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A Modern Perspective: Henry VIII

By Barbara A. Mowat

On June 29, 1613, Henry VIII was performed at the Globe theater in what was probably one of its first performances. When the production reached the fourth scene, cannons were set off to signal Henry’s entrance; the cannons sparked a fire in the thatch of the roof, and, according to Sir Henry Wotton, the audience was so “attentive to the show” that they ignored the smoke, and the theater burned to the ground. Wotton also remarked on the spectacular costuming and staging of the play, at that time called—by some, at least—“All Is True”: “The King’s Players had a new Play, called All is true, representing some principal pieces of the Reign of Henry the 8th, which was set forth with many extraordinary Circumstances of Pomp and Majesty.”1 While the rest of the letter makes it clear that Wotton was most interested in the production’s “Pomp and Majesty,” his comment on the play as “representing . . . principal pieces” is perhaps more significant, in that it calls immediate attention to what has later been perceived as the play’s odd dramatic structure.

For more than two centuries after its opening, Henry VIII was loved for its spectacle and its sonorous, heart-rending speeches, and it was considered one of Shakespeare’s more attractive theater pieces. But beginning in the nineteenth century, critics found the design of the play inexplicably defective. As Wotton had pointed out, the play presents a sequence of “principal pieces” from a sixteen-year portion of Henry’s reign, “pieces” that include Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his marriage to Anne Bullen, and the birth and christening of the infant Elizabeth. Other pieces center on events involving the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, the duke of Buckingham, and Archbishop Cranmer. Nineteenth-century scholars and critics remarked that while it might have been possible for these incidents to have been shaped into a coherent, meaningful drama, the play instead is mere disjointed spectacle with a plotline that puts the audience in an impossible position. As James Spedding argued in 1850, it encourages us through the first four acts to sympathize deeply with Katherine and to see Henry’s desire for Anne as “the mere caprice of passion”; then, in Act 4, Katherine goes offstage to die, and the audience, in the remainder of the play, is supposed to rejoice in the coronation of Katherine’s rival Anne and in the birth of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth. Cranmer’s speech that concludes the play—a prophecy about the reign of Elizabeth—crowns Henry’s passion “with all felicity, present and to come,” wrote Spedding, and the audience is made “to entertain as a theme of joy and compensatory satisfaction” this happy outcome of Henry’s lust and Katherine’s suffering. Spedding concluded that the play’s “principal defect, which is the incoherence of the general design,” could be accounted for only by assuming that the play “was written partly by Shakspere, partly by Fletcher, with assistance probably of some third hand.”2 Algernon Swinburne, who in the face of Spedding’s almost universally accepted hypothesis continued to argue for Shakespeare’s sole authorship, shared Spedding’s despair over the play’s design, calling Henry VIII, because of its structure, “possibly the hardest problem” facing the serious student of Shakespeare.3

For scholars today, the design of Henry VIII seems no longer to provoke despair, in part because many have found explanations that, for them, answer Spedding’s allegations about the “incoherence of the [play’s] general design.” Their defenses of the play’s structure fall into two camps, one of which finds in the play a pattern we might call “providential.” Some in this group see the play as religious or patriotic; some see it as resembling a masque, others a romance. All of them, though, share a fundamental belief that the play is structured as a kind of comic parabola, a progression of events leading to the play’s significant moment: the birth and christening of Elizabeth and Cranmer’s prophetic vision—a vision of the new Golden Age when the royal infant will grow up to be a “pattern to all princes” and of an England in which, under Queen Elizabeth, “every man shall eat in safety / Under his own vine what he plants and sing / The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors” (5.4.29, 41–43). For most providential-design critics, the hero of the play is England itself, and the play is, in structure, a comedy.4

An opposing group of critics views the design as quite other: no comic parabola but a tragic “wheel of Fortune” pattern. They argue that the play focuses our attention and our sympathy on three of Henry’s victims in turn—Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey—and that the unifying design of the play is a series of linked circles, a repeated pattern of rises and falls on Fortune’s wheel, a pattern that the still moment of Elizabeth’s christening interrupts only briefly.5 For the providential-design critics, the play is a celebration not to be darkened by protracted sympathy for history’s victims; for those in the “wheel of Fortune” group, the play is a lament for the suffering and mutability of falling men, and of fallen man, brightened at best momentarily by Cranmer’s vision of England as a new Eden.

Interestingly—and paradoxically—considerable evidence supports both sets of critics. Both the providential design and the wheel of Fortune design seem carefully structured into the play, and each is carefully called to the attention of the audience. The design that leads toward the high point of Elizabeth’s birth, for instance, is part of the structural fabric of the play. Two prophecies about Anne Bullen—that she will bring forth a jewel to give light to the whole nation, that from her will fall a blessing to England—are strategically placed in Acts 2 and 3 to remind us of the providential significance of Henry’s desire for Anne and to point our expectations toward Elizabeth’s birth and christening. The language of these two prophecies, as well as their import, are of a piece with the prophecy by Cranmer with which the play concludes. Together, these three foretellings form a pattern that supports a reading of the play as a celebration of the Tudor myth—the dominant sixteenth-century narrative explaining English history as shaped by God to bring Elizabeth to the English throne. It is hard to argue that an audience in 1613 would have been ignorant of Anne’s role as mother of the babe of promise, or that the prophecies, placed as they are, would have failed to remind the audience that the fruit of Henry’s union with Anne was the Elizabethan Golden Age.

The role of Providence in shaping the grand design that produced Queen Elizabeth is called to our attention in more subtle ways as well. While the playwright draws heavily on the history of the period as recorded in Holinshed’s Chronicles,6 he also changes historical fact—shifting chronology, inventing incidents—so that key events appear to have been directly guided by heaven’s will. The manner of Wolsey’s fall, for instance, is an invention so deliberately improbable that, in its exquisite timing, we are almost forced to see the hand of God. Wolsey, the prime mover in instigating the divorce proceedings, had been a necessary figure in the providential scheme. But his opposition to Henry’s desire to marry Anne Bullen led Wolsey to begin to block forward progress, and Providence therefore needed to get him out of the way. Thus, in the play’s representation of history, Wolsey at precisely the right moment betrayed himself by sending to Henry not one but two self-incriminating documents in a single packet. The incident—modeled on a “mishap” featuring Thomas Ruthall, bishop of Durham, in the reign of Henry’s father7—is entirely fictional as applied to Wolsey and is most uncharacteristic of the careful archbishop presented elsewhere in the play. As Wolsey stands self-betrayed, he says to himself,

                              O negligence,

Fit for a fool to fall by! What cross devil

Made me put this main secret in the packet

I sent the King?


Norfolk’s reading of the event is to the point: “It’s heaven’s will! / Some spirit put this paper in the packet / To bless” Henry’s eyes (165–67) and thereby, we might add, to push the action of history toward the improbable sequence of events culminating in Elizabeth’s legitimate birth. Wolsey’s ruin is swift, complete, and timely. The play shows Providence busily removing an unwanted character in order to make room for the much more tractable Archbishop Cranmer—all at the perfect moment, and all in order to bring us, the play, and history to that happy tableau of Henry, Cranmer, and the royal infant.

Yet Fortune, too, shapes events in this play; and, again, the resulting design—the wheel of Fortune design—seems quite deliberate. As such critics as Frank Kermode have pointed out, Shakespeare shows us Buckingham, Wolsey, and Katherine at the top of Fortune’s wheel; as it turns for each of them, bringing them to disgrace and to death, each is given a speech in which the fall from greatness is lamented, and the audience is told the moral of the victim’s tale.8 In structure, in language, and in pathos, each of these “falls” would have presented to a Jacobean audience a familiar, if old-fashioned, pattern—that of de casibus tragedy, a form most often associated with medieval stories of falls from greatness.9 This wheel of Fortune pattern clearly governs the stories of Buckingham, Wolsey, and Katherine as the play presents them. Their farewell speeches themselves suffice to tie the characters to this familiar form. Wolsey describes it quite specifically, using the apparent rising and falling motion of the sun or a star to image his trajectory:

I have touched the highest point of all my greatness,

And from that full meridian of my glory

I haste now to my setting. I shall fall

Like a bright exhalation in the evening

And no man see me more.


Buckingham goes to his death reflecting on the fall that ends his life: “The last hour / Of my long weary life is come upon me. / Farewell. And when you would say something that is sad, / Speak how I fell” (2.1.152–56). And Katherine, too, voices the poignancy of her life’s failure, describing herself as

Shipwracked upon a kingdom where no pity,

No friends, no hope, no kindred weep for me,

Almost no grave allowed me, like the lily

That once was mistress of the field and flourished,

I’ll hang my head and perish.


As if their speeches were not enough to point to the wheel of Fortune pattern, the play again alters history to fit their stories more snugly into the familiar design. The impact of Wolsey’s wheel of Fortune fall, for example, is heightened by the play’s compression of a year of history into a few moments. In a single scene—the one in which the nefarious packet exposes his double-dealing—the great cardinal, all-powerful when the scene opens, is cast off by the king, stripped of the great seal, comes to self-awareness, bids farewell to his greatness, and makes his final exit to die, his mind turned to God. Here is presented a classic wheel of Fortune tragic fall; and it is created through the omission of a full year of events that occurred between Wolsey’s dismissal in November 1529 and his death in November 1530—a year during which, according to Holinshed, Henry watched with fury as Wolsey rebuilt castles, staged grand processions, and attempted a new rise to power in the North as archbishop of York—as he, in Henry’s words as reported in Holinshed, “remained presumptuous and proud,” though supposedly “under foot.” The play’s powerful scene of Wolsey’s disgrace and conversion, with its pathos, resignation, and immediate turning to God, was the dramatist’s rewriting of history.

We find comparable compressions, rearrangements, and inventions in the falls of Buckingham and Katherine—changes that align their stories with the medieval tradition of wheel of Fortune falls. And even in the last act of Henry VIII, with its focus on the rise of Anne and Archbishop Cranmer, the wheel of Fortune pattern is operative. If we grant that Shakespeare’s audience would have known much of the story of Henry and Anne and the result of their union in Elizabeth, we must also grant that they would have known the fates of those involved in that final, triumphant tableau: that Henry’s destruction of wives had just begun; that Elizabeth, at the age of two, would be declared illegitimate by Cranmer himself; and that Cranmer would be burned at the stake. Anne, too, would very soon fall and die at the executioner’s hand—primarily for having given Henry this daughter instead of a son. The joyful moment of the christening and the prophecy, then, can easily be seen as simply that: a moment at which Fortune’s wheel is briefly still before it spins on again, carrying victim after victim in a series of tragic circles that spin out of the play and on into history.

The play is thus shaped around two emotionally contradictory patterns, behind which, I would argue, is yet a third. This one—not immediately obvious, but a constant in the play—is a pattern of jockeyings for position and favor, of bribery and subornation, of treachery and betrayals that we might call the “political ladder” design. The play’s opening scene is illustrative. It begins with a lengthy description of Henry in France at the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold, a vision of peace and of golden splendor; and it ends with the duke of Buckingham’s arrest, and his recognition that “My life is spanned already. / I am the shadow of poor Buckingham” (1.1.265–66). Behind these larger events, layers of political intrigue and horror are, in the course of the scene, opened to audience inspection. We learn, first, that the marvelous moment of peace and amity of the Field of the Cloth of Gold was purchased at crippling cost to the now-impoverished peers of England; we learn that the peace has already been broken, not through the action of Providence (though the tempest that followed the signing of the articles was generally seen as a sign from God that the peace was doomed) but rather through bribery and corruption in very high places: Emperor Charles V had bribed Cardinal Wolsey; Wolsey had in turn sold his and Henry’s honor and had drawn up the articles of peace so that they could not hold but “like a glass / Did break i’ th’ rinsing” (196–97). As for Buckingham’s arrest, we learn that Wolsey had found a man who hated Buckingham—a former servant named Knevet, dismissed for taking bribes. Wolsey has shown Knevet gold; Knevet has, in return, betrayed Buckingham by reporting treacherous statements he claims that the duke made. Buckingham falls, that is, not because of Fortune but because he has made an enemy of Wolsey, who is rich and powerful, and because a servant, for money and for spite, betrays him. The common feature linking the whole of this opening scene is, appropriately, gold—gold for splendor, gold for bribery, gold for subornation. The scene appears to be controlled by Providence and by Fortune, but its central action actually takes place on the political ladder, where Wolsey, on his way up, kicks Buckingham off.

The play is filled with stories of positions won and lost, with rumors, with intrigues, with factions forming and breaking, with attempts to secure that which can never be truly secured—that is, favor. Behind all of the play’s reminders of Fortune and of the guiding hand of Providence, we are repeatedly faced with the realities of life in a world where gold buys subversion and false witness, and where treachery and self-serving are the rule. In this world, one survives through constant vigilance—with an eye on the person above on the ladder and an eye on the person below. Both are equally dangerous. A momentary failure of vigilance, a trust or affection unwisely given, a carelessly spoken or a maliciously misinterpreted word, an action or a decision that, even though commendable, creates an enemy, and one’s position—and often one’s life—lies forfeit.

Buckingham’s final lament includes this moral from the political-ladder world: he and his father, he says, are “one in fortunes” in that both fell through the treachery of servants, of “those men we loved most.” “Heaven has an end in all,” he says:

                         yet, you that hear me,

This from a dying man receive as certain:

Where you are liberal of your loves and counsels

Be sure you be not loose; for those you make friends

And give your hearts to, when they once perceive

The least rub in your fortunes, fall away

Like water from you, never found again

But where they mean to sink you.


Katherine, too—destroyed presumably by Fortune and by Providence—describes accurately the corruption of the court that secures her destruction. When asked to trust the judges Henry has appointed, she says bitterly that she’ll put her trust in heaven: “there sits a judge / That no king can corrupt” (3.1.113–14). As for the political world that determines her fate, she says, “Can you think . . . / That any Englishman dare give me counsel, / Or be a known friend, ’gainst his Highness’ pleasure, . . . / And live [his] subject?” (93–97).

Every incident in the play is touched by reminders of this political-ladder world—by intrigue, by rumor and half-lies and malice, by behind-the-scene glimpses of how power is actually attained and, briefly, kept. The design shows itself in countless tiny incidents. Wolsey, for instance, at the side of the stage, congratulates the king’s new secretary: “Much joy and favor to you. / You are the King’s now”; the new secretary replies, “But to be commanded / Forever by your Grace, whose hand has raised me” (2.2.138–41). The secretary is Gardiner (just beginning a rise that will take him eventually to the chancellorship of England). Wolsey has placed Gardiner in the king’s household because Gardiner is a “good fellow”: “If I command him [he] follows my [direction].” Gardiner’s predecessor, says Wolsey, “was a fool, / For he would needs be virtuous” (157–59)—so Wolsey has destroyed him.

This world of self-seeking, of false service, of jockeying for position, of destruction through rumor and calumny, would have seemed familiar to the audience for which it was written—not so much from their reading (though Machiavelli describes it well) or from earlier literary forms as from direct observation. Though the play is set in Henry VIII’s time, the political world it reveals is remarkably like the court of King James as it was described by contemporaries. By 1613, when Henry VIII was performed, the patronage system was in decay, having been corrupted into favoritism. Combat among lords was carried out not on battlefields but through political intrigue. Letters and records of the era reveal a world of treachery and corruption, especially in the period just before the play’s first appearance. It was in 1612 that Robert Carr, James’s then-current favorite, brought down the all-powerful Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer, Robert Cecil. The rounding of the pack on Cecil, his miserable death, and the concerted attacks on his memory give us all the elements we need to put his story in the wheel of Fortune tradition, but his fall was politically, and maliciously, engineered. Again, it was in 1613 that Carr’s own favorite, Thomas Overbury, was betrayed by Carr himself, and died, poisoned, in the Tower. This was the very real world so accurately reflected in the political-ladder scheme of Henry VIII.

What, then, can we say about the play’s odd design? First, through its overlay of three dramatic patterns, the play gives us, almost simultaneously, three versions of a familiar story, each of which is presented as somehow “true.” As one version has it, history, under the hand of God, sweeps on, bringing England providentially to the birth of Elizabeth. In the second version, under the power of capricious Fortune, individuals fall from power and are destroyed. In the third version, political intrigue and personal greed determine the countless small actions that eventuate in public, visible historic moments. The three designs, the three versions, intermingle in such fashion that the play’s original title—All Is True—becomes an accurate description of history as the play shows it.

The scene in which Anne Bullen begins her rise to power illustrates the point nicely. Here Anne enters, lamenting the fall of Katherine, her mistress, and all such falls from greatness:

                               Much better

She ne’er had known pomp; though ’t be temporal,

Yet if that quarrel, Fortune, do divorce

It from the bearer, ’tis a sufferance panging

As soul and body’s severing.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


I swear, ’tis better to be lowly born

And range with humble livers in content

Than to be perked up in a glist’ring grief

And wear a golden sorrow.

(2.3.14–18, 22–26)

Anne here interprets Katherine’s fall in the wheel of Fortune tradition; and, in a few moments, Anne will herself begin to be lifted on Fortune’s wheel. The closing lines of the scene suggest that Anne foresees her own fall: “It faints me / To think what follows” (124–25). Yet within the scene, the Lord Chamberlain sees in Anne’s rise the hand of Providence:

Beauty and honor in her are so mingled

That they have caught the King. And who knows yet

But from this lady may proceed a gem

To lighten all this isle?


The bulk of the scene, however, takes place on the political ladder. Anne accepts a title and a gift of a thousand pounds a year from Henry, verifying the Old Lady’s sardonic prediction that Anne yearns for eminence, wealth, and sovereignty just as every woman does, and that should such gifts be offered her, she would stretch her conscience and accept them. That the gifts are a payment in advance for Anne’s sexual favors is again made clear by the Old Lady, who sarcastically calls the money a “compelled fortune” and asks rhetorically: “The Marchioness of Pembroke? / A thousand pounds a year for pure respect? / No other obligation?” (105, 114–16). And Anne’s closing mention of Katherine—“The Queen is comfortless and we forgetful / In our long absence” (126–27)—reminds us that Anne is in the service of the queen. Anne’s request to the Old Lady, “Pray do not deliver / What here you’ve heard to her,” with the Old Lady’s cynical “What do you think me?” (127–29), reminds us that Anne is one among many in this play who betray the one they serve for their own profit.

“All is true”: Anne is a traveler on Fortune’s wheel; Anne has been placed by Providence in Henry’s eye to bring joy to the English nation; Anne is a woman who betrays her mistress for money and power. The three readings of her story—as of the stories of Wolsey, Katherine, and others—are built into the very structure of the play. We may, like some critics, respond to the composite vision of history that such a structure yields by seeing in its author a deep ambivalence; or we may say, with Northrop Frye, that this “tragic play” yields “an irony so corrosive that it has almost a comic dimension.”10 Or we may observe that we have in this play neither ambivalence nor corrosive irony. By 1613, dramatists could hardly be shocked by the discovery that history’s means and ends are at odds, or that idyllic visions of any age are inevitably oversimplifications of life in this fallen world. The play simply says to the chroniclers of the Tudor myth: yes, that’s true; to the wheel of Fortune poets: yes, that’s true; and to the contemporary observers of James’s court: “That’s true, too.”11

History, then, is given to us in a very complex form. The play allows us no single point of view, in that each of the three designs entails its own stance. The providential design is history viewed in hindsight, but expressed as prophecy. This is the storytelling, mythmaking stance, familiar to us from Shakespeare’s eight English histories about the reigns of Richard II through Richard III: history, that is, viewed from a distance and interpreted as a clear pattern leading up to and explaining the story’s ending; history interpreted for us by the news analyst who can now see how events conspired to bring us to a particular wonderful or terrible moment.

The wheel of Fortune design, in contrast, is history as filtered through the emotions of the person rising or falling on the wheel. We listen as Fortune’s victims tell their stories. The tone is elegiac, theatrical, and often self-pitying (as in Wolsey’s final words, doubtless the most famous words in the play: “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” [3.2.535–37]—very moving, but inappropriate for the Wolsey we have seen and judged). This is history as it feels to the person who has been powerful, who faces ruin and public exposure, and who seizes the chance to bid farewell to his greatness and to a curious public. In contrast, the political-ladder design gives us history close-up but nonengaged. The video recorder is on, but the observed are unaware and carelessly self-damning.

In watching the play, as in watching events in the world around us, we see the story now from one angle, now from another. Again, as in observing events in our world, we never know for certain who is telling “the truth.” Did Henry, as he claims, put away Katherine because of a “scruple” in his conscience (2.4.190–91)? Or did his conscience simply “cre[ep] too near another lady” (2.2.20–21)? The play never tells us. Did Buckingham die a martyr to the machinations of Wolsey and the treachery of Knevet, or had he actually threatened the royal succession, as his peers decided at his trial? Again, both views are provided and we never know which is “true.” Without private access to the characters’ minds and hearts—with almost no revelatory soliloquies or pregnant asides to the audience—we can judge motive only indirectly. Rumor and public address determine much of the play’s action, and even more of its dialogue, and the play refuses to sort out for us facts from near-facts, or near-facts from slanderous lies. It uses dramatic structure to eliminate dramatic structure, giving us instead the illusion of public life as we, as spectators, actually perceive it.

The result is a play that, while set definitively at a given long-ago moment, shows us, through its design, ourselves in our own world. It shows us, for example, our propensity to find patterns in the events around us and our propensity to identify emotionally with those falling from power—or, conversely, to characterize those falls as necessary parts of the progress of history or as the result of the characters’ or others’ machinations. Once one has experienced history as it is presented in Henry VIII, one can only with difficulty return to a more innocent view of events in one’s own nation or in the world. The designs are there, the global explanations are there, but the play has taught us that events fall into multiple patterns, that there are conflicting explanations for every action, that the human impulses of greed and self-protection should never be underestimated. Thus the curious design of the play produces for the careful observer a new wisdom about the world—especially the political world—and how it works. The design of the play is a challenge, but a challenge of the same sort posed to us by our life among our contemporaries.

  1. Wotton’s letter to Sir Edmund Bacon, dated July 2, 1613, is printed in Shakespearean Criticism: Excerpts from the Criticism of William Shakespeare’s Plays and Poetry . . . , ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris and Mark W. Scott, vol. 2 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985), p. 14.
  2. James Spedding, “Appendix: Shakspere’s Share in Henry VIII,” New Shakspere Society’s Transactions, no. 1 (1874): 2–3, 11, 16 (originally printed as “Who Wrote Shakespere’s Henry VIII?” Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1850, pp. 115–23, and excerpted in Shakespearean Criticism: Excerpts, vol. 2, pp. 28–31).
  3. Algernon C. Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (London: Chatto and Windus, 1880), p. 81.
  4. Of the works listed in “Further Reading,” the following present versions of providential readings: R. A. Foakes, G. Wilson Knight, and Alexander Leggatt. See also, as one of the earliest of such interpretations, Edgar I. Fripp, “1612–13: King Henry the Eighth,” in his Shakespeare, Man and Artist (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), vol. 1, pp. 770–80.
  5. For versions of “wheel of Fortune” readings, see, e.g., in “Further Reading,” works by Edward Berry, Lee Bliss, Frank Cespedes, and Paul Dean.
  6. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1587), vol. 3, pp. 850–939.
  7. Holinshed, Chronicles, vol. 3, pp. 796–97.
  8. Frank Kermode, “What Is Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’ About?” Durham University Journal, n.s. 9 (1947): 48–54.
  9. England’s most influential collection of de casibus stories was The Mirror for Magistrates, which first appeared in 1559, and which contained some one hundred poems narrating the lives of great men and women who fell from greatness. The book follows from Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century collection of moral histories called De casibus virorum illustrium, which gave its name to the tradition.
  10. Northrop Frye, “Romance as Masque,” in Shakespeare’s Romances Reconsidered, ed. Carol McGinnis Kay and Henry E. Jacobs (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), p. 33.
  11. See King Lear 5.2.13