Introduction: Henry VIII

January 18, 2012 in Introduction

The First Folio provides Henry VIII’s only authoritative text (1623), probably a clerical copy and not a performance script. It provides a sequel to the triumph of Henry VII which ends Richard III, using episodes from the careers of his son Henry VIII and other descendants of figures in that earlier play. The script shares Richard III’s cyclical structure, borrowed from the Fall of Princes theme in earlier chronicle plays, specifically the falls of the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Wolsey – followed by Archbishop Cranmer’s escape from a similar fate through intervention of King Henry VIII, as the king increases in political skill. Henry’s later tyrannical aberrations are not presented. Beyond the trial scenes, the play stresses pageantry: the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the crowning of Queen Anne Boleyn, and the baptism of the future Queen Elizabeth, whose prominence is forecast by Cranmer in the play’s coda. Such historical content somewhat justifies the play’s initial title: All Is True.

The first production destroyed the original Globe Theatre on 29 June 1613, through over-elaborate staging: at Wolsey’s banquet (1.2.49): canons fired blanks with wadding which set fire to the thatched roofing. The production could have transferred to the King’s Men’s indoor theatre at Blackfriars, location of the historical divorce trial in the play, which uses the Queen’s original words. This realistic production offended Sir Henry Wotton (who described the fire): “The King’s Players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the Reign of Henry 8, which was set forth with many extraordinary Circumstances of Pomp and Majesty, even to the matting of the Stage; the Knights of the Order, with their Georges and Garter, the Guards with their embroidered Coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous.” Supposedly, after playing Henry VIII, John Lowin passed on Shakespeare’s directions to his godson, Sir William Davenant, for a Restoration revival. This tradition, preserved by Kean, Irving, and Tree, favoured Holbein’s images of King Henry’s court; but stage dominance passed from Henry (Betterton) to Queen Katherine (Siddons) to Wolsey (Irving, Tree). Siddons intensely identified with her role, like Ashcroft (Nun, R.S.C., 1969) .

Samuel Johnson rated the dying Katherine’s scene (4.2) “above any other part of Shakespeare’s tragedies, 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.” Though often produced for British coronations, the play suffered discrediting censure after James Spedding questioned its authorship (1850). Since then, on stylistic, not historical grounds, many scenes have been attributed to John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as the King’s Men’s dramatist. Such views discouraged the play’s appreciation and production until Tyrone Guthrie’s (R.S.C.,1949). However, scholars judged Henry VIII as the best play in the BBC Shakespeare series (with Claire Bloom as Katherine; 1979).

Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond

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