Shakespeare’s “King Henry VIII”


Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1537)

For awhile now, I have been fascinated by Henry VIII (1491-1547). An Anglican, like myself, has a vested interest in understanding something about this monarch who played a critical role in the English Reformation, as former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, says in The Anglican Spirit:

King Henry VIII had six wives. Not every English schoolchild could recite the names of the six correctly, but nearly every English schoolchild will know the rhyme about their fate: “Divorced, beheaded, died, / Divorced, beheaded, survived.” One might wonder already what on earth that has got to do with our present church! The answer is, it has got everything to do with who we are. Because again and again, it is through apparently chance events that divine providence works in order to bring about great religious situations and subsequent great religious manifestations. And so it is in this case. Indeed, those six wives are well worth commemorating. 

My fascination began with cinematic treatments of Henry VIII: Showtime’s The Tudors (2007-2010) and PBS’s Wolf Hall (2015). Now I am turning to a literary treatment: William Shakespeare’s political thriller, King Henry VIII. Though popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the work is rarely performed today. I was surprised to learn that Mark Rosenblatt’s spectacular 2010 production was the Globe Theatre’s first staging of the historical drama since 1613. Four hundred years ago, a canon fired as a special effect in the production “ignited the Globe’s thatched roof and razed the playhouse to the ground.”

Here is a brief synopsis:

The Tudor Court is locked in a power struggle between its nobles and the Machiavellian Cardinal Wolsey, the King’s first minister and the most conspicuous symbol of Catholic power in the land. Wolsey’s ambition knows no bounds and when his chief ally, Queen Katherine, interferes in the King’s romance with Anne Bullen, he brings gigantic ruin upon himself, the Queen and centuries of English obedience to Rome.

Famous in its own day as Shakespeare’s most sumptuous and spectacular play, Henry VIII is a gorgeous pageant of masques and royal ceremony; a blaze of fireworks, cannonfire, red satin and cloth-of-gold. But within the passages of grandeur works the mind of the mature Shakespeare: psychological and political insight, language of great depth and power and, in the figures of Wolsey and Katherine, two of his most vivid and memorable characters.


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