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Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

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Since it is April, and today is Shakespeare’s birthday, it is time for our annual post on this great playwright.  Last year, in  honor of our upcoming Magna Carta exhibit, I blogged about the play King John.  This year, in honor of Wolf Hall, I thought it would be fun to read and write about Shakespeare’s play, Henry VIII.

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at Cardinal Wolsey's - from the original painting in the collection of Mr. John Wolfe, New York / C.T. von Piloty, pinx. ; gravure Goupil & Co. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at Cardinal Wolsey’s – from the original painting in the collection of Mr. John Wolfe, New York / C.T. von Piloty, pinx. ; gravure Goupil & Co. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

This play presents the reader with some interesting issues.  First, is authorship.  Many modern critics have come to believe that this play was co-written with John Fletcher who took Shakespeare’s place with the King’s Men when Shakespeare retired.  The second is that if the play was written before 1603, it was written about the ruling monarch’s father and mother.  Since Henry VIII had sentenced Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, to be executed for adultery, writing a play which would show both Henry and Anne in a positive light would have been a tricky proposition.  The play also considerably compresses the historical events which it depicts – putting the events of 12 years into one evening’s entertainment as it moves from 1521 to late 1533.

The play opens with a conversation between the Dukes of Norfolk and Buckingham about the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This was a reference to a two-and-half week meeting between Henry VIII and his French counterpart, Francois I, in an area near Calais.  This meeting had been engineered by Cardinal Wolsey and although it did not do much to advance relations between England and France, it became a byword for the magnificence of the display put on by both kings.  However, the main action of the play centers around the fall and rise of various members of the court.  The first to fall is the Duke of Buckingham who is charged with treason.  Witnesses in the play attest that Buckingham had been overheard talking about the possibility that he could inherit the throne should Henry die.  The statute defining the crime of treason had been passed by Edward III in 1352 and although it covers a number of specific situations, the language is nonetheless quite broad:

doth compass or imagine the Death of our Lord the, King, or of our Lady his [Queen’] or of their eldest Son and Heir; or if a Man do violate the King’s[Companion,’] or the King’s eldest Daughter unmarried, Son he or the Wife (‘) the King’s eldest Son and Heir; or if a Man do levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm, giving to them Aid and Comfort in the Realm,or elsewhere, … ; if a Man counterfeit the King’s Great or Privy Seal, or adhering to his Money; and if a Man bring false Money into this Realm, …

In a world where personal and national politics were intertwined, a fallen favorite could easily be charged with treason.  Buckingham is essentially charged with crime of “imagining the Death of our Lord, the King.”  Legal procedures of the day was also heavily weighted towards the prosecution and the accused did not have the right to counsel nor was he informed of the specific charges against him until the trial.  The play also implies that Cardinal Wolsey was behind his fall and had manipulated the evidence and the witnesses.

There is, however, poetic justice in the play for Wolsey himself is the next to be charged with treason.  He is also charged with violating the statute of praemunire.  This law had been passed in 1393 under Richard II and sought to limit the power of the clergy to appeal cases to Rome.  Wolsey is “discovered” to have violated this statute after he fails to secure the king’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  Unlike many others charged with treason, Wolsey was not executed since he was fortunate enough to die of natural causes in 1530 on his way to the Tower of London. The play uses Wolsey’s downfall as turning point and device to sum up various important developments between 1530 and 1533 – though Wolsey was in fact long dead when these events occurred.  In a conversation with Thomas Cromwell, he is provided with the news of the day:


What news abroad?


The heaviest and the worst
Is your displeasure with the king …

The next is, that Sir Thomas More is chosen
Lord chancellor in your place …

That Cranmer is return’d with welcome,
Install’d lord archbishop of Canterbury.


That’s news indeed.


Last, that the Lady Anne,
Whom the king hath in secrecy long married,
This day was view’d in open as his queen,
Going to chapel; and the voice is now
Only about her coronation.

The end of the play sees Henry as being successful in dissolving his first marriage and undertaking his second – of six!  Most interestingly to me though was the confrontation in the last act between Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Cranmer.  Gardiner charges Cranmer with treason and attempts to have him sent to the Tower.  Cranmer is saved because he still has the king’s favor:


Well, well, my lords, respect him;
Take him, and use him well, he’s worthy of it.
I will say thus much for him, if a prince
May be beholding to a subject, I
Am, for his love and service, so to him.
Make me no more ado, but all embrace him:
Be friends, for shame, my lords! My Lord of
I have a suit which you must not deny me;
That is, a fair young maid that yet wants baptism,
You must be godfather, and answer for her.

Although the play compresses many events on which it is based, they are real events.  This particular episode is not based on events during Henry’s life.  Cranmer is indeed charged with treason and heresy but some 20 years later, during the reign of Henry’s daughter, Mary I.  However, this episode would have helped to remind the audience of  turbulent events under Mary who had tried to bring England back to the Roman Catholic Church, and their rescue by Elizabeth who ascended to the throne when Mary died.  This episode also illustrates the notion, for both the Elizabethan and contemporary viewer, that the operation of justice in Tudor England was closely linked to having the monarch’s favor.

The play finally closes with Elizabeth’s birth and christening and prognostications of her future glory.  There is no hint of the awful fate her mother will suffer in 1536 – death by beheading on charges of treason and adultery.  Although perhaps not dramatically satisfying this finale demonstrated the political savvy of the authors.


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–heaven still move about her!–
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be–
But few now living can behold that goodness–
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors:
God shall be truly known;


Comments (2)

  1. It was very interesting reading a take on this play from a legal standpoint. I saw a really excellent production of Henry VIII a few years ago at the Folger. Thank you for an interesting post.

  2. I agree with the fact that it is interesting that William Shakespeare did not really mention the death/execution of Anne Boleyn.

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