Dame Ellen Terry as Katherine of Aragon Shakespeare Henry VIII

Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928) as Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII, 1892. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight is a history play by William Shakespeare and (allegedly) John Fletcher, based on the life of Henry VIII of England. An alternative title, All is True, is recorded in contemporary documents, the title Henry VIII not appearing until the play's publication in the First Folio of 1623. Stylistic evidence indicates that the play was written by Shakespeare in collaboration with, or revised by, his successor, John Fletcher. It is also somewhat characteristic of the late romances in its structure.

During a performance of Henry VIII at the Globe Theatre in 1613, a cannon shot employed for special effects ignited the theatre's thatched roof (and the beams), burning the original building to the ground.


As usual in his history plays, Shakespeare relied primarily on Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles to achieve his dramatic ends and to accommodate official sensitivities over the materials involved.[1] Shakespeare not only telescoped events that occurred over a span of two decades, but jumbled their actual order. The play implies, without stating it directly, that the treason charges against the Duke of Buckingham were false and trumped up; and it maintains a comparable ambiguity about other sensitive issues. The disgrace and beheading of Anne Boleyn (here spelled Bullen) is carefully avoided, and no indication of the succeeding four wives of Henry VIII can be found in the play. However, Katherine of Aragon's plea to Henry before the Legatine Court seems to have been taken straight from historical record. (Citation needed)

Date and performancesEdit

Most modern scholars date Henry VIII to 1613, the year in which the Globe Theatre burned down during one of the play's earliest known performances. One contemporary report states that the play was relatively new at the time of the fire, having "been acted not passing 2 or 3 times before".[2]

Before the discovery of this evidence, most leading 18th- and 19th-century scholars, including Samuel Johnson, Lewis Theobald, George Steevens, Edmund Malone and James Halliwell-Philips, dated the play's composition to before 1603, claiming that the pro-Tudor nature of the play makes it highly unlikely it would appear during the reign of King James,(Citation needed) whose mother was beheaded by the Tudors. However, plays offering positive portrayals of major Tudor figures like Henry VIII (When You See Me You Know Me, 1605) and Queen Elizabeth (If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody, also 1605) were in fact performed, published, and re-published throughout the Stuart era.[3]

Henry VIII is one of the twenty or so Shakespearean plays for which an early performance can be precisely dated.[4] In the case of Henry VIII, the performance is especially noteworthy because of the fire that destroyed the Globe Theatre during the performance, as described in several contemporary documents. These confirm that the fire took place on 29 June 1613.[2]

Fifteen years to the day after the fire, on 29 June 1628, The King's Men performed the play again at the Globe. The performance was witnessed by George Villiers, the contemporary Duke of Buckingham, who left halfway through, once the play's Duke of Buckingham was executed. (A month later, Villiers was assassinated.)[5]

One often reported tradition associated with the play involves John Downes, promptor of the Duke of York's Company from 1662 to 1706. In his Roscius Anglicanus (1708),[6] Downes claims that the role of Henry VIII in this play was originally performed by John Lowin, who "had his instructions from Mr. Shakespeare himself."[7] However, the personal involvement of "Mr. Shakespeare" has not been substantiated by any contemporary source.

During the Restoration era, Sir William Davenant staged a production, starring Thomas Betterton, that was seen by Pepys. Subsequent stagings of the play by David Garrick, Charles Kean, Henry Irving (who chose to play Wolsey, the villain and perhaps the showier role of the play, in 1888, with Ellen Terry as the noble Katherine of Aragon), and Herbert Beerbohm Tree grew ever more elaborate in their exploitation of the play's pageantry.[8]

Since the nineteenth century, however, the play has fallen from favour, and productions of it remain extremely rare. The positive critical response to a recent production (1996–1997) by the Royal Shakespeare Company, however, indicates that the play may be more stageworthy than its current reputation suggests.

The play was scheduled to be staged at The Globe Theatre London from May until 21 August 2010. It was staged at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre (Washington, D.C.) from October 12 until November 28, 2010; this production added a puppeter-narrator, named for Henry VIII's jester, Will Sommers.


The play is generally believed to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, the writer who replaced him as the principal playwright of the King's Men. There is no contemporary evidence for this; the evidence lies in the style of the verse, which in some scenes appears closer to Fletcher's typical style than Shakespeare's. It is also not known whether Fletcher's involvement can be characterized as collaboration or revision.

The possibility of collaboration with Fletcher was first raised by James Spedding, an expert on Francis Bacon, in 1850.[9] Spedding and other early commentators relied on a range of distinctive features in Fletcher's style and language preferences, which they saw in the Shakespearean play. For the next century the question of dual authorship was controversial, with more evidence accumulating in favor of the collaborative hypothesis. In 1966, Erdman and Fogel could write that "today a majority of scholars accept the theory of Fletcher's partial authorship, though a sturdy minority deny it."[10]

An influential stylistic or stylometric study was undertaken by Cyrus Hoy, who in 1962 divided the play between Shakespeare and Fletcher based on their distinctive word choices, for example Fletcher's uses of ye for you and 'em for them.[11] In the mid-nineteenth century, James Spedding had proposed a similar division based on the use of eleven-syllable lines; he arrived at the same conclusions Hoy would reach a century later.[12] The Spedding-Hoy division is generally accepted, although subsequent studies have questioned some of its details.[13]

The most common delineation of the two poets' shares in the play is this:

Shakespeare: Act I, scenes i and ii; II,iii and iv; III,ii, lines 1-203 (to exit of King); V,i.
Fletcher: Prologue; I,iii; II,i and ii; III,i, and ii, 203-458 (after exit of King); IV,i and ii; V ii–v; Epilogue.[14]

Stage historyEdit

Henry VIII is believed to have been first performed as part of the ceremonies celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1612-1613, although the first recorded performance was on 29 June 1613, when cannon fire called for in Act I, Scene iv (line 49) set fire to the thatched roof of the Globe Theatre and burned it to the ground. Thomas Betterton played Henry in 1664, and Colley Cibber revived it frequently in the 1720s. The play's spectacle made it very popular with audiences of the nineteenth century, with Charles Kean staging a particularly elaborate revival in 1815, and Henry Irving counting Cardinal Wolsey amongst his greatest characterizations.

The play's popularity has waned in the twentieth century, although Charles Laughton played Henry at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1933 and Margaret Webster directed it as the inaugural production of her American Repertory Company on Broadway in 1946 with Walter Hampden as Wolsey and Eva Le Gallienne as Katherine. John Gielgud played Wolsey, Harry Andrews the king and Edith Evans Katharine at Stratford in 1959. The longest Broadway run the play has had is Herbert Beerbohm Tree's 1916 production in which Lyn Harding played Henry and Tree played Wolsey, running 63 performances. Another notable production was the first at the reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe from 15 May to 21 August 2010, as part of the theatre's first season of Shakespeare's history plays, with cannon fire at the same point as the 1613 production and a cast including Dominic Rowan as Henry, Miranda Raison as Anne, Ian McNeice as Wolsey and Kate Duchêne as Katherine (with Raison also playing Anne in the same season's Anne Boleyn).[15]


  • Porter and his Man; Crier; three Gentlemen; Bishops; Lords and Ladies; Spirits; Scribes, Officers, Guards, Attendants


The play opens with a Prologue, (a figure otherwise unidentified), who stresses that the audience will see a serious play, and appeals to the audience members, "The first and happiest hearers of the town," to "Be sad, as we would make ye."

Act I opens with a conversation between the Dukes of Norfolk and Buckingham and Lord Abergavenny. Their speeches express their mutual resentment over the ruthless power and overweening pride of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey passes over the stage with his attendants, and expresses his own hostility toward Buckingham. Later Buckingham is arrested on treason charges— Wolsey's doing.

The play's second scene introduces King Henry VIII, and shows his reliance on Wolsey as his favorite. Queen Katherine enters to protest Wolsey's abuse of the tax system for his own purposes; Wolsey defends himself, but when the King revokes the Cardinal's measures, Wolsey spreads a rumor that he himself is responsible for the King's action. Katherine also challenges the arrest of Buckingham, but Wolsey defends the arrest by producing the Duke's Surveyor, the primary accuser. After hearing the Surveyor, the King orders Buckingham's trial to occur.

At a banquet thrown by Wolsey, the King and his attendants enter in disguise as masquers. The King dances with Anne Boleyn.

Two anonymous Gentlemen open Act II, one giving the other an account of Buckingham's treason trial. Buckingham himself enters in custody after his conviction, and makes his farewells to his followers and to the public. After his exit, the two Gentlemen talk about court gossip, especially Wolsey's hostility toward Katherine. The next scene shows Wolsey beginning to move against the Queen, while the nobles Norfolk and Suffolk look on critically. Wolsey introduces Cardinal Campeius and Gardiner to the King; Campeius has come to serve as a judge in the trial Wolsey is arranging for Katherine.

Anne Boleyn is shown conversing with the Old Lady who is her attendant. Anne expresses her sympathy at the Queen's troubles; but then the Lord Chamberlain enters to inform her that the King has made her Marchioness of Pembroke. Once the Lord Chamberlain leaves, the Old Lady jokes about Anne's sudden advancement in the King's favor.

A lavishly-staged trial scene portrays Katherine's hearing before the King and his courtiers. Katherine reproaches Wolsey for his machinations against her, and refuses to stay for the proceedings. But the King defends Wolsey, and states that it was his own doubts about the legitimacy of their marriage that led to the trial. Campeius protests that the hearing cannot continue in the Queen's absence, and the King grudgingly adjourns the proceeding. Wolsey and Campeius confront Katherine among her ladies-in-waiting; Katherine makes an emotional protest about her treatment.

Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey, and the Lord Chamberlain are shown plotting against Wolsey. A packet of Wolsey's letters to the Pope have been re-directed to the King; the letters show that Wolsey is playing a double game, opposing Henry's planned divorce from Katherine to the Pope while supporting it to the King. The King shows Wolsey his displeasure, and Wolsey for the first time realizes that he has lost Henry's favor. The noblemen mock Wolsey, and the Cardinal sends his follower Cromwell away so that Cromwell will not be brought down in Wolsey's fall from grace.

The two Gentlemen return to observe and comment upon the lavish procession for Anne Boleyn's coronation as Queen, which passes over the stage in their presence. Afterward they are joined by a third Gentleman, who updates them on more court gossip — the rise of Thomas Cromwell in royal favor, and plots against Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Katherine is shown, ill; she has a vision of dancing spirits. Cardinal Campeius visits her; Katherine expresses her continuing loyalty to the King despite their divorce, and wishes the new Queen well.

The King summons a nervous Cranmer to his presence, and expresses his support; later, when Cranmer is shown disrespect by the King's Council, Henry reproves them and displays his favor of the churchman. Anne Boleyn gives birth to a daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth. In the play's closing scenes, the Porter and his Man complain about trying to control the massive and enthusiastic crowds that attend the infant Elizabeth's christening; another lush procession is followed by a prediction of the glories of the new born princess's future reign, and the play's Epilogue.

See alsoEdit


  1. G. Blakemore Evans, general editor, The Riverside Shakespeare, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974; p. 977.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gordon McMullan, ed. Henry VIII (London: Thomson, 2000), pp. 57-60.
  3. Chambers, Vol. 3, pp. 342, 472.
  4. The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, King Lear, etc.; see the Performance data on the individual plays.
  5. Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 74-5.
  6. Downes' Roscius Anglicanus is an important source of information on the Restoration stage and the traditions it preserved from the early Stuart era. Halliday, p. 140.
  7. Halliday, pp. 218-19.
  8. Halliday, p. 219.
  9. Spedding, James. "Who Wrote Henry VIII?" Gentleman's Magazine, 178 / new series 34, August 1850, pp. 115-23.
  10. Erdman, David V., and Ephraim G. Fogel, eds. Evidence for Authorship: Essays on Problems of Attribution. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1966; p. 457. For a summary of scholarship to that date, see: pp. 457-78.
  11. Hoy, Cyrus. "The Shares of Fletcher and his Collaborators in the Beaumont and Fletcher Canon." Studies in Bibliography 15 (1962); pp. 71-90.
  12. John M. Berdan and Tucker Brooke, The Life of King Henry the Eighth (Yale UP, 1925), pp. 155-57.
  13. Hope, Jonathan. The Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays. (CUP, 1994) pp. 67-83.
  14. Erdman and Fogel, p. 457.

Further readingEdit

  • Gordon McMullan, ed. King Henry VIII. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Thomson, 2000.

External linksEdit

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