Henry VIII: It Brought Down the House

Shakespeare's Henry VIII is not his best play

Titled Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s play focuses more on those around him, including Anne Bolyn (Bollen), Katherine of Aragon and Cardinal Wolsey.

When I began reading Shakespeare for his 450th birthday, I expected lots of exceptional poetry, vivid imagery, timeless character traits, universal conflicts and entertaining plays able to hold the attention of “common” English men and women in the Bard’s day. I didn’t expect pedestrian propaganda. I’d seen a little royal pandering in Richard III, but Henry VIII seemed to seethe with it.

The play tells the story of Henry VIII‘s transition from first wife—Katherine of Aragon to second wife—Anne Boleyn, the birth of Anne’s child Elizabeth, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey‘s fall from power (and change in attitude). It seems to carefully tread the razor-edge balance between loyalty to Henry (lightly criticized), respect for Katherine (virtuous to the end) and adoration for Boleyn’s daughter (Shakespeare uses Bullen as Anne’s surname).

Most scholars believe the play was written around 1613, making it one of his last plays (if not his last) and one probably written in collaboration with his successor John Fletcher. It is the only Shakespeare historical play that has no battle, and, I would argue, little drama. With no battle scene, it’s ironic that it’s the play that officially brought down the house as it was during battle-less Henry VIII that a cannon misfired igniting the theater’s roof-thatching and burning down the Original Globe Theatre. Players and audience escaped safely both the burning theater and the weak play. I suppose, in retrospect, it might have been better (i.e., safer) had they just included a battle scene or two.

Henry VII married Catherine of Aragon, brother to his dead wife.

Katharine of Aragon was caught in Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir to cement the dynasty’s future.

I didn’t like this play much. In fact, I’d say it was my least favorite Shakespeare play so far in my quest to read all of his plays by his 450th birthday. Henry VIII skirts huge issues (royal succession and the departure of England from the Catholic Church), but it never feels big and quickly drowns in a pool of suffocating, over-the-top praise of Elizabeth. Elizabeth was already dead by the time the play was written and performed, so I suspect it wasn’t written to increase the playwright’s influence with the queen. Was it to win influence with James I? Was it true appreciation and praise for the Virgin queen? Or was it an endorsement of royalty in general. I can’t tell.

Examples? How about:

Let me speak, sir, for heaven now bids me; and the words I utter let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth. This royal infant [Elizabeth]…though in her cradle, yet now promises upon this land a thousand thousand blessings, which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be…a pattern to all princes living with her, and all that shall succeed…truth shall nurse her, holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her: She shall be lov’d and fear’d…

Etc., etc., etc. I’m just glad it wasn’t “flattery.” It almost leaves me wondering if the play was written during Elizabeth’s reign for her enjoyment, forgotten and republished after her death. (I’m allowed one conspiracy theory per year.)

Was Henry VIII Official Government Propaganda?

Henry VIII daughter Elizabeth I

Shakespeare’s Henry VIII praised Elizabeth I effusively.

Some have suggested Shakespeare plays supported the official government line. Gary B. Goldstein, editor of the Elizabethan Review  and author of an 2004 article in the Oxfordian* entitled “Did Queen Elizabeth Use the Theater for Social and Political Propaganda?” cites several authorities who suggest this possibility:

[David] Bevington [author of Tudor Drama and Politics] succinctly describes the general themes and aims of Elizabethan playwrights during the Shakespearean era: ‘. . . discussions of royal succession, obedience to authority, the efficacy of public justice, and the dangers of religious civil war were central to most plays one could see, public or private. War plays whetted popular appetites for a hysterical hatred of foreigners and stay-at-home politicians, as in post-Armada jingoistic drama.’

Another modern historian, Lily Campbell, [in Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy] is emphatic about the systematic political uses to which the history plays of Shakespeare, in particular, were designed: ‘Each of the Shakespeare histories serves a special purpose in elucidating a political problem of Elizabeth’s day and in bringing to bear upon this problem the accepted political philosophy of the Tudors.’

*(Note: “The Oxfordian” focuses on honoring the person responsible for the works we attribute to William Shakespeare–and it claims it wasn’t William Shakespeare.)

I don’t know the motives behind the play, but I do know I’m awarding Henry VIII one Bard (only because that’s the lowest rating I can give it). This is the way Shakespeare’s career and his histories of English royalty end, “not with a bang, but a whimper”: Henry VIII earns one Bard.




Quotes I liked (for various reasons):

Abergavenny: I can see his pride peep through each part of him

Abergavenny: A proper title of peace; and purchased at a superfluous rate!

Norfolk: To climb steep hills requires slow pace at first

Norfolk: Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself: we may outrun by violent swiftness, that which we run at, and lose by over-running.

Buckingham: His mind and place infecting one another

Wolsey: If we shall stand still, in fear our motion will be mock’d or carp’d at, we should take root here where we sit, or sit state-statutes only.

Buckingham: I as free forgive you as I would be forgiven

Buckingham: This from a dying man receive as certain:—Where you are liberal of your loves and counsels, be sure you be not loose; for those you make friends and give your hearts to, when they once perceive the least rub in your fortunes, fall away like water from ye, never found again but where they mean to sink ye.

Bollen: By my troth and maidenhead, I would not be queen. …No, not for all the riches under heaven. …I swear again I would not be queen for all the world.

Queen Katherine: They should be good men; their affairs as righteous: but all hoods make not monks

Queen Katherine: Truth loves open dealing.

Queen Katherine: My lord, I dare not make myself to give up willingly that noble title your master wed me to: nothing but death shall e’er divorce my dignities.

Queen Katherine: Ye have angels’ faces, but heaven knows your hearts.

Wolsey: Now I feel of what coarse metal ye are moulded,—envy: How eagerly ye follow my disgraces, as if it fed ye! And how sleek and wanton ye appear in everything may bring my ruin! Follow your envious courses, men of malice; you have Christian warrant for them, and, no doubt, in time will find their fit rewards.

Wolsey: If I lov’d many words, lord, I should tell you you have as little honesty as honour

Wolsey: How much, methinks, I could despise this man, but that I am bound in charity against it!

Chamberlain: Press not a falling man too far! ’tis virtue: His faults lie open to the laws; let them, not you, correct them.

Wolsey: This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth the tender leaves of hope; to-morrow blossoms, and bears his blushing honours thick upon him; the third day comes a frost, a killing frost, and,—when he thinks, good easy man, full surely his greatness is a-ripening,—nips his root, and then he falls, as I do.

Wolsey: Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye: I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched is that poor man that hangs on prince’s favours!

Wolsey: I know myself now; and I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience.

Wolsey: A load would sink a navy,—too much honour: O, ’tis a burden, Cromwell, ’tis a burden too heavy for a man that hopes for heaven!

Wolsey: I am able now, methinks,—out of a fortitude of soul I feel,—to endure more miseries and greater far than my weak-hearted enemies dare offer.

Wolsey: Fling away ambition: by that sin fell the angels; how can man, then, the image of his Maker, hope to win by it? Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; corruption wins not more than honesty. Still in they right hand carry gentle peace, to silence envious tongues. Be just, and fear not: let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy country’s, thy God’s, and truth’s

Wolsey: My robe, and my integrity to heaven, is all I dare now call mine own.

Wolsey: Had I but serv’d my God with half the zeal I serv’d my king, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies.

Griffith: Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water.

Griffith: His overthrow heap’d happiness upon him; for then, and not till then, he felt himself, and found the blessedness of being little: and, to add greater honours to his age than man could give him, he died fearing God.

Cranmer: Men that make envy and crooked malice nourishment dare bite the best.

Cranmer: Love and meekness, lord, become a churchman better than ambition: Win straying souls with modesty again, cast none away.

Next Up? We’re leaving England for Greece: Troilus and Cressida

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6 Responses to “Henry VIII: It Brought Down the House”

  1. Scott Albers Says:

    I think Henry VIII was written in gratitude to Elizabeth I. I agree with your view that as a play it does not do much more than this. But Shakespeare was 19 when the Armada sank, the high point of her career. Most of his best plays were written or begun during the rest of her reign. I think he wanted to say thank you to Elizabeth and he would have felt ungrateful if he left his works behind without some comment on the central star of the age in which he lived his youth. Just as his farewell to the stage in The Tempest says thank you to the Globe Theatre, so Henry VIII says thank you to the Virgin Queen.

  2. admin Says:

    Scott, Thanks for your insight. Gratitude is, I suspect, fundamental to happiness and a powerful virtue. Your suggestion that it was Shakespeare’s appreciation for Elizabeth (Henry VIII) and for his marvelous career at the Globe and elsewhere (The Tempest) suggest Shakespearean happiness and present him as a large “souled” man. How fascinating it would be to converse with him.

  3. richard samuelson Says:

    This was a really lousy ( Shakespeare uses the word in this play ) play. I seriously doubt that he had anything to do with it. The same author who wrote Hamlet and Macbeth couldn’t have put his pen to HenryV111—–no way

  4. admin Says:

    Based on my experience with the plays, I’m with you on the quality. It’s probably my least favorite–was it merely pandering to an audience that was nostalgic for Elizabeth? It certainly doesn’t probe, inspire, challenge you the same as the others. Richard, maybe the conspiracy theorists have it right with this one exception! Maybe the man named Shakespeare didn’t write any of Shakespeare’s plays except Henry VIII!?

  5. Lance Moody Says:

    Thanks for this excellent essay. I did enjoy the play but certainly felt the heavy hand of rhetoric at time. Glad I found your site!


  6. admin Says:

    Thanks, Lance. I appreciate your encouragement.

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