“The effect for the reader is one of a rich and sumptuous ceremony.”

Henry VIII (or All Is True)

An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams


King Henry VIII portraitWritten in collaboration with John Fletcher, Henry VIII (or All Is True) is one of Shakespeare’s most ostentatiously spectacular works – Coleridge called it a “show play.” And while it might have added to the playwright’s reputation among his contemporaries, it was also responsible for burning down his playhouse. During its first performance on June 29, 1613, material from a cannon fired during Act One ignited the Globe’s roof and within hours the theatre was destroyed. This event seemed to foreshadow an even greater loss: Shakespeare’s imminent retirement to Stratford following The Two Noble Kinsmen, his final collaboration with Fletcher. Henry VIII itself, though, gives little hint of an upcoming departure, slotting tightly into the mold of the early history plays. Picking up events a generation after the close of Richard III, it reuses the kind of court intrigue and high-level politics familiar from the Henry VI cycle – although with a more jaundiced eye than ever before. But, as with Antony and Cleopatra, it also deals with the personal suffering that goes along with political events – most touchingly in the humiliating treatment of Queen Katherine, stripped of her position as King Henry’s first wife. The fact that her successor, Anne Boleyn (the mother of Queen Elizabeth I), was executed just three years later makes Henry VIII’s unsparing reflections on the ever-turning wheel of fortune seem utterly prescient.


According to evidence describing the Globe fire of June 29, 1613, Henry VII – or All is True, as it was probably first known – was a new play when the incident occurred, probably written by Shakespeare and Fletcher earlier that year.


As with the other history plays, the Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed and other (1587) and Edward Halle’s Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Houses of Lancaster and York (1548) provide Henry VIII’s main sources. Other details derive from John Foxe’s anti-Catholic Book of Martyrs (1563) and Samuel Rowley’s play When You See Me, You Know Me (1603) as well as George Cavendish’s 1582 Life of Wolsey.


Only one text, that in the 1623 First Folio, survives. It was probably typeset from a scribe’s copy of the play.


From Garber:

Henry VIII photo intro 2“Even for those who have never read or seen it, this play, initially entitled All Is True, enjoys a curious celebrity, since it was during its first performance at the Globe on June 29, 1613, that the theater caught fire and burned down. The best-known account of this catastrophe, an account characteristically leavened with urbane wit and shrewd political analysis, is that of the poet and diplomat Sir Henry Wotton. Wotton, credited with such pertinent observations as ‘An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the commonwealth,’ ‘Tell the truth, and so puzzle and confound your adversaries,’ and ‘Critics are like brushers of noblemen’s clothes,’ wrote a long letter to a friend that included a report of the fire as a kind of amusing afterthought to weightier matters of state:

‘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. Now, King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes most attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within les than an hour the whole house to the very grounds.

This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric; wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.’

Early twentieth-century critics took especial pleasure in the genre detail of the man with the burning trousers and his helpful neighbor dousing them with beer: more recent historicists have zeroed in on Wotton’s phrase about making ‘greatness very familiar’ and used it as a general jumping-off point for discussions of theater and power. ‘Greatness’ here refers to persons of title and rank; to make greatness familiar is to take liberties, and indeed to risk, as Wotton goes on to note, the possibility of slipping into the realm of the comic or the derisive. His narrative, designed to charm rather than alarm, contains its own delightful hyperbole and elevated diction (‘the fatal period,’ or catastrophic end, of wood and straw, the structural members and thatched roof of the structure in Bankside). A ‘fabric’ is a building or edifice (as in Prospero’s famous ‘baseless fabric of this vision,’ after the dissolution of the masque of Ceres – in his case the term also carries a sense of a contrivance or engine.) ‘Virtuous,’ when applied to things rather than to persons, means ‘glorious,’ or ‘powerful, potent, and strong,’ or, most interestingly – but usually when applied to items like precious stones – ‘endowed with a magical or supernatural power.’ But ‘virtuous fabric’ is archly oblique as a description of the ‘house’ of the King’s Men, and the epithet is shortly (and masterfully) subjected to the lowering of style that reduces it to ‘wood and straw.’ At the other end of the social scale, ‘bottle ale’ appears in Henry IV Part 2 as a manifest insult; the whore Doll Tearsheet calls the posturing braggart Pistol ‘a bottle-ale rascal’ (2 Henry IV 2.4.110), marking the consumers of this beverage as ‘low’ rather than high. The lucky patron whose flaming breeches almost broiled him comes last in a descending sartorial sequence (‘The Knights of the Order, with their Georges and garters’ and ‘the Guards with their embroidered coats’) and is as lively and robust as the court officials are formal and hieratic.

What is most striking in this account, though, is it tone of urbane distance, genial indulgence, and the lack of any anxiety, either about the critique of ‘greatness’ or the threat to life and limb. The burning of the Globe theater is offered as an incidental anecdote, intended, as Wotton writes, to ‘entertain’ his correspondent after a discussion of more serious matters of state. Its seriocomic events – a large-scale disaster happens, no one is injured, a man is saved by an inelegant but expeditious contrivance – could be said to mirror the typical events of tragicomedy and romance. But Henry VIII is a fascinating play in its own right.

Henry VIII was born in 1491, came to the throne in 1509, and died in 1547 – sixty-six years and three monarchs prior to the date of the play that, in the Shakespeare First Folio, bears his name. By 1613 England was mourning the death of another Henry, the elder son of James I, w ho had died unexpectedly in 1612 at the age of eighteen. Coming as it does right after the unexpected death of Prince Henry, and at the time of Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Frederick, Elector Palatine, in 1613, this play, with its reminiscence of another royal Henry and another ‘maiden phoenix,’ Elizabeth, is full of topical relevance.

The events of the play span a series of ‘falls’ of persons of high estate: in act 1 the fall of the Duke of Buckingham, whose servants have been suborned by his enemy, Cardinal Wolsey; in act 2 the fall of Queen Katherine, who has failed to provide the King with a male heir, and whose twenty-year marriage to Henry is now put aside in favor of a new marriage, to Anne Bullen; in act 3 the fall of Wolsey himself, a butcher’s son risen to high eminence, brought low by his acquisitiveness and financial dealings as well as his political connivance; and in act 5 by the attempt – foiled by the King – to bring down Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Since the play ends, triumphantly, with Cranmer’s praise of the ‘chosen infant,’ Elizabeth, to her father the King, with the Queen decorously offstage, the unhappy fate of Anne Bullen, her own fall, is not directly accounted for (although her absence indeed hints at it). What ties these falls together, beyond their inevitability and remorseless dramatic succession (exacerbated by the play’s extreme truncation of historical events), is the word ‘divorce,’ which appears, like an uncanny specter, linking the tragical plot of ‘falls of greatness’ to the romantic plot of masque, courtship, marriage, and birth. Thus Buckingham, foreseeing his own beheading (‘[e]ven as the axe falls’), calls it a ‘long divorce of steel’ (2.1.62, 77). Katherine, the center of the divorce narrative, appropriates the word to her own use, telling the Cardinals who come to try to persuade her that ‘[n]othing but death/Shall e’er divorce my dignities’ (3.1.140-141). And Anne, commiserating with the Queen’s plight in conversation with an Old Lady, says compassionately,

     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 boydies severing


This is a classic instance of what is sometimes called ‘discrepant awareness’: the audience is aware, as Anne is not, of the violent ‘severing’ of soul and body that will be her own fat, even though this speech is situated within a scene that is, in general tone, comic, bawdy, and joyful, and that ends in Anne’s designation as Marchioness of Pembroke. (‘Much better/She ne’er had known pomp’ might be the audience’s own choric commentary, looking into Anne’s future, and history’s past.)

Retitled when it was included among the history plays in the First Folio, Henry VIII is a play written at the end of Shakespeare’s career that closes with the christening of Queen Elizabeth, and thus with the inauguration of the era that was to become so closely associated with his name.

Why is it that this play is, relatively speaking, so little discussed today, except by scholars of early modern drama – and by actors? Henry VIII was not always an afterthought of footnote, although it has come to be regarded, (often by those who have not read it) as ‘lesser’ or ‘minor’ Shakespeare – itself a questionable designation, since the fortunes and estimations have varied so widely over the years. The play was extremely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, providing a star vehicle for actresses in the role of Katherine. Sarah Siddons was considered a notable Katherine, as was the American actress Charlotte Cushman. The part of Cardinal Wolsey, too, was a star part, and the opportunity for elaborate ‘historical’ staging and spectacle made Henry VIII a favorite of theater managers. But despite the fact that The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight appears in the First Folio of William Shakespeare, it is acknowledged to be a play written collaboratively, with many scenes not by Shakespeare but by John Fletcher, the author of Bonduca and The Faithfull Shepherdess, a regular collaborator with Francis Beaumont (Philaster, The Maid’s Tragedy, A King and No King), and Shakespeare’s coauthor of The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost play Cardenio. For some scholars the fact of collaborative authorship (a common practice in the period, much as it is in screenwriting today) devalued the play, since it rendered more difficult, indeed impossible, the identification of ‘Shakespeare’s philosophy and beliefs’ or ‘Shakespeare’s intentions,’ challenging the notion that literary texts should put us in touch with the minds that made them.

Is the play a ‘Shakespeare play?’ Yes, in the sense that it was printed in the First Folio, and that it seems clear that Shakespeare wrote many of its scenes and speeches. (The current scholarly consensus regards 1.1, 1.2, 2.3, 2.4, the first half of 3.2, and 5.1 as scenes ‘by Shakespeare.’) But to subdivide the play into Shakespearean and Fletcherean sections (an earlier less collaboration-friendly era would have said ‘Shakespearean and ‘non-Shakespearean’) for the purpose of an analysis of its dramaturgy, themes, and theatrical effect is to miss the point of collaborative authorship.

This play’s motifs do have some affinities with other key moments in Shakespearean drama – notably with the late plays, and especially The Winter’s Tale, but also with Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and even early works like Love’s Labour’s Lost and Henry VI Part 1. Thus, for example, the masque at York Place (1.4) in which s disguised King Henry and others, ‘habited like shepherds,’ appear before Cardinal Wolsey and his guests, resembles both the masque of the ‘Muscovites’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost and the scene in Henry VI Part I in which Joan la Pucelle correctly identifies the disguised Dauphin. The masquers are said to ‘speak no English,’ like the supposed Muscovites, and to have come to pay their respects to the ladies’ beauty; the Lord Chamberlain acts as translator, and Wolsey, archly guessing that there should be ‘one amongst ‘em by his person/More worthy this place than myself’ (1.4.81-82), unerringly picks out the King (though in the source in Holinshed he initially fails to do so). ‘More worthy this place than myself,’ though a standard compliment, acquires a belated tinge of irony when, by the middle of the play, we find that the King has broken with Wolsey and taken York Place as his own.

Likewise the engagingly bawdy scene between Anne Bullen and an Old Lady offers an exchange reminiscent of Juliet and her Nurse, or even more closely, Emilia and Desdemona in Othello:

Old Lady:     You would not be a queen?

Anne:  No, not for all the riches under heaven.

Old Lady:  ‘Tis strange, A threepence bowed would hire me,

                   Old as I am, to queen it…


Compared Desdemona’s question to Emilia about sexual infidelity, ‘Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?’ and Emilia’s reply, ‘The world’s a huge thing. It is a great price for a small vice.’ (Othello 4.3.67-68). By the end of the scene Anne has received word that Henry has made her Marchioness of Pembroke, with a thousand pounds a year.

The effect of Henry VIII as a stage vehicle or a literary text does not, however, depend upon those associations as ‘Shakespearean’ credentials. Some of its finest dramatic and rhetorical moments come in scenes that have been firmly attributed to Fletcher, like Wolsey’s farewell to greatness and the prophecy by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The design of Henry VIII depends on an interweaving of three kinds of scenes: (1) the great speeches of regret, recrimination, defiance, and farewell that attend the fall of various principals; (2) a series of spectacles, masques, and state occasions; and (3) a number of scenes, many of them very dramatically effective and engaging, in which an onstage conversation among gentlemen or nobles reports on events that have taken place offstage.

Its spectacular stagings range from the masque at York Place (1.4), performed by the King and courtiers in disguise (the occasion on which Henry meets and dances with Anne Bullen), to Katherine’s dream vision (4.2), also masquelike in its form, and sometimes performed as the pendant or reversal of the earlier masque; and from the scene at Blackfriars in which the Kings and Cardinals summon Katherine (2.4) to the elaborate scene of Anne’s coronation procession (4.1) and the equally elaborate and formal christening of Elizabeth (5.4). The play is distinctive in its lengthy stage directions, which often pay meticulous attention to placement and to costumes and props, unlike the terser phrases that serve this purpose in other Shakespeare plays. The effect for the reader is one of a rich and sumptuous ceremony.”


From Bloom:

Henry VIII photo intro 3“My experience of rereading Henry VIII makes me doubt the hypothesis that a considerable portion of it could be by John Fletcher. Though it is a better dramatic poem than a play, Henry VIII seems remarkably unified, with only a few touches that suggest Fletcher. An experiment in pageantry, Henry VIII offers grand roles – Wolsey, Katherine, Henry – rather than characters, and its principal fascination (at least for me) is Shakespeare’s detachment from all the protagonists, who interest him only when they are on their way down and out (Buckingham, Wolsey, Katherine, very nearly Cranmer) but who then move the poet, and us, to considerable sympathy.”


From Tony Tanner:

Second Gentleman:  These are stars indeed.

First Gentleman:  And sometimes falling ones.

Second Gentleman:  No more of that.


Henry VIII photo intro 4“1613:  another history play – by Shakespeare! It seems somehow unfitting. When Prospero announced that he was breaking his staff and drowning his book, in The Tempest, most people have felt that this was Shakespeare’s very own way of indicating that he was doing the same. And yet here it is – Henry VIII, included without any reservations in the first Folio of 1623 by Heminge and Condell (while they excluded works of more dubious Shakespearean status, such as Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen.) However, in 1850, J. Spedding wrote an article entitled ‘Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Henry VIII?’ in which he maintained, using plausible stylistic evidence, that ‘parts of the play were almost certainly written by Fletcher. Debate and argument about this matter have continued ever since, with some learned scholars maintaining that there are good reasons for thinking that, in fact, Shakespeare wrote the lot, while others are equally sure that they can detect when Fletcher, as it were, takes over. I have nothing to add to this debate. That there are stylistic variations (and, if you will, dips into weakness) is undeniable; that there are lines which only Shakespeare could have written seems to me incontestable. That it is hardly a play, or ‘drama,’ at all, is the proposition I shall try to advance.

Why did Shakespeare write it (or part of it – but I shall lives this matter aside in this brief introduction, and simply refer to the play as a whole)? It is, by definition, an unanswerable question; and more than that, surely no man’s motives are less recuperable than Shakespeare’s. But one reason is speculatively adduced, which I will simply transcribe. In February 1613, Princess Elizabeth, King James’s daughter, was married to Prince Fredrick, the elector Palatine, a leader of the Protestant union in Germany. The wedding was the occasion for the most lavish celebrations – banquets, plays, masques, pageants, fireworks, etc. – and it is suggest that this firm Protestant alliance between Britain and a German power occasioned popular rejoicing as well as court festivities. There was still a slight Popish threat of a Spanish invasion and a second armada in 1613, and many old (patriotic) history plays were revived (see R.A. Foakes, Arden edition). The anti-Catholic implications of the marriage of this second Elizabeth was an occasion of great rejoicing; and a play celebrating both the downfall of the last great Catholic statesman in England (Wolsey), and the birth of the first Elizabeth (Protestant from birth), might have seemed both timely and appropriate. This, anyway, is what we have.

And, it might be said, that’s all we have: downfall – downfalls actually – and a birth. No rebellions, no usurpations, no invasions, no wars; no serious plotting, no really profound contestations, no irresolvable antagonisms – and no humour (just one – one! – ironic remark). It has been called, variously, ‘a sort of historical masque or show-play’ (Coleridge), a ‘chronicle-pageant,’ a ‘festive history.’ And yet this was the reign in which England experience what must have been the massive trauma of being suddenly, forcibly, violently changed from a Catholic to a Protestant country. About which, be it said, Shakespeare keeps very quiet (so that, to this day, people speculate about his possible Catholic sympathies, going through the plays considering whether unbearable Puritans come off worse than untrustable Catholics.) Nothing of that trauma/drama gets into this play, though it ends exactly when it was taking place (in 1533, when Elizabeth was born). This is the court in peace time. We have four trials, three deaths, one marriage, one birth; we have politics, forensic casuistry, some off-the-cuff theology; and a lot of quite uncharacteristically detailed (in the stage directions) ceremony, ritual, and pageantry. We have no serious character development, but instead we have the largest cast of any of the histories. We have no real soliloquies from this King Henry; but, as an innovation, a number of nameless gentlemen who sill stroll in and out saying – did you hear this, everyone is saying that, and so on. There are three real griefs; but it is a resolutely public play, with everything tending to spectacle.”


And finally, from William Hazlitt:

Henry VIII photo intro 5This play contains little action or violence of passion, yet it has considerable interest of a more mild and thoughtful cast, and some of the most striking passages in the author’s works. The character of Queen Katherine is the most perfect delineation of matronly dignity, sweetness, and resignation, that can be conceived. Her appeals to the protection of the king, her remonstrances to the cardinals, her conversations with her women, show a noble and generous spirit accompanied with the utmost gentleness of nature. What can be more affecting than her answer to Campeius and Wolsey, who come to visit her as pretended friends.

—’Nay, forsooth, my friends,
They that must weigh out my afflictions,
They that my trust must grow to, live not here;
They are, as all my comforts are, far hence,
In mine own country, lords.’

Dr. Johnson observes of this play, that ‘the meek sorrows and virtuous distress of Katherine have furnished some scenes, which may be justly numbered among the greatest efforts of tragedy. But the genius of Shakespeare comes in and goes out with Katherine. Every other part may be easily conceived and easily written.’ This is easily said; but with all due deference to so great a reputed authority as that of Johnson, it is not true.”


For everyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, this should be an interesting read.


Our next reading:  Henry VIII, Act One

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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2 Responses to “The effect for the reader is one of a rich and sumptuous ceremony.”

  1. Mahood says:

    The Bard’s penultimate play…can you believe it? ‘…the loftiest mountain in all of Western literature…’ was how you described it, Dennis, when we started out on this project…and now we are nearly at the summit!

    Looking forward to this one – before starting this project, I didn’t even know that he’d written a play about Henry VIII! Strange that a play about a well-known historical figure as Henry VIII should be one of the Bard’s lesser known works.

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