Shakespeare’s sources – Henry VIII

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King Henry VIII

Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources I am going to take a brief look at Henry VIII. Henry VIII was a late play of Shakespeare’s and many think it was written in collaboration with John Fletcher.

Typically it borrows heavily from Holinshed and in fact some people have suggested that the lack of interventions into the historical source suggests that it was less Shakespeare’s work than the other history plays. However there are changes made to Holinshed. Typically events are compressed and altered so that they do not follow the historical record but rather seem to lead dramatically one to the next.

Henry VIII is interesting in that it was comparatively recent history and thus it was still a sensitive topic for many so Shakespeare (and perhaps Fletcher) would have to be tactful in turning it into drama.

A good example of this tact is the way the play implies, without stating it directly, that the treason charges against the Duke of Buckingham were false and trumped up. Buckingham, a character we have come to know through the series of history plays is always loyal and defends the king’s actions whether right or wrong. The scene in which Buckingham is charged with treason is found in  Act1 scene ii, his accuser is Cardinal Wolsey – a man who was known, even by the public, to be corrupt.

But listen to King Henry’s clever explanation to Queen Katherine of how a good man like Buckingham can be seen as bad by virtue of nothing more than his intelligence. This speech is one in which we can see both the argument and the flaw in it.


It grieves many:
The gentleman is learn’d, and a most rare speaker;
To nature none more bound; his training such,
That he may furnish and instruct great teachers,
And never seek for aid out of himself. Yet see,
When these so noble benefits shall prove
Not well disposed, the mind growing once corrupt,
They turn to vicious forms, ten times more ugly
Than ever they were fair. This man so complete,
Who was enroll’d ‘mongst wonders, and when we,
Almost with ravish’d listening, could not find
His hour of speech a minute; he, my lady,
Hath into monstrous habits put the graces
That once were his, and is become as black
As if besmear’d in hell. Sit by us; you shall hear–

Thus primed the charges brought by the Cardinal may seem more suspicious than ever. The play treads a similarly careful line with other sensitive issues – for instance the disgrace and beheading of Anne Boleyn is carefully avoided, and no indication of the succeeding four wives of Henry VIII can be found in the play! Quite a different Henry VIII to the one we think we know today.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Edward Swanson

    “Yet see, When these so noble benefits shall prove Not well disposed, the mind growing once corrupt, They turn to vicious forms, ten times more ugly Than ever they were fair.”

    I wonder if Holinshed wrote the original to that. It explains a process of the mind that Jane Jacobs discussed in her great book “Systems of Survival.” Quite remarkable, really. I wonder if the author of the play intended it in a special sense or was just describing a process that he took to be generic.

  • Lucio49

    Quite different, indeed. And perhaps the gods were outraged by the disingenuousness, for ( as you probably know) it was Henry VIII that was in midshow when the theater’s thatching and wooden beams caught fire…and that was the end of the original Globe.

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