Henry VIII was first published, together with thirty-five other plays, in 1623 in the book we now call the Shakespeare First Folio. Until Edmond Malone did so in 1790, no one suggested that the play was the work of anyone else but Shakespeare; and until James Spedding made the argument in 1850, no one attempted to attribute parts of it to John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as principal dramatist of the King’s Men. Since Spedding, a number of different scholars, using different methods, have attempted to discriminate between those parts of the play to be credited to Shakespeare and those to be credited to Fletcher. These scholars have arrived at no consensus, although all who see the play as jointly authored have agreed that the collaborators who wrote the play included Shakespeare and Fletcher. Opinion has continued to fluctuate about whether the play is a work of collaboration or is solely Fletcher’s or is solely Shakespeare’s, with belief in collaborative authorship currently in the ascendant.
While we do not consider the play solely Fletcher’s, we do not think it impossible or even improbable that Fletcher’s hand may be represented in the play. It is conservatively estimated that at least half the plays from the public theater of Shakespeare’s time were collaborative efforts. Shakespeare is known to have collaborated with Fletcher on The Two Noble Kinsmen, published as a quarto with both dramatists’ names on the title page in 1634. We respect the labor expended and skill exhibited by attribution scholars; at the same time, we take seriously the limitations that they acknowledge necessarily attend their efforts. On this basis we simply set aside the question of whether Fletcher wrote some of Henry VIII and contest neither those who have argued for collaboration nor those who have claimed the play for Shakespeare.
We treat the play in the same way as the others published in the Shakespeare First Folio, referring to it for convenience as a Shakespeare play. In doing so, we fully recognize that the theater is always the location of collaborative creation, not just among named dramatists but also among members of acting companies and their employees and associates. We are aware of documentary evidence of other hands reaching into dramatic manuscripts in the course of their annotation or transcription, and we suspect that Shakespeare’s words could not possibly have commanded in their own time the same reverence they have subsequently been accorded. Such circumstances attach to all the Shakespeare printed plays that have come down to us. In calling Henry VIII Shakespeare’s, then, we simply acknowledge its inclusion in the 1623 First Folio and its acceptance as Shakespeare’s among scholars, theater practitioners, and lovers of Shakespeare for most of the past four hundred years.