Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590, he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford and died in 1616 at the age of 52. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century, his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life, but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Henry VIII was written in 1613; it combines the genre of the history play, a genre Shakespeare commonly used earlier in his career, and the tragicomic romance, a genre gaining new popularity in the early 17th century. The play focuses on the instabilities of the royal court in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, suggesting far-ranging national implications for the infighting in court. The king of Shakespeare's day, James I, was a direct descendent of the royal family in this play.
The merging of romance and history provides the suggestion that fate or providence helped to determine the unfolding of English history of the previous century. The most important event, and the goal toward which all of the action moves, is the birth of Elizabeth, future queen of England. But in order for the birth to take place, a complex set of events must be put into motion, and anyone who in any way blocks her birth must be cleared out of the picture.
This play also represents another significant moment in English history, namely England's religious break with Rome and the Catholic Church. In 1531, King Henry VIII, disappointed that his wife Catherine (spelled "Katharine" in this play) had borne him no male heirs, decided to divorce her. His advisors argued that the marriage was invalid, but the Pope ruled against the divorce. Nevertheless Henry divorced his wife and married Anne Boleyn ("Anne Bullen" in the play) in 1533. The Pope promptly excommunicated Henry. Henry then took command of religion in England, declaring himself the head of the Church of England and seizing the wealth of the monasteries. The rest of Henry's reign was beset by rebellions both small and large by groups who wanted to restore Catholicism or who were supporters of various religious reformation groups. The actual event of the break with the Pope is not represented within this play, but we see Henry's advisors discuss ways to negotiate a legal divorce. We even see Cardinal Wolsey urge the Pope to refuse the divorce. But the actual break is only alluded to.
The years following Henry's death were wracked with religious disagreement and rebellions. His daughter, Queen Mary, re-instituted Catholicism and ordered many bloody religious persecutions. When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, she reversed Mary's orders and returned the kingdom to Protestant rule. But religious unrest continued. The frequent public executions that took place following Henry's break with Rome and during the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth are prefigured in the execution of Buckingham.
A mild critique of Henry's behavior is contained within the play. Henry seems at first to be an inattentive king, content to let his aides take care of business. But when he steps in to stop the trial of his friend Cranmer, one wonders about his earlier behavior. Did he know what was going on the whole time, or did he only come to awareness halfway through the play? Henry's divorce is also criticized, since no one believes he wants to divorce Katharine because of a flare-up of conscience about the legality of the marriage--rather, everyone believes he merely wants to marry Anne. Despite a compliment to James at the end of the play in elegiac remarks about the heirs of Elizabeth, criticism of Henry was probably also aimed at King James, who was known to neglect affairs of state.
While this play is now called Henry VIII, comments on early performances suggest it was originally titled All Is True. Early editors may have adapted the title to conform to the pattern of using the names of English kings for Shakespeare's history plays. The text is based not on an authorial manuscript but a scribe's copy, which may have been later revised for performance.
In the eighteenth century, scholars made a case that Shakespeare collaborated on this play with John Fletcher, who succeeded Shakespeare as the principal author of Shakespeare's theater group. Scholars disagree on the details, but they agree that Shakespeare probably wrote most of the big scenes, while Fletcher may have had a hand in some of the minor scenes. The language is quite consistent throughout, suggesting that Fletcher's role was rather small. Several long stage directions appear in scenes II.i and IV.i--characteristic of Fletcher's style rather than Shakespeare's--but there is no other conclusive evidence of collaboration.
Significantly, Henry VIII was performed on June 29, 1613, the day the Globe Theater burned to the ground. Contemporary accounts disagree at just what point in the play it happened, but several small cannons were shot off during certain scenes, which ignited the thatch roof of the theater and led to the fire. No one was hurt, but the theater was destroyed.
In reading all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday, I just finished Henry VIII. It was my least favorite of the Bard's plays, seeming to be more a platform to praise Elizabeth I than entertain audiences. In case you're interested in my take, I've blogged about it at: