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Henry VIII | Context

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Shakespeare's Henry VIII is built around dramatic events in England that changed the course of political and Christian history. However, categorizing Henry VIII as a historical drama is problematic. Most of Shakespeare's historical dramas included a good deal of fiction, popular gossip, and inconsistencies with actual historical facts about the personae in his plays, and following suit, Shakespeare took poetic license with the timeline in Henry VIII. For example, Buckingham is arrested in Act 1, Scene 1 and executed in Act 2, Scene 1. Henry VIII is shown to meet Anne Bullen at Wolsey's party, between these two historical events. In actuality, the real Henry VIII executed Buckingham in 1521 and met Anne Boleyn (Bullen in the play) in 1526.

Henry VIII and His Wives

Henry VIII (1491–1547) is notorious for his many wives as well as for his ill health and erratic behavior later in life. Shortly after becoming king of England as a young man, he married Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536), spelled in some versions of Shakespeare's play as Katherine, and in others as Katharine. She had been widowed after just a few months of marriage to Henry's brother Arthur (1486–1502), and she claimed the marriage was never consummated. Catherine bore six children to Henry VIII, but only one survived—a daughter, Mary. Her failure to bear a surviving male heir rankled Henry VIII, who wanted to ensure his family line. His eye fell on Anne Boleyn (c. 1507–36), one of Catherine's ladies in waiting. He quickly moved to initiate a relationship with her. In 1527 Henry appealed to the pope for a divorce from Catherine, which the pope refused out of concern that Charles V (1500–58), the Holy Roman Emperor and Catherine's nephew, would be offended.

Henry, however, married Anne anyway, passing laws that separated the English church from the pope's authority and establishing himself as head of the Church of England, creating a turning point in Christianity. The seeds of the Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther were planted in this division from Rome, although Henry VIII would be fickle in his support for Protestant teachings and tended to agree more with Catholic teachings, except when it came to the pope's authority over his own marriage. Nonetheless, a long period of struggle and violence between Protestants and Catholics ensued.

Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), the Archbishop of Canterbury, annulled the marriage of Henry and Catherine, and Catherine was sent to live in the English countryside. Her daughter, Mary, grew up to be Mary I (1516–58), known as "Bloody Mary." She reigned from 1553 to 1558 and was notorious for her brutal and thorough executions of reformers and Protestants, including Thomas Cranmer.

Anne, however important to the central themes of Shakespeare's play, did not last long once Elizabeth I (1533–1603) was born. After two subsequent miscarriages, Henry VIII had her beheaded for adultery. He soon married Jane Seymour (c. 1509–42), who died in childbirth. He then married Anne of Cleves (1515–57), a German princess suggested by Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485–1540). Henry never liked Anne and shortly divorced her. Cromwell was on thin ice after this mistake and was executed shortly afterward as a result of the king's disfavor. Late in life Henry VIII married young Catherine Howard (1524–42) but then had her executed after he heard rumors of her infidelity. Finally, Henry VIII married Catherine Parr (1512–48), who cared for him until his death.

The Wheel of Fortune, Boethius, and Elizabeth I

Boethius (c. 475–c. 524 CE), a Roman scholar, philosopher, and writer created the idea of the Goddess of Fortune and her wheel, which became a popular and enduring literary symbol. He wrote Consolation of Philosophy when he was imprisoned for treason and underwent a fall from grace very similar to the main characters in Henry VIII. Consolation of Philosophy was the most widely read book in medieval times—except for the Bible—influencing many authors, including Chaucer, Dante, and later, Shakespeare. Elizabeth I translated the book from Latin into English in 1593, during an unhappy period in her life.

In Consolation of Philosophy, a character in Boethius's situation—innocent, yet in prison for a false accusation—receives a visit from Lady Philosophy, who comes to comfort him and explain why he cannot rely on Fortune, an untrustworthy and rival goddess:

  • Trusting in Fortune will create personal misery for everyone except Kings and Queens because they are empowered by divine influence or Providence and not subject to the arbitrary spinning of Fortune's wheel.
  • Virtue will always be rewarded, even if the reward comes after death.

The question of whether individuals rise or fall by their own efforts or due to fortune was a hot topic at court. In response, Shakespeare structures the play in a circular fashion, like a wheel, to illustrate how a successful ambitious person may fall from grace as the wheel of fortune spins. Typical of Shakespeare, he leaves his audience to draw their own conclusions regarding the power of free will versus fortune.

Shakespeare's Audience and Social Criticism

Shakespeare's audiences for the play represented a microcosm of Elizabethan England, from the groundlings standing in the pit on up to the royal boxes, including everyone in between. The order of seating in the Globe reflected social standing. Shakespeare gave each section of the audience what they could understand and appreciate. The groundlings would have loved the shooting of the cannon, the pretty costumes, and the trumpets, but the bulk of the play is aimed at would-be ministers and ladies and gentlemen who might have ambitions at court.

He also had the habit in all his plays of putting his criticisms of society, politics, and religion into the mouths of women, who could easily be dismissed as "untruthful," the popular notion of the day being that women were unreliable. Or, he put words of wisdom into the mouths of fools, jesters, laborers, idiots, and so on. Even his most notorious villains (Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Iago) speak words of illuminated insight.

The execution of justice in Henry VIII is similar to the play's own time. Audiences would not have missed the distinction between the appearance of guilt and actual guilt. The Catholic Inquisition to combat heresy was in full swing in Europe, and audiences knew that men in power could at whim declare a woman possessed by the devil and have Quakers, Jews, and others convicted as heretics. James I, King of England at the time Henry VIII was first performed, is reputed to have been highly superstitious and paranoid.

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