Henry VIII by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

Henry VIII.
Henry VIII is William Shakespeare's final historical play and indeed is one of the last plays Shakespeare ever wrote (his final play was The Two Noble Kinsmen, also with Fletcher, written around 1613-14). It was a collaboration with John Fletcher written around 1613 and it marks the end of Shakespeare's histories that start with the Plantagenet king, King John, and ends with the Tudor King Henry VIII. By the time it was written it was some 66 years after the death of Henry and 10 years after the death of the final Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, Henry's daughter. When the play was first performed England had its first Stuart king, James I.

Henry VIII is perhaps most famous for his six wives, Catherine of Aragon (to whom he was married for 24 years, mother of Mary I), Anne Boleyn (the mother of Elizabeth I), Jane Seymour (mother of Edward VI), Anne of Cleves (to whom he was married just six months), Kathryn Howard, and Katherine Parr. Two of these wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves, he divorced, two (Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard) were executed, one died in his lifetime (Jane Seymour), and Katherine Parr survived, dying a widow. His divorcing Catherine of Aragon lead to the split of England with the Catholic Church and the establishment of the Church of England. Shakespeare and Fletcher's play focuses on his two wives, Catherine of Aragon (Shakespeare and Fletcher spell Catherine "Katherine") and Anne Boleyn (spelled "Bullen" in the play):

Catherine of Aragon.
Married in 1509, divorced in 1533.
Anne Boleyn.
Married in 1533, executed in 1536.
The play begins with the Prologue, telling the audience that this is a serious play:
I come no more to make you laugh: things now,
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe,
Such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow,
We now present. Those that can pity, here
May, if they think it well, let fall a tear;
The subject will deserve it...
Cardinal Wolsey. 
Three Lords enter, Norfolk, Abergavenny, and Buckingham (Buckingham is Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, the son of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham who Richard III executed). They express their concerns over the influence of the Catholic Cardinal Wolsey on Henry VIII, Buckingham in particular, who is advised to keep his concerns to himself, but no avail: he is later arrested for treason. But, in Shakespeare's play, Buckingham was right about the influence of Wolsey on Henry, he is a favourite of the king's and abuses his status and powers, and because of Wolsey Buckingham will be executed, with Katherine expressing her doubts throughout.

By the time of Buckingham's trial Henry has met Anne at a masquerade ball hosted by Wolsey; as Buckingham's trial takes place, which is discussed by two gentlemen on the streets of London in Act II, there are already rumours that Henry favours Anne over his wife Katherine and wishes to divorce her, something Wolsey wishes to facilitate as he as shown great hostility to the Queen. A trial takes place and Henry remains loyal to Wolsey: the divorce is granted and Katherine is sent to Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire where she died in 1536. Henry is thus free to marry Anne, however the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Earl of Surrey, and the Lord Chamberlain are plotting themselves against Wolsey and they obtain letters between him and the Pope (Pope Clement VII) which show that Wolsey may appear to support the king, however, to the Pope, he shows opposition to the divorce. Wolsey is at last out of favour.

Elizabeth I.
Nevertheless Anne and Henry are married, and Katherine ultimately gives her blessing, herself showing signs of a grave illness. Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, and Henry and Cramner, Thomas Cranmer the Archbishop of Canterbury and new Chief Advisor, express their joy at her birth, Cranmer saying, among other things,
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be--
But few now living can behold that goodness--
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear'd: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself...
It must be said Henry VIII is a rather strange play and I gather even the loyalist of Shakespeare fans are forced to admit it isn't such a success. It's somewhat disjointed and it's very clear that history has been rather re-written to give a flattering tale of a king whose daughter had not long since died. It reminds me somewhat of John Bale's Kynge Johan (1534 - 1561) which, though about King John, was to flatter the king and give some legitimacy to the Church of England; as in Henry VIII, the Catholic leaders are portrayed as duplicitous and unreliable. It is still an entertaining enough play; Shakespeare, rather wisely I thought, left it at the birth of Elizabeth (very much on a high note) and didn't go on to write of Anne's execution and the subsequent four wives, however this is not a historical document and should not be treated as such: it's a play to entertain, above all else, and offers some kind of commentary on the establishment of the Church of England. Another interesting fact about Henry VIII: it is believed that this play, with the firing of canons, is responsible for burning the original Globe Theatre to the ground in 1613! Finally, it is a great drama concerned with the ideas of truth and falsehood and the manipulations and attempted manipulations of others, in this case a monarch.


And with that I have finished re-reading Shakespeare's histories! Reading them was a great experience; to me, Shakespeare's histories represent some of the finest writings in the whole of the Western Canon. I've said before but I'll say again: reading them in order of action was, I think, a good choice and I got so much out of them; the pleasure of reading the plays and a little education (I say that cautiously) on the Plantagenet Kings of England. I'll finish with a little re-cap: these are the kings Shakespeare has wrote about:

King John.
Reigned: 1199 - 1216.
Play: The Life and Death of King John (1596-97).
Edward III.
Reigned: 1327 - 1377.
Play: The Raigne of Edward III (1596, with Thomas Kyd).
Richard II.
Reigned: 1377 - 1399.
Play: The Life and Death of Richard II (1595-96).
Henry IV.
Reigned: 1399 - 1413.
Plays: The First Part of Henry the Fourth (1597).
and The Second Part of Henry the Fourth (1597-98).
Henry V.
Reigned: 1413 - 1422.
Play: The Chronicle History of Henry the Fifth (1599).

Henry VI.
Reigned: 1422 - 1461 and 1470 - 1471.
Plays: The First Part of Henry the Sixth (1591),
The Second Part of Henry VI with the Death of the Good Duke Humfrey (1591) and
The Third Part of Henry VI with the Death of the Duke of Yorke (1591).
Edward IV.
Reigned: 1461 - 1470 and 1471 - 1483.
Plays: The Third Part of Henry VI with the Death of the Duke of Yorke (1591) and
The Tragedy of Richard III (1592).
Edward V.
Reigned: April 1883 - June 1883.
Play: The Tragedy of Richard III (1592).

Richard III.
Reigned: 1483 - 1485.
Play: The Tragedy of Richard III (and the Henry VI plays).
Henry VII.
Reigned: 1485 - 1509.
Play: The Tragedy of Richard III (1592).
Henry VIII.
Reigned: 1509 - 1547.
Play: The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth.
Queen Elizabeth I.
Reigned: 1558 - 1603.
Play: The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth
What next? Well, I plan on reading a few more histories - Thomas of Woodstock (by an unknown author, 1582) and King John and Matilda by Robert Davenport (1655). Then I'm thinking about re-reading Shakespeare's four "Roman Plays" - Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus. I'm also rather looking forward to a return to Marlowe. All that said, I will miss reading Shakespeare's histories, and no doubt I'll read them again, especially looking forward to the best one of all - Richard III.


  1. if you had to identify one play which most accurately depicted the Elizabethan era, which would it be? or is that a pointless question? i'm just curious...

    1. That's a great and a tough question :) Well.... I think Henry IV Part I is a good one for representing the criminal underclasses of that period and more so (perhaps) the Elizabethan era. The plotting in most of the plays, too, I can't quite pick one (don't know enough about Elizabethans I'm afraid). Richard III is a major one because Shakespeare wrote of Henry VII as a kind of saviour of England rescuing it from tyranny - Henry VII was the first Tudor, Elizabeth was the last, so it gives a sense of joy and even legitimacy (if that's the right word). I think Richard III is, among many other things, a celebration of the Tudors and of Elizabeth. Finally Henry VIII and King John are good ones for portraying the religious divisions of the time and being in favour of the Protestants as Elizabeth I seemed to be. Those are my thoughts, anyway! What do you think? :)

    2. i think Henry iv part one is probably the most revealing, even though i have the feeling that a lot of it is exaggeration; after all, will had a different pit to amuse every night. but sort of looking through the rodomontade and horseplay, i get an impression of a kind of desperate pleasure-seeking that rings a bell of authenticity... life was pretty hard, then, and not many social services to catch an average person when his luck ran out... tx for the come-back...

    3. Henry IV is definitely a good choice for that, for the average every day man or woman of that time. That's possibly one of his best histories, objectively at least, because it doesn't just focus on the monarch and the aristocracy who are, by their nature, untypical. Even so I think I still prefer Richard III :)


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