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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Henry VIII is William Shakespeare's final so-called "history play," one of a series of dramas focusing on British monarchs. The play encompasses the years during which King Henry VIII became disenchanted with his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and fell in love with Anne Bullen (Boleyn). It compresses 16 years of history into a short period, mixing up events in time and changing or skipping over others to ensure the monarchy in Shakespeare's time (Henry's daughter Elizabeth and his great-grandnephew James), wouldn't be offended. Scholars are uncertain of the date the play was finished, though most believe it was first performed in 1613, during the reign of James I.

Henry VIII has never been one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, in part because it focuses more on politics than on warfare or love. Unlike Shakespeare's other history plays, Henry VIII was written at the end of his career and perhaps was his last play. However, it includes enough political intrigue and stately procession, spelled out in long and detailed stage directions, to please any audience.

1. Henry VIII was originally titled All Is True.

Before the First Folio—the first collected written version of Shakespeare's plays, published in 1623—his drama Henry VIII was known as All Is True. Other writers of the time referred to it by that name in their own writings and letters. However, when the First Folio was published, the play was given the name Henry VIII. The subtitle "All Is True" has often been added to the title.

2. The Globe Theatre burned to the ground during a performance of Henry VIII.

On June 29, 1613, there was a performance of Henry VIII in London's Globe Theatre. The theater at that time had a cannon mounted in its roof, used as a special effect during scenes of battle or pomp. In the scene at the end of Act I, in which the king enters Wolsey's party, the cannon was fired, and it set the Globe's thatched roof on fire. The entire building burned down. An eyewitness described how the audience did not even notice the fire at first:

Their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds ... only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with a bottle of ale.

3. Henry VIII leaves out the beheading of Anne Bullen.

At the time when Shakespeare was writing Henry VIII, either Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Bullen (Boleyn), or James I, great-grandnephew of Henry VIII, ruled England. (The date of composition is uncertain.) Either way, Shakespeare would not have wanted to portray Henry VIII in a negative light. He focused on the machinations of Cardinal Wolsey, who actively worked for Henry's divorce from his first wife, ending the play with the birth of Henry and Anne Bullen's daughter, who became Elizabeth I. Shakespeare also left out the affair Henry VIII had with Anne Bullen's sister, Mary Bullen (Boleyn), just before Henry VIII fell in love with Anne.

4. Henry VIII is Shakespeare's only history play without battles.

Unlike Shakespeare's other history plays, from Henry IV to Richard III, there are no duels or battles in Henry VIII. The play instead stresses the political situation of the day, with the trial of Katherine of Aragon as its centerpiece. In his attempt to marry Anne Bullen, Henry had to annul his marriage to Katherine in court. The uses and abuses of power at court are the play's focus, and perhaps because of this, it is rarely performed today.

5. Henry VIII was written after Shakespeare "retired" from the stage.

Around 1611 Shakespeare retired from the stage and moved from London to Stratford. He occasionally traveled to London during this time, and though he no longer worked directly with theater folk, he was still writing. He wrote both Henry VIII and one other play, The Two Noble Kinsmen, probably in collaboration with playwright John Fletcher.

6. Shakespeare isn't the only author of the play Henry VIII.

Most critics now agree Shakespeare collaborated on Henry VIII with playwright John Fletcher. Fletcher often wrote with Francis Beaumont; the two put out 40 plays together. During that time he also wrote with Shakespeare, producing not only Henry VIII but the lesser-known Two Noble Kinsmen and a lost play, Cardenio. Scholars believe Fletcher may have written as much as two-thirds of Henry VIII, but there is no definitive proof to back that up.

7. Shakespeare's father saved valuable paintings from the religious purge of the real Henry VIII.

When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church over his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, he made himself head of the Church of England. Catholic artwork fell out of favor, and most of it was destroyed for emphasizing the worship of images, such as angels, or for depicting devils. At the time, John Shakespeare, Shakespeare's father, was bailiff of Stratford-upon-Avon. Around 1563 he was ordered to cover or destroy the paintings on the walls of the Guild Chapel in town, but instead he painted over them using limewash, a substance he likely knew would preserve the paintings. They were rediscovered in 1804 during a restoration of the chapel and covered up again. Experts completely restored the paintings—which cover the entire chapel—in 2016.

8. The real Henry VIII was a hypochondriac.

Henry VIII was obsessed with his health and had a coterie of physicians, apothecaries, and barber-surgeons to tend to him. One of his doctors, William Butts, even makes an appearance in Shakespeare's play. The king frequently took doses of herbal remedies for constipation and gout and treated himself often, building up a medical cabinet full of remedies. He refused to visit anyone who was ill, including Anne Bullen when she came down with the dreaded "sweating sickness" (probably cholera), though she survived. Later in life he developed ulcers and blood clots, and it's likely he was also diabetic.

9. The great English critic and essayist Samuel Johnson considered Henry VIII to be "tender and pathetic."

Samuel Johnson, a famous 18th-century English writer, saw a production of Henry VIII and, though he considered it one of Shakespeare's second-rate history plays, was impressed by it. He wrote that the play succeeded above any other of Shakespeare's tragedies, adding:

And perhaps above any scene in any other poet, tender and pathetic, without gods, or furies, or poisons, or precipices, without the help of romantic circumstances, without improbable sallies of poetical lamentations, and without any throes of tumultuous miseries.

10. An 18th-century artist used figures from Henry VIII to satirize his own era's politics.

William Hogarth was an 18th-century English satirical painter, much like a modern editorial cartoonist. In Hogarth's time the prime minister, Robert Walpole, was universally despised, unpopular, and accused of corruption. Walpole had even been imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1712 for corruption, nine years before becoming prime minister. In a work titled The Marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn—created after Hogarth saw a 1727 production of Shakespeare's play—he placed Walpole's face on an image of Cardinal Wolsey. In King Henry's day the cardinal had been accused of many of the same crimes Walpole was. The painting's viewers would have been able to draw parallels between the two men and to read the painting as a condemnation of Walpole.

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