Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan (eds), The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

Find Location in text

Main Text

Even before the appearance of the king, the first scene sets up a world in which establishing the 'truth' in any given situation is exceedingly complicated; prior certainty repeatedly dissolves in the face of later revelations. … Shakespeare has dramatized the essential limitations in our knowledge of 'truth' or human motivation through a proliferation of explanations within the play itself.

Lee Bliss, 1975

The King's players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage; the knights of the Order, with their Georges and garters, the guards with their embroidered coats and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous.

Henry Wotton, 1613

Henry VIII does not so much cater to nostalgic spectacle as critically interrogate the politics of remembering and forgetting it entails. This preoccupation is already signaled by the play's original title, All Is True. … [Wotton's] report affirms that while its subject matter makes Henry VIII qualify as a nostalgic play, this is self-reflexively and effectively qualified by the play itself as it repeatedly makes the issue of theatrical spectacle—and its fraught relationship to historical truth and nostalgic feeling—its subject.

Isabel Karremann, 2014

1 Henry Andrews, in his 1831 oil painting of 'The Trial of Queen Katherine' (2.4), shows what spectators would have seen on stage from the galleries of Covent Garden theatre.

1 Henry Andrews, in his 1831 oil painting of 'The Trial of Queen Katherine' (2.4), shows what spectators would have seen on stage from the galleries of Covent Garden theatre.

Historical irony suffuses the entire play. … the play describes what Cranmer cannot say: that historical changes take place both for the better and for the worse, at the same time, and this situation annuls eschatology and teleology.

Frank V. Cespedes, 1980

Henry VIII is part pageant, part history play, part the personal downfall of Buckingham, Wolsey, and Katharine, but in keeping with the late, great plays of the canon, The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, Henry VIII is also a play about spiritual rebirth, not just the symbol of the baby who was to become Elizabeth I, but also through that most difficult of human experiences, the humbling of worldly state that leads to the spiritual state of forgiveness.

Robert Smallwood, 1998

To the Duke's house, the first play I have been at these six months, according to my last vow, and here saw the so much cried-up play of Henry the Eighth; which, though I went with resolution to like it, is so simple a thing, made up of a great many patches, that, besides the shows and processions in it, there is nothing in the world good or well done.

Samuel Pepys, 1663

To the Duke's playhouse, and there did see King Harry the Eighth; and was mightily pleased, better than I ever expected, with the history and shows of it.

Samuel Pepys, 1668

In Henry VIII, I think I see plainly the cropping out of the original rock on which [Shakespeare's] own finer stratum was laid. The first play was written by a superior, thoughtful, man, with a vicious ear. I can mark his lines, and know well their cadence. See Wolsey's soliloquy, and the following scene with Cromwell, where—instead of the metre of Shakespeare, whose secret is, that the thought constructs the tune, so that reading for the sense will best bring out the rhythm—here the lines are constructed on a given tune, and the verse has even a trace of pulpit eloquence. But the play contains, through all its length, unmistakable traits of Shakespeare's hand, and some passages, as the account of the coronation, are like autographs. What is odd, the compliment to Queen Elizabeth is in the bad rhythm.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1844

Old Trinity [College] men will tell you that when the poet [Tennyson] and they were under-graduates at Cambridge, some forty years ago, he would … insist that in … Henry VIII many parts were written by Fletcher; and Mr. Tennyson would read out scenes to prove his point, dwelling on the pg 3180peculiar run of Fletcher's lines, with their frequent extra syllables, and other specialties.

Every Saturday (1874)

Alexander Pope never doubted Shakespeare's responsibility for the play, and in his 1725 edition he did not degrade a single passage to the sewer at the bottom of the page that he reserved for interpolations. Indeed, he singled out, typographically, four passages in the play as 'beauties' deserving of particular commendation and attention: three in speeches by Wolsey after his fall (3.2), and some lines in Queen Katherine's final scene (4.2). All four passages, it turns out, were written by Fletcher. The notoriously anti-theatrical Pope thought that the best poetry in the play was written by Fletcher. By contrast, modern critics consider Fletcher a poor poet, and compare these passages unfavorably with the complex versification, syntax, and imagery of Shakespeare's scenes in the play. … But in performance Fletcher's scenes are more emotionally and theatrically powerful, and—as in Timon of AthensShakespeare's collaborator provides a stronger narrative drive. In each case, the collaborator provides something valuable, and valuably different than Shakespeare.

Gary Taylor, 2015

On Tuesday last there was acted at the Globe a new play called 'All is True', which had been acted not passing two or three times before. There came many people to see it, insomuch that the house was very full, and as the play was almost ended the house was fired with shooting off a chamber … and so burned down to the ground. But the people escaped all without hurt, except one man who was scalded with the fire by adventuring in to save a child, which otherwise had been burnt.

Henry Bluett, 29 June 1613

On Tuesday his Grace [George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham] was present at the acting of King Henry VIII at the Globe, a play bespoken of purpose by himself; whereat he stayed till the Duke of Buckingham was beheaded, and then departed. Some say he should rather have seen the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, who was a more lively

2 Cardinal Wolsey, as embodied in 203 performances by Sir Henry Irving, photographed in black and white c.1892. His robes were 'not scarlet at all, but an indescribable geranium-pink with a dash of vermillion in it' surmounted by 'a pale, refined and highly intellectual face'.

2 Cardinal Wolsey, as embodied in 203 performances by Sir Henry Irving, photographed in black and white c.1892. His robes were 'not scarlet at all, but an indescribable geranium-pink with a dash of vermillion in it' surmounted by 'a pale, refined and highly intellectual face'.

type of himself, having governed this kingdom eighteen years, as he hath done fourteen.

Robert Gell, 1628

There are unmistakable touches of Shakespeare's genius, as when Henry VIII reflects on the leave-taking of an agonized Cranmer: 'He has strangled| His language in his tears.' Who else could have written that line? One wishes that there was more of that kind of brilliance in the play. Only Wolsey receives a soliloquy, so we are never given a glimpse of what is going through Henry VIII's mind as he methodically ditches his admirable spouse Katherine (supposedly because of his festering guilt that she had been his brother's wife) in the search for a male heir. The feisty Katherine is handed some marvelous, sad speeches on her wronged innocence. But aside from that, the emphasis in Henry VIII is on the external trappings of woe—there's pg 3181not much humor, no complicated plotting, no pesky rebels and wars, only a focus on three deaths amid multiple occasions for blaring trumpets and royal woop-de-doing.

Bill Marx, 2013 (on Tina Packer's 'Modern Theatre' production)

Sir, I went the other night to the play called The Life of King Henry VIII, written by Shakespeare, designing not only to treat my eyes with a coronation in miniature, and see away my three shillings, but to improve my understanding by beholding my countrymen who have been near two centuries in ashes, revive again, and act and talk in the same manner as they then did. Such a representation as this, given us by so great a master, throws one's eye back upon our ancestors; and while I am present at the action I cannot help believing myself a real spectator and contemporary with our old huff-bluff English monarch, Henry VIII, so much does the useful delusion of a well-written play delight and instruct us beyond the cold narration of a dry historian.

Nicholas Amhurst, 1727

The crisis of the 'late plays' is always, in one way or another, a family crisis, and the breaking of deadlock in each of the plays is effected by or through women. … Katharine is perhaps the nearest in quality to a 'late play' heroine as she attempts to maintain an independent relationship with the King, yet she is consistently outmaneuvered and finally effectively incarcerated. Anne appeals to Henry at least in part because of her apparent independence … but from the moment of their meeting she is subject to his desires, and her behavior and morals are quite different from those of a Marina or a Perdita. The child Elizabeth, on the other hand, is the only female figure permitted the promise of agency. … Perhaps, then, the young heroine of the late plays is here divided into three—into Katharine, the spiritual exile, Anne the beautiful and productive, and Elizabeth the hope of the future.

Gordon McMullan, 2000

No language can possibly convey a picture of her immediate re-assumption of the fullness of majesty, glowing with scorn, contempt, anger, and terrifying pride of innocence, when she turns round to Wolsey and exclaims, 'to YOU I speak.'

John Genest, 1832 (describing Sarah Siddons's performance as Queen Katherine)

it is not to be believed that any player could have surpassed Miss Cushman in the unstudied eloquence of the appeal of the wife and mother to the hard heart of the Royal Voluptuary, who sat 'under the cloth of state', his big red face, as Mademoiselle de Bury says, almost 'bursting with blood and pride.' … The careful reader of the text will mark the transition from the previous scene [4.1], filled with the pomp and throng of Anne's coronation and with sensuous praises of the young queen's beauty, to the plain room at Kimbolton [4.2], whence a homely, discarded wife of middle age is passing into the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Henry Austin Clapp, 1902 (on Charlotte Cushman's performances as Queen Katherine)

Having skirted self-pity with 'A woman lost among ye, laughed at, scorned,' [Katharine] now gives full-vent to that most human of anguishes, a woman rejected because she is old. … This, for me, is the crux of the scene and the heartbreaking core of Katharine. It makes her the heartbreaking core of the play.

Jane Lapotaire, 1998

Katherine's theatrical power should not, however, be misconstrued as a sign of Shakespeare's unalloyed feminism in the play, for it must be weighed with a contrasting dramaturgy defining the other queens. He keeps Princess Mary undramatized to avoid arousing sympathy for the daughter cast off by Henry while pursuing his desire for a son. Moreover, Shakespeare roots the dramatized Anne just deeply enough to serve Henry's dynastic purposes.

Kim H. Noling, 1988

The Old Lady, bitter, needy, crude, unmarried, childless, and operating at the periphery of the court, is for Anne a negative embodiment of the other side of court favouritism. Can we really blame Anne for succumbing to the King's advances? And, given her relatively low position, does Anne even have a choice?

Rory Loughnane, 2016

The dialogue between Anne and the Old Lady [2.3] is reminiscent not only of the exchanges between Juliet and her nurse, but also of the women-only exchange between the French Princess Catherine and Alice, 'an old gentlewoman' in Henry V 3.4. … The Old Lady, jester, fool, superannuated court wanton, is the voice of the playwright Shakespeare subverting the play's celebration of the Tudor pg 3182(and Stuart) monarchies. … [She] is an extra-historical invention, subversive of the play's chronicle genre and its triumphal climax. She emerges from and retires into the margins of nowhere … Part-Falstaff, part-Sycorax, she is an image of self-reflecting, retrospective Shakespeare mirrors.

Thomas Merriam, 2001

The part of the King was so right and justly done by Mr. Betterton (he being instructed in it by Sir William [Davenant], who had it from old Mr. Lowen, that had his instructions from Mr. Shakespeare himself) that I dare and will aver, none can, or will come near him in this age, in the performance of that part.

John Downes, 1708 (describing the 1663 revival)

In 1892 Sir Henry Irving had one of his greatest successes as Wolsey in what was perhaps the most lavish spectacle ever staged, improving on Kean's production by having a 'genuine reproduction of old London' for the coronation, and an even more splendid reproduction of the Church of Grey Friars at Greenwich for the final scene. … The attempt to reproduce faithfully costume and historical detail of the Tudor period has, however, remained a feature of nearly all twentieth-century performances.

R. A. Foakes, 1957

The biggest and most gratifying surprise of the first season of the BBC TV series 'The Shakespeare Plays' was undoubtedly King Henry VIII, directed by Kevin Billington and filmed on location … showing what television could do in adapting Shakespeare to the small screen. Filming on location helped convey the solid reality Billington wanted … The greatest advantage of television, one that it shares with cinema generally, is of course close-ups … Anne appeared as a silly young woman, flattered by the King's attention, hardly knowing what awaited her. Billington avoided presenting large crowds and long processions, keeping the attention mainly on dialogue and the presentation of character—an extreme antithesis to Victorian spectacle.

Jay L. Halio, 1999

The initial procession was led by Wolsey, who dragged behind him an enormous scarlet train, with a large fluted golden cross in the middle; a cross that covered the entire thrust stage once the Cardinal had reached what might have been called the foot of the altar. Standing upstage center with his back to the audience/congregation, Wolsey unclasped and dropped the cape. It then became a curtain, soaring over the stage as it was raised high, with the cross front-and-center, completely blotting from view the name of the king. So, before the speeches even began, the production visually established that Wolsey, and the Catholic Church that he represented, was more powerful than the King of England. But over the course of the play that scarlet Whore of Babylon would gradually be replaced by the Anglican vestments of Cranmer, and the final christening of baby Elizabeth would be celebrated with a shower of gold stars falling onto King Henry's dazzling diamond-studded crown and gold silk cape.

Terri Bourus, 2013 (on Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production, dir. Barbara Gaines)

[The] Oath of Allegiance was revived after the assassination of Henry IV in 1610. … The Powder Plot lies behind the resemblance between the Buckingham story-line and the assassination of Henry IV by the would-be monk and rejected Jesuit Ravaillac … So the baptism of Elizabeth at the end of Henry VIII is not just an excuse for spectacle. It shows the historical roots of the settlement to which the Oath of Allegiance bound James's subjects. It is resonant with implications of obedience to a reformed Church and State bound by oaths, vows, and laws.

John Kerrigan, 2016

It was an inspired idea to invite Gregory Thompson's itinerant AandBC company to perform Shakespeare's late chronicle in the church where the dramatist himself is buried. For, whatever the inconveniences of the setting, this is a play of prolonged farewells: to the world, to greatness, to life itself. In the past, Howard Davies has treated the play as a piece of Brechtian power-politics and Gregory Doran as a study in the relativity of truth. Here, with the aid of organ-peals and an ethereal soprano voice issuing from the darkened choir, it becomes an illustration of human transience.

Michael Billington, 2006

logo-footer Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.
Access is brought to you by Log out