Henry VIII, or its alternate title, All is True, was probably first performed in 1613, although the earliest copy of the play appeared in the First Folio, published in 1623—both during the reign of James I. The play’s authorship is disputed, with some scholars believing it was written solely by Shakespeare, others assuming various degrees of collaboration, and still others assigning it to John Fletcher, who is known to have worked with Shakespeare on at least one other play. Regardless of the exact date and authorship of the play, it is believed to be based in part on Holinshed’s Chronicles, a historical account of England, Scotland, and Ireland printed in 1577, which portray Katherine in a favorable light. Although history forms the basis of Henry VIII, it does not constrain Shakespeare’s creativity.
The most noticeable changes Shakespeare makes are to chronology. The play’s action spans over ten years of Henry’s life, which means the play sometimes makes broad jumps from one plot point to the next. As many as a half dozen years can be absorbed into the pause between scenes. In addition, some historical events are rearranged. The arrest and sentencing of the Duke of Buckingham in1521 stretches from the beginning of the first act to the first scene of the second act. Historically, Henry probably first met Anne Boleyn as early as 1520, but certainly did not dance with her in public (a serious move for the married king) until 1527. In the play, their meeting comes in the midst of Buckingham’s downfall. Furthermore, Anne’s promotion to marchioness appears comparatively much earlier in the play than in history, with Shakespeare putting it even before the divorce trial at Blackfriars. Finally, at the end of the fourth act, Wolsey’s death and Katherine’s implied death, in 1530 and 1536, are conflated. Like a Greek play, Henry VIII sometimes contains more reports of what happens off stage than it does action on stage.
One common explanation for these rearrangements is that they reflect Shakespeare’s attempts to encompass three different dramatic structures. Those who read the play as a comedy see all actions contributing to the main event of the play, the christening of Elizabeth. Some see the play as episodes in the wheel of fortune, as characters rise only to fall. Others argue that all the characters are on a ladder of power, each trying to move up in the world. Which, if any, of these theories do you agree with?
Next: Sixteenth-Century Beliefs