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Henry VIII

A scene from Henry VIII

Introduction to the play

In Henry VIII, Shakespeare presents a monarchy in crisis. Noblemen battle with Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, who taxes the people to the point of rebellion. Witnesses whom Wolsey brings against the Duke of Buckingham claim he is conspiring to take the throne, yet Buckingham seems innocent as he goes to his death.

Henry is also without a male heir. After meeting the beautiful Anne Bullen, he says that he suspects his current marriage to Katherine, with whom he has one surviving daughter, is invalid. Katherine, meanwhile, glows with such splendid integrity that actresses have long desired the role. She advocates for the people, suspects the witnesses against Buckingham, and eloquently defends her conduct as Henry’s wife.

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Cover of the Folger Shakespeare edition of Henry VIII

The Folger Shakespeare

Our bestselling editions of Shakespeare's plays and poems

Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, He would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.

Act 3, scene 2, line 535–537

… She shall be—
But few now living can behold that goodness—
A pattern to all princes living with her

Act 5, scene 4, lines 27–29

Henry VIII in our collection

A selection of Folger collection items related to Henry VIII. Find more in our digital image collection

Richard Westall. Wolsey Disgraced. Oil on canvas, 1795
Edwin Booth as King Henry VIII
Henry Irving as Cardinal Wolsey
Queen Katherine: "Lord Cardinal to you I speak." Ellen Terry as the Queen.

Essays and resources from The Folger Shakespeare

Henry VIII

Learn more about the play, its language, and its history from the experts behind our edition.

About Shakespeare’s Henry VIII
An introduction to the plot, themes, and characters in the play

Reading Shakespeare’s Language
A guide for understanding Shakespeare’s words, sentences, and wordplay

An Introduction to This Text
A description of the publishing history of the play and our editors’ approach to this edition

Shakespeare and his world

Learn more about Shakespeare, his theater, and his plays from the experts behind our editions.

Shakespeare’s Life
An essay about Shakespeare and the time in which he lived

Shakespeare’s Theater
An essay about what theaters were like during Shakespeare’s career

The Publication of Shakespeare’s Plays
An essay about how Shakespeare’s plays were published

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Teaching Henry VIII

Early printed texts

Henry VIII was first published in the 1623 First Folio as The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eight (F1) and that text is the source for all modern editions. It is sometimes referred to as All is True on the basis of early references to the play.

The copy of the Second Folio (1632) reproduced here is a particularly interesting one. Formerly of the English college in Valladolid, Spain, it bears the certificate of Guillermo Sanchez, a censor for the Holy Office, or Inquisition. As part of their work, the Holy Office routinely blotted out offensive passages from books. In Henry VIII, a  number of words and phrases are so censored. The ending of the play, with the description of the birth of Elizabeth I in terms echoing descriptions of the Virgin Mary, comes in for some particularly heavy marking.