The Bardathon: 33 – Henry VIII

There are two plays written apparently after The Tempest, that bear Shakespeare’s name – Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The latter appeared in print in the 1630s, and its title page tells us explicitly that it was written by Shakespeare and by John Fletcher. It is generally reckoned that Henry VIII was also written in collaboration – most likely with the same John Fletcher – but this is based purely on internal evidence, and, as we all know, that can be most unreliable. However, I for one wouldn’t grudge John Fletcher his part in the glory, if only because there isn’t much glory here in the first place. For all we have is a workmanlike piece, quite devoid of the genius that had informed Shakespeare’s earlier work.

One can only conjecture why Shakespeare went on to write plays when, quite clearly, he had no further artistic ambition. Indeed, one could wonder why this greatest of artists should sacrifice artistic ambition in the first place. But there it is: conjecture is all we are reduced to. Was Shakespeare contracted to write a few more plays before his official retirement? Was he helping out his old friends and colleagues? Did he ask for a collaborator because, after twenty years and more of extraordinary creativity, he was no longer feeling quite up to it physically? Who knows! But, to judge purely on the basis of the text, there isn’t really much to get excited about. Indeed, in view of the very detailed stage directions, one gets the impression that Henry VIII was intended primarily to be a spectacle rather than a drama.

There are, for all that, a couple of good roles here: there’s Katherine of Aragon, who bears her fall from grace with nobility and dignity; and there’s the unscrupulous Cardinal Wolsey, who, more deservedly, also falls from grace. One suspects that Shakespeare the artist would have made far more of these figures, but what we get here is not so much Shakespeare the Artist as Shakespeare the Craftsman.

The play is quite clearly intended to celebrate the birth of Good Queen Bess, and, in order to do that, it must also celebrate the marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn. However, this celebration sits rather uncomfortably with the tragic fate of Katherine of Aragon. The play insists that we have sympathy with Katherine, and at the same time celebrates Henry’s marriage to Anne, and these two aspects don’t quite fit.

The characterisation of Henry himself is, for similar reasons, unsatisfactory. Is he divorcing Katherine because he has genuine religious scruples? If so, then, at least by the standards of his time, his actions are admirable. Or is he merely trading in his ageing wife for a younger model? If so, then, by the standards of any time, his actions are most reprehensible. The play makes no attempt to clarify or even to explore Henry’s motivation, and one suspects that a younger Shakespeare may have made this the central plank of the drama.

There’s also the problem of the final act, which introduces a new set of characters, and thematically seems to have little to do with what had preceded it Some put it down to the fact that the play was a collaboration, but I find it hard to believe that the collaborators would not have got together at some time to determine the play’s overall shape.

So, despite having two rather meaty roles, this is a play only to be read because it has that magical name of Shakespeare attached to it. I doubt it is read by any but the committed Bardolator.


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