ivo Kamps, University of Mississippi

The methods and politics of history writing intrigued Shakespeare throughout his career as a dramatist. Among his earliest plays, Shakespeare's first tetralogy already offers a full-blown conception of the shape of English history, interlacing Machiavellian ideas, providentialism, and Tudor ideology (see Rackin 27-9). The second tetralogy, culminating in Henry V, successfully dramatized a more complex grasp of the past, tarnishing the popular Elizabethan notion of the "great man" who bends history to his will (see Kamps 94-104). Even in a late romance such as The Tempest we discover that Shakespeare frames the basic conflict between Prospero and Caliban in terms of Prospero's "history" of his tenure on the island and Caliban's account of the same events (see Barker and Hulme). Other examples of Shakespeare's fascination with things historiographical are plentiful in the Roman plays and througout his oeuvre, but nowhere is his interst in the nuances of the production of historical accounts more pronounced and more thoughtfully treated than in Henry VIII (1613), a dramatic collaboration with John Fletcher. Deeply steeped in the historiographical developments that occurred in sixteenthand early seventeenth-century England, this play appropriates and dramatizes various contradictory historiographical methods and bespeaks a decisive break with official Tudor ways of thinking about the English past.

I.

(Shakespearean Criticism)

In The Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham represents the view of many Elizabethans when he decrees it to be the task of "historical Poesie" to record the "famous acts of Princes and the vertuous and worthy lives of our forefathers" (54). Arthur B. Ferguson, in his influential study, Clio Unbound, expands on this notion and suggests that Tudor historians cared little about social customs, institutions, and beliefs, and perhaps even less about secondary and largely informal causes, or anything else that reached "beyond the history of states as told in terms of the acts, the ambitions, and the tragic dilemmas of the actors themselves" (4,5). Alvin Kernan unites these views when he observes that Tudor playwrights appropriate the typical historical pattern for their historical dramas: "a weak or saintly king makes political mistakes and is overthrown by rebellious and arrogant subjects; the kingdom becomes a wasteland and society a chaos in which every man's hand is set against his fellow; after a period of great suffering, reaction against the forces of evil occurs, and a strong and good king restores order" (264). Henry VIII, it has been claimed repeatedly, is an aesthetic failure because it lacks a strong king as well as cohesive philosophy of history (Ribner 191).

It must be conceded that Shakespeare and Fletcher's Henry VIII fails to meet expectations raised by both Tudor historiographical practice and historical drama. The king is neither Puttenham's "great man," nor Kernan's "strong and good king [who] restores order." Joseph Candido describes him as a "well-intentioned yet strangely inattentive king" who fails "to address himself to the deep religious and political differences that divide his ministers" (56, 57). He is "blithely superficial" in his approach to the "grave and divisive issues of his reign" and too out of touch "to inspire our confidence in quite the same way that Henry V or even Bolingbroke does" (Candido 57). The central question here is whether Shakespeare and Fletcher are trying to portray the traditional "weak ruler" or aiming at something altogether different.

A second question is whether the play's episodic structure is due to a lack of both a consistent dramatic design and "a coherent and meaningful philosophy of history" (Ribner 291), or is instead a deliberate effort to portray history differently. How we answer these questions hinges on how we view the play's final scene and how we read Archbishop Cranmer's speech at...

(The entire section is 10,583 words.)