Henry VIII: Essay Q&A
1. The events portrayed in Henry VIII are relatively close in time to when it was written and first performed. How does this affect Shakespeare's treatment of his subject matter?
King Henry VIII (1491-1547), the monarch in the play, was the father of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), whose reign coincided with the larger part of Shakespeare's writing career. Though it is not clear when the play was written or whether there were later amendments and additions, there is a contemporary statement that its first performance was in 1613, just ten years after Queen Elizabeth I had died and her successor King James I had come to the throne.
This proximity to real events had a major effect on how the play was conceived and written. On one hand, many in Shakespeare's audience would have remembered or heard about some of the events portrayed in the play. On the other hand, the play had to reflect the 'truth' as the Tudor monarchs and their heir, King James I, wanted it to be presented. This is not necessarily the same thing as strict historical truth. Then, as now, leaders influenced how they and their forerunners were portrayed. So the history comes with built-in 'spin.' This is true of all Shakespeare's history plays, but extra care was undoubtedly required with Henry VIII. Many of the people who watched Shakespeare's play would have known or been related to the characters it portrayed, and lived with the consequences of decisions taken in those times.
Henry VIII is portrayed as a generous and noble man of integrity, if at first inattentive to affairs of state. The less successful aspects of his reign are blamed on the cunning "holy fox" Wolsey, an unscrupulous self-seeker who has risen above his station through ruthless ambition. Wolsey is thus made a convenient scapegoat.
The play portrays Henry's second wife, Anne (the historical Anne Boleyn, named Bullen in the play), the mother of Queen Elizabeth I, as a sanitized version of the historical Anne, who was strong-minded and intelligent but unpopular. Shakespeare's Anne has little to say for herself and is remarkable only for her beauty.
Most importantly, the historical Henry had Anne beheaded on trumped-up charges of adultery after she failed to produce a much-desired male heir and he had tired of her. The play ends after Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, thus carefully avoiding the unpleasantness that followed (the fact that Cranmer, Cromwell and Sir Thomas More, who replaced Wolsey, all fell from favor and were executed by Henry is also ignored in the play). And while Shakespeare's Henry gives thanks for the baby Elizabeth as the best thing he ever produced, the real Henry saw the birth of a girl as a huge disappointment. However, history and Shakespeare's play largely agree in seeing Elizabeth's reign as a triumph, characterized as it was by a period of relative unity, tolerance, peace and prosperity.
2. Was the play written only by Shakespeare or did he have a co-author?
Henry VIII, originally titled The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight, was first printed at the end of the section of history plays in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays in 1623. There is no suggestion in the First Folio that anyone part from Shakespeare was responsible for the play.
The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was the first to suggest that the poet and playwright John Fletcher (1579-1625) also had a hand in the play. The theory was taken up by James Spedding in an article, "Who wrote Shakespeare's Henry VIII?" published in 1850 in Gentleman's Magazine (Aug-Oct 1850). Spedding wrote that he found two different styles in the play, one involved and thick with imagery, which he believed to be Shakespeare's, and the other showing a small proportion of thought to words and images, which he believed to be Fletcher's. This, along with other stylistic elements characteristic of Fletcher, led to his ascribing some scenes to Fletcher and others to Shakespeare. In the same year, Samuel Hickson made a similar division of the play, and Hickson's division has become orthodoxy for those who believe in co-authorship. It says that Shakespeare wrote Act 1, scenes 1 and 2; Act 2, scenes 3 and 4; Act 3, scene 2, lines 1-203; and Act 5, scene 1; and Fletcher wrote the rest of the play, including the prologue and epilogue.
Many believe that the strongest argument for Fletcher's co-authorship is provided in A C Partridge's The Problem of Henry VIII Reopened (Cambridge, 1949). Partridge saw two hands at work, divided by their choice of certain forms of words. Partridge argued, for example, that while Fletcher shows a preference for ''em' and 'ye,' Shakespeare uses 'them' and 'you.' Other critics have argued that this stylistic division may have another interpretation: that Shakespeare wrote most or all of the play alone, while Fletcher later amended some scenes. The editor of the Arden edition (1957), R A Foakes, comes down on the side of Shakespeare as sole author. Foakes bases his conclusion, which is followed by many twentieth-century critics, partly on the unity of sources for the play's scenes. The sources for the play were the historians Holinshed and Foxe, and the chronicler Halle, and almost every scene suggests a close reading of one or more sources. Foakes writes, "If two authors wrote the play, they read the same parts of these authorities with a strangely similar attention to detail."
Stylistic analyses that claim to find a division of authorship have often been prompted by an intangible feeling that certain scenes are 'un-Shakespearian.' However, another explanation is that Shakespeare was capable of writing prosaic or uninspired scenes. He certainly wrote scenes that have lost some significance over time, leading critics to see them as outside the 'unity' of the play. One such scene, which has been ascribed to Fletcher (Act 1, scene 3) shows courtiers mocking the outlandish French fashions that have invaded the English court since the Field of the Cloth of Gold event in France. Yet this scene is within the unity of the play, with its focus on the growth of an English national identity. The play portrays England at the start as being under the influence of foreigners, and at the end, as thoroughly English. It is also important to note that Shakespeare was more interested than most in eccentric fashions, and wrote about them in detail in several plays. Another disputed scene, Act 4, scene 2, is thoroughly Shakespearian in its themes of forgiveness and reconciliation with death.
3. Compare and contrast the trials in the play and how they are portrayed.
We do not see Buckingham's trial, which takes place offstage. The First Gentleman tells us that Buckingham pleaded not guilty and spoke eloquently in his defense, but was found guilty of treason. It is not clear whether Buckingham is guilty, but the trumped-up nature of his trial is evident from the dubious integrity of all but one (Sir Gilbert Perk) of the witnesses against him. The Surveyor was fired by Buckingham and therefore holds a grudge against him, as Katherine points out in vain; John Car, his confessor, is breaking the sacred trust of the confessional in testifying; and the friar, Nicholas Hopkins/Henton, fed Buckingham with prophecies that he would be king and shares in his guilt.
The most important aspects of the trial are the lead-up and Buckingham's speech afterwards. Before he is arrested, Buckingham tells Norfolk that he has evidence that Wolsey is guilty of treason. No sooner are the words out of his mouth than the sergeant-at-arms comes in to arrest Buckingham on Wolseys' orders - also on a charge of treason. Buckingham, as we have seen, is convicted on suspect evidence, and because of this, he never gets to air the evidence of Wolsey's treason that he claims to have. This looks suspiciously like a pre-emptive strike on Wolsey's part and shows that Wolsey's power is so great that he does not have to answer to justice - this time.
After Buckingham is convicted, he makes a speech in which he says that he "could wish more Christians" those who sought his downfall, and that they "never knew what truth meant". This is a severe indictment of Wolsey, who is the senior (Christian) spiritual authority in the land. Buckingham's accusations of Wolsey carry weight because now that he is about to die, he has nothing to gain from lying and to do so would put his soul in peril of damnation.
Buckingham's final speech emphasizes forgiveness of others, a major theme of the play. Driving home the guilt of Wolsey, the two Gentlemen remark that if he is innocent, his accusers will suffer "curses on their heads." This foreshadows the downfall of Wolsey that is to follow and maintains the cycle of accusation and recrimination that dominates the play.
Katherine's trial, like Buckingham's, seems a mere formality in that the king has already decided to divorce her and does not seem interested in the arguments brought, for instance, by Campeius. Throughout, she refuses to take part in the trial. She tries to appeal directly to the king, pointing out that she has been a loyal wife who has done nothing wrong. But when he does not engage with her, she vents her anger on Wolsey, whom she accuses of being her enemy and whom she will not accept as her judge. Then she simply walks out. We learn about her feelings from her conversations with Wolsey and Campeius, both of whom she mistrusts.
Katherine clearly has done nothing wrong, as the king himself confirms in Act 2, scene 4. But in terms of the grand purpose of the play, to celebrate the birth and life of Elizabeth, she is in the way and has to go, clearing the way for the king to marry Anne.
As with Buckingham, the most important aspect of Katherine's trial is what she says afterwards. Before she dies, we see her final transcendence of the cycle of accusation and recrimination that drives the play when she is moved by Griffith's speech about Wolsey to forgive him. It is no coincidence that afterwards, she has a vision of spirits offering her a garland symbolizing eternal happiness in heaven.
Wolsey's trial differs from Buckingham's and Katherine's in that he certainly has done wrong - though whether he has sinned enough to deserve his fate is debatable. We see the lords read the charges against him, which we know are backed up with evidence, and his replies are unconvincing attempts to shift the responsibility for his actions onto others. The contempt with which he treats the lords, and the shocking tenacity with which he holds onto his seal of office, show his worldly nature. A strong point in favor of Wolsey's guilt is the fact that he is brought down by his own actions, symbolized in the packet of Wolsey's own papers, which the king simply hands to him, and which incriminate him without anyone else's input.
As with Buckingham and Katherine, Wolsey's speeches after his conviction are most significant. He realizes his faults and achieves a peace and happiness that he never knew when he was ruled by ambition. He finds redemption and dies a penitent man in a monastery. Before he dies, he counsels his servant Cromwell to serve the king without ambition and in the interests of God, the country, and truth. That Cromwell takes his advice and defends the innocent Cranmer at his trial breaks the cycle of accusations and recriminations and redeems Wolsey's legacy.
Cranmer's case never actually comes to trial, but there is a preliminary hearing before the council. For the first time, the king takes a fully active part in the proceedings, watching the examination unseen. Cranmer is unique among the accused in this play as he is innocent of wrongdoing, and his chief accuser, Gardiner, is motivated by base malice and a lingering attachment to Wolsey. It may be for these reasons that the king intervenes by giving Cranmer a ring, to be produced at the hearing if he needs the king's protection. The moment Cranmer produces the ring, his accusers know the game is up. Subsequently, the king enters and makes them reconcile with Cranmer. Cranmer forgives them, in line with the theme of forgiveness in the play, and this ends the cycle of accusations and recrimination - paving the way for Elizabeth's reign, which was characterized by tolerance and unity.
4. Contrast the characters of Katherine and Anne.
Katherine is strong-willed and speaks her mind, even when this brings her into potential conflict with the king. She alerts him to the unjust tax and asks him to repeal it, both out of compassion and because she sees the danger of unrest caused by the tax. She also sees the ambition and worldly nature of Wolsey, when the king is blind to those aspects of his character, and that the testimony against Buckingham by his disgruntled former employee is suspect. At the beginning of the play, she is the most clear-sighted character. She fights Wolsey's and Campeius's arguments for the divorce, confident in her loyalty and blamelessness. After the divorce, however, the fight goes out of her and she pines away. She holds onto her anger against Wolsey until Griffith speaks kindly about him shortly before her death, when she is moved to forgive him. Then she has a vision of spirits handing her a garland symbolizing eternal happiness in heaven. She finds peace and redemption in death.
Anne, in contrast, is a slightly drawn character, remarkable only for her beauty. All the events involving her happen offstage. She begins to come to life in the scene in which she tells the Old Lady that she does not want to be queen or even a duchess. However, in the same scene, she accepts the king's gift of the title of Marchioness of Pembroke with barely a word about why she has changed her mind. Then she marries the king, is crowned queen, and gives birth to the baby Elizabeth, all offstage and without a word to the audience. We have no idea what is going through her mind and so cannot identify with her. This may well have been deliberate on Shakespeare's part because the subject of the historical Anne was politically sensitive: three years after he married her, the king had her beheaded on charges of adultery. Thus Anne's only role in the play is to give birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I.
In spite of the strong character of Katherine and the weak one of Anne, it is, ironically, Anne who shapes the events of the play by virtue of her very existence. Without her, it is doubtful whether the king would have thought of divorcing Katherine, and Queen Elizabeth would not have been born. In contrast, Katherine creates much sound and fury, which is, ultimately, futile.
5. Discuss the role of the ordinary people in the play.
Throughout the play, action is relayed to us and commented upon by ordinary people, called Gentlemen or "the commons." In addition, we are sometimes told the views of the ordinary people by nobles or royalty. The views of the people have two main purposes: they give us an important national perspective on events, outside the rarified world of the court; and they guide our sympathies and responses to those events.
For example, in Act 2, scene 1, the second of two Gentleman says of Wolsey, "All the commons / Hate him perniciously, and o' my conscience/ Wish him ten faddom deep: this duke as much / They love and dote on; call him bounteous Buckingham, / The mirror of all courtesy." Thus we are told that hatred of Wolsey is not confined to the nobles he impoverished or to Queen Katherine, whose divorce he engineered: it spreads beyond self-interest and suggests that he is destructive to the nation. Buckingham, on the other hand, is loved, suggesting that though Wolsey's justice has found him guilty, a wrong has been committed and the people know in their hearts that he is innocent.
In Act 4, scene 1, on the joyful day of Anne's coronation, the two Gentlemen meet again, mentioning that the last time they met, it was to see Buckingham coming from his trial - a sorrowful occasion. They also express pity for Katherine, who has been divorced and is ill. Thus they draw attention to a major rhythm of the play - the balancing of the fall of great people (Buckingham and Katherine) with the rise of new life and hope (Anne). The enormous crowd of jubilant people who gather in the street outside the court for Elizabeth's baptism in Act 5, scene 3 appears in stark contrast with the claustrophobic atmosphere in the council chamber in the preceding scene. The council chamber, where Cranmer endured examination by his plotting enemies, is characterized by unhealthy infighting and malicious accusations. The scene in the street, despite the unruliness of the crowd, is characterized by unrestrained joy and unity, foreshadowing Elizabeth's great popularity and success during her reign.
It is seen as dangerous for those in power to lose touch with the feelings of the common people. Katherine saves the king from a potential rebellion when she warns him in Act 1, scene 2 of the unpopularity among the people of Wolsey's tax. Thus the people are a type of barometer by which the health of the governance of the nation can be measured.
Henry VIII Study GuideChoose to Continue
- Henry VIII
- The Prologue
- The Prologue
- Act 1 Scene 1
- Act 1 Scene 2
- Act 1 Scene 3 & 4
- Act 2 Scene 1
- Act 2 Scene 2
- Act 2 Scene 3
- Act 2 Scene 4
- Act 3 Scene 1
- Act 3 Scene 2
- Act 4 Scenes 1 & 2
- Act 5 Scene 1
- Act 5 Scene 2
- Act 5 Scenes 3 & 4, and Epilogue
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Theme Analysis
- Top Ten Quotes
- William Shakespeare
- Essay Q&A