This play is probably the least admired of the histories and is such a hash of pomp and incoherence that except for a few impressive speeches the work is excused as at best a collaboration between Shakespeare and maybe Fletcher. Spedding in the middle of the 19th century assigned to Shakespeare a little over five scenes: I.i, I.ii, II.iii., II.iv, III.ii.1-203, and V.i (Goddard, I 269; Garber 879). Bloom tries to salvage the thing by declaring it "An experiment in pageantry," but he admits that "No one in the drama is endowed with any inwardness; they are heraldic pictures with beautiful voices, which is all that Shakespeare wants them to be" (Bloom 685-686).
"The events depicted in Henry VIII begin in 1520, so that thirty-five years have passed since the conclusion of Richard III (Asimov 743) and Henry had been on the throne for eleven years. This means that Shakespeare never wrote a play devoted to the reign of Henry VII, who "strengthened his own position by beginning a deliberate policy of vilification of Richard III" (Asimov 744). "The play dramatizes the concurrent births of the English Reformation and the Princess Elizabeth in 1533, as well as the intertwined conflicts surrounding these occurrences" (Farina 151). "The dominant theme of Henry VIII is abrupt decline from eminence at court to ignominy, despair, and death" (Ogburn and Ogburn 1179). Shakespeare's main source is Holinshed's Chronicles.
Stratfordians congratulate themselves on a 1613 dating of the play, based on a letter written at the time of the Globe Theatre's fatal fire in June of that year, but costume records from early in Shakespeare's career -- the early 1590s at the latest (Clark 889) -- include gowns for Henry VIII and the Cardinal (Ogburn 386-387). Critics tend to have more to say about this fire than they do about the play (e.g., Wells 373-375; Garber 876f), which early seventeenth-century audiences seem to have known as its Folio subtitle, All Is True. Clark thinks it is significant for dating the composition of the play that Parliament "issued a vigorous act against the abuse of the name of God in plays" in November 1605, but Henry VIII uses the name of God "no less than thirty-two times in its pages" (Barrell, qtd. in Clark 890-891).
The material of the play is extremely touchy, since Henry VIII was Elizabeth's father, so it seems likely that by 1613 and the version we have from the First Folio, the authorities would have tampered with this one. What comes through is considered weak characterization therefore, Henry being called "Now hearty and jocose, now petulant, now regal and assured, but never anything for very long, he is shifty rather than complex" (Baker, in The Riverside 1025). These vacillations, though, may not be entirely inappropriate to the character, such as he is.
The style of the play is unShakespearean in its "portrayal of pomp and circumstance and of regal spectacle" (Wells 377), "more pomp and pageantry than drama" (Goddard, I 270). "The spectacular episodes are described in exceptionally lengthy stage directions" (Wells 377)."For all the play's spectacular qualities, its emotional range is comparatively narrow. Like most histories written early in Shakespeare's career, it is composed almost entirely in verse; but unlike those plays -- even Richard the Second, to which it is closest in style -- it has no violent action, no on-stage deaths, and little comedy" (Wells 377). "The structure of the play lays emphasis on set-pieces and on long, retrospective speeches, elegiac in tone, of self-defence and regret" (Wells 380)
We are told, and the voice (of the playwright?) can't emphasize this enough, this is not a comedy. We are urged to consider the people on stage as real and we should be sad for them. Do it, England!
"The first act, along with a little of the second, makes up what is almost a separate story of the fall of Buckingham. It is effectively handled but it contributes little to the rest of the drama" (Goddard, I 269). Norfolk tells Buckingham of the glorious meeting of England's King Henry VIII and France's King Francis I, although Cardinal Wolsey arranged the event and Buckingham despises Wolsey's ambition and manipulativeness. Wolsey is the son of a mere butcher, yet holds frightening sway over Henry, appointing officials and oozing pride. "There was a rumor, spread by those who were anti-Wolsey, to the effect that his father was a butcher. Somehow, the role of butcher seems particularly lowly and bloody to an aristocrat, but in this case, the tale is almost surely false" (Asimov 752). Buckingham remarks that many people ruined themselves financially buying clothes for the event -- "a comically dismissive account of the deleterious effects of French fashion at the English court" (Garber 881). Norfolk notes the high cost of the apparent peace between the nations; and France has already made a move to break it.
Cardinal Wolsey passes by and shoots a nasty look at Buckingham, who is enraged and almost follows him until Norfolk cools him down. But men arrive and arrest Buckingham, who knows Wolsey is behind the persecution. A reference to Wolsey as "fox" (I.i.158) suggests Burghley as the inspiration here (Ogburn and Ogburn 1185).
When he first appears, Henry VIII is leaning on Wolsey's shoulder, ready to hear testimony regarding the supposed treason of Buckingham. The impressive Queen Katherine -- 36 years old at the time, and six years older than Henry (Asimov 754) -- and Norfolk and Suffolk arrive to defend Buckingham, and Katherine makes the mistake of blaming Wolsey, in his presence, for sowing discord and wielding too much power. Norfolk objects to the taxation which Henry claims to know nothing about. One sixth of the commoners' earnings go to support wars in France. Wolsey claims only to know a little about this. Henry grants pardons to anyone who challenged Wolsey's tax, and Wolsey secretly tells the secretary to word the document so that it seems as if he interceded on behalf of the people.
Henry disagrees with Katherine's assessment of Buckingham. A surveyor formerly in Buckingham's employ claims that Buckingham has aspirations to the throne and seeks the downfall of Wolsey. Although Katherine discredits this guy, Henry is convinced Buckingham is a traitor and must stand trial. "Moreover, Wolsey, anxious to get rid of Buckingham, is supposed to have paid Knevet well for his testimony" (Asimov 758).
Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sands, and Sir Thomas Lovell chat about a dinner to be held at Wolsey's York Place.
At Wolsey's, Lord Sands, Lord Chamberlain, and others are seated for the feast. Anne Bullen (Boleyn) is seated next to Sands who takes an opportunity to kiss her. Wolsey lets the festivities begin. Some French ambassadors have arrived, but it's the King and others in shepherd disguises who enter, pretending to know no English. Henry selects Anne as a dance partner. Wolsey guesses the trick and identifies Henry, who does recognize Wolsey's ambitiousness, and finds out that Anne is one of Katherine's ladies.
It was supposedly at the King's entrance in this scene that the cannons were fired off that ended in the burning of the Globe to the ground on 29 June 1613 (Asimov 761).
In Westminster, "two anonymous Gentlemen who do much to stitch the play together" (Wells 378) discuss Buckingham. He was declared guilty at trial after his surveyor and other lowlifes testified against him. Wolsey has pulled other shenanigans in order to justify sending off Buckingham's son-in-law to Ireland. The common people hate Wolsey.
Buckingham is led forth. He claims his innocence and makes clear that he blames not the law but its manipulators, but he forgives all in order to cleanse his soul. Significantly, his phrase "long divorce of steel" (II.i.77) includes a key resonating word for this play (Garber 878). Buckingham honors the King and foresees him waking up at some point. Buckingham's father had joined the revolt against Richard III and was condemned without a trial, but Henry VII restored the Buckingham name. He points out that both he and his father were the victims of treachery by servants. "Shakespeare's own obsession with betrayal by a friend seems very strong in this, reminding us of the situation of the Sonnets" (Bloom 688).
The two men continue their conversation, noting that Henry and Katherine are rumored to be separating. Wolsey is said to be to blame for this too, since he is annoyed with the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V of Spain for not making Wolsey Archbishop of Toledo.
The Lord Chamberlain, Norfolk, and Suffolk agree that Wolsey has been undiplomatic with the Emperor and has too much influence over the King, including his sabotage of the King's marriage. Norfolk and Suffolk visit an angry Henry, but Wolsey is welcomed by him and the other two sent away. Cardinal Campeius heads a commission to investigate Henry's divorce. Wolsey has hired Katherine's lawyers. The King's new secretary Gardiner is also Wolsey's lackey.
Anne Bullen and an old woman cluck about Katherine being chucked after twenty years of marriage. This part of the scene will remind many of Juliet with her Nurse, or Desdemona and Emilia (Garber 880). Anne expounds on low birth and happiness being preferable to nobility and sorrow; she would not want to be a queen. The old woman snorts at that claim. The Lord Chamberlain visits and tells Anne that Henry totally likes her. Anne says she's unworthy. The Lord Chamberlain in an aside says that from Anne's beauty and honor will yield the King "a gem / To lighten all this isle" (II.iii.78-79) -- that is, Queen Elizabeth in the next generation.
At the divorce hearings, Katherine protests her fidelity and humility and asks for pity and justice. She asks for time to speak to her friends in Spain, but Wolsey tries to stop this, claiming that she has her chosen lawyers. Katherine attacks him verbally, accusing him of creating this marital rift and problems throughout the realm. She wants this matter of divorce reviewed by the Pope. Katherine leaves, and Henry reassures Wolsey of his trust that Wolsey is not responsible. He mentions his reasons for seeking the divorce -- primarily the matter of wanting a male heir. Henry is ill-at-ease about the divorce and resents the power of the Church, but is gladdened by the return of Cranmer as advisor.
"Katherine's defence would have had particular resonances if it had been played in the Blackfriars, because the chamber occupied by the theatre was the very one in which the hearing had taken place" (Wells 377).
Katherine requests a lute song in her dwelling in London, but Wolsey and Campeius visit urging her to give up her case or risk banishment. Distinguishing Henry's wishes from the Cardinals', she first resists but eventually pretends subservience. She refers to the fact that "Nothing but death / Shall e'er divorce my dignities" (III.i.140-141), with the pointed pun (Garber 878). "Not surprisingly, Mary does not make an appearance in Shakespeare's play" (Farina 153). The reference to feeling "Shipwracked" (III.i.148) can also be found in Oxford's letter to Robert Cecil on the death of Elizabeth (Ogburn and Ogburn 1185). Oxford, no doubt, could sympathize with Catherine of Aragon, having also been "abandoned by a monarch" (Ogburn and Ogburn 1185).
Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey, and the Lord Chamberlain unite together against Wolsey, who Henry now does blame for the awkward divorce business. Wolsey also has written to the Pope against Henry's marriage to Anne Bullen which Henry has seen and is outraged by. Campeius has returned to Rome without offering a resolution to the divorce matter and Henry already has married Anne. Cranmer, who will soon be made Archbishop of Canterbury, supports Henry. Katherine will be called Princess Dowager.
Cromwell confirms to Wolsey that the package was delivered to and read by Henry, but Wolsey still thinks he can get Henry to marry the French King's sister, Anne Bullen being an unacceptable Lutheran. He is threatened by Cranmer and his influence on the King. "Cromwell eventually did fall. In fact, by the time he was created Earl of Essex, he had already gotten into deep trouble with Henry over a different marriage and divorce" (Asimov 780).
Henry is perusing a document showing Wolsey's accumulated fortunes. When Henry leaves and Wolsey sees that Henry has also intercepted the letter to the Pope, he realized he is ruined. His lines, "though they are eloquent, take an outsider's view of his fate, as if he were writing a poem about it" (Wells 378). Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey and the Lord Chamberlain demand the royal seal from Wolsey and notify him that all his holdings must be forfeited to the crown. Wolsey realizes he did go too far and he tells Cromwell that he feels restored to himself now -- he is at peace. "He faces death more nobly than he has lived" (Wells 379). Sir Thomas More has replaced Wolsey as Lord Chancellor, Cranmer is Archbishop, and Anne Bullen is Queen. Wolsey surprisingly recommends to Cromwell an eschewing of ambition. "The problem is not Wolsey's wickedness but his littleness. This is no Iago or Macbeth, just a crooked administrator, an archetypal politician" (Bloom 689). But "Wolsey's great speeches proceeded from Lord Oxford's own ravaged heart" (Ogburn and Ogburn 1179; cf. 1185). Wolsey's "speech is a symbolic biography of Lord Oxford and his acceptance of annihilation" (Ogburn and Ogburn 1186). The latter portion of the speech does not apply logically to any obscurity of Wolsey, but it does make sense in relation to Oxford (Ogburn and Ogburn 1187).
Two men chatter about the coronation of Anne. Henry's divorce from Katherine has gone through and she is ill. The coronation parade passes and Anne is universally admired for her beauty. "The historical Anne Bullen was pregnant at her coronation, though this is of course never mentioned in the play" (Garber 887). The crowd was so thick, "a finger / Could not be wedged in more" (IV.i.58-59). One wonders about this odd reference, when her detractors included an extra finger among Anne's deformities!
A third man reports that the wedding was glorious, but that Gardiner, Bishop of Wincester, hates Cranmer and wants to be Henry's new secretary.
This coronation scene probably bears connections to James I's, and it includes oblique references to the Earls of Oxford's customary office on such an occasion (Ogburn and Ogburn 1188).
Whitehall was King James's palace at the time of the first performance of the play; the audience would have registered the pertinence of this "doubling," as they would, at the same time, have appreciated that "'Tis now the King's" was true in their time as in Henry VIII's. (Garber 883)
A failing Katherine hears about Wolsey's death and gives the guy credit for reforming towards the end. She has a vision of six white-robed spirits of peace, for whom she calls out. Those nearby note that she seems near death. An ambassador from the Holy Roman Emperor (Katherine's nephew Charles V), named Capucius, brings condolences. Katherine sends a letter to Henry requesting that her servants be cared for. She blesses Henry and makes clear her own funeral intentions.
"And the last act is even more detached. Against all dramatic and artistic principles it initiates a fresh line of interest in the account of the threat against Cranmer by the nobles and his defense by the King, in the face of the fact that Cranmer has figured scarcely at all in what has preceded" (Goddard, I 270). Stratfordians find little Shakespeare here, Oxfordians little de Vere.
Gardiner meets Lovell who is on his way to tell Henry that Anne is in labor and may die in childbirth. Gardiner hopes the baby survives, but he wants Anne, Cranmer, and Cromwell eliminated. He has riled up animosity towards Cranmer among the council lords, and Cranmer will have to appear before them.
"Also conspicuously absent from the events depicted in Shakespeare's play is Thomas More, martyred into Catholic sainthood by the king for his opposition (on principle) to Henry's divorce from Catherine and hasty remarriage to Anne Boleyn. The omission of More as a character is underscored by the reverent portrayal of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who supported the king's break with Rome, and by the depiction of Cardinal Wolsey as a brilliant but ultimately tragic and misguided counselor. (Farina 154)Henry speaks briefly with Lovell and Suffolk about Anne's condition. Suffolk leaves as Cranmer enters and Henry dismisses Lovell. Henry trusts Cranmer but recognizes that Cranmer has many enemies, so he gives him a ring to flash if things get too fierce at the council meeting.
The old woman announces the birth of Henry's daughter. "In the play's closing scenes we hear of the birth of this gem, the future Queen Elizabeth I; Henry's disappointment at her sex is played down, though the Old Lady who brings him the news (and obtusely says at first that the child is a boy) is clearly disappointed that she receives no more than one hundred marks as a reward" (Wells 379).
Cranmer is made to wait outside the council. Henry sees this and is enraged. Cranmer is called in and warned about heretical leanings. Gardiner is rabid and wants Cranmer removed from office, claiming that Henry wants Cranmer sent to the Tower, which is a lie, as Cranmer knows. Cromwell defends Cranmer, but the council vote for the Tower. Cranmer flashes the ring and the council members are worried. Henry enters, displeased, and Gardiner's sucking up is rejected. Henry demands unity here, and needs Cranmer as his new daughter's godfather.
A porter tries to keep people quiet as the christening event revs up.
Cranmer blesses baby Elizabeth. He anticipates great things for her and for the kingdom in what is for the play "perfect hindsight" (Garber 888) -- "a tacked-on and sycophantic eulogy not only of Queen Elizabeth -- which perhaps we could accept as she was dead and more obviously deserved at least a measure of the fulsome praise she is accorded -- but, less relevantly and less justly, of her successor, King James" (Wells 380). "Would the dramatist wait until his royal mistress had been dead for ten years before writing the scene in which her shining virtues and glorious reign are predicted by Cranner [sic] -- words which would have fed her appetite for praise and glory?" (Clark 889). Oxfordians doubt this scene is de Vere's (Ogburn and Ogburn 1189). And "When Cranmer's eulogy passes beyond Elizabeth, it becomes ludicrous.... This refers to Elizabeth's successor, James I, whom nobody could possibly recognize in this ridiculously fulsome description" (Asimov 789).
Henry is moved. "Henry VIII, who has not shone to advantage through much of the play, appears golden in the final act as he protects Cranmer and is happy over the princess" (Asimov 789-790). Henry expects to be in Heaven overlooking the girl's future, thanks all, and leaves to see Anne.
A self-conscious Epilogue has low-self-esteem and declares that the play won't please everyone.
"'All is true' translates into: Don't make moral judgments; they are neither safe nor helpful. Look at the grand pageant; listen to these elegiac laments; share the nostalgia for the glory that was Elizabeth" (Bloom 686).
"The world seems very old in Henry VIII" (Bloom 692). Oxfordians tend to speculate that this was a play left inicomplete at the time of de Vere's death, completed by other hands -- perhaps Fletcher, but maybe even Stanley (Ogburn and Ogburn 1186) -- and indeed perhaps debuting on the Globe stage in 1613 (e.g., Anderson 401). "And much of it is demonstrably his, although when he wrote it he was weak and profoundly weary," perhaps dictating his work at this point (Ogburn and Ogburn 1178). "We believe de Vere could never bring himself to finish Henry VIII because of hard feelings with Elizabeth that remained even after her death in 1603" (Farina 154). For Prince Tudor adherents, Oxford "would never have reminded the Queen of her own questionable legitimacy of birth" unless it were to make a critical point, "that her own birth had been no more regular than that of their son, in the hope that she might even yet pronounce him her successor" (Ogburn and Ogburn 1179).