The Shakespeare Series: Henry VIII Review

As you can tell, this is a blog mainly dedicated to simple reviews of things all around us which I enjoy. I especially love Shakespeare, and for that reason I’ve created ‘The Shakespeare Series’. This won’t be long a essay explaining everything that can be discovered in the Bard’s works, nor do I claim to be correct in any of my opinions, but I do hope I can fire your enthusiasm of the great bard’s works and provide insight into each of his plays, without ruining too much.

For those reasons, I’m starting with Henry VIII. One of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, before I read it I was surprised it was not more famous given the fame of its namesake. Upon reading the play, I perhaps understand this more. It isn’t one of the Bard’s best histories, let alone plays in general, and the plot is not the most gripping. For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s histories, this has nothing to do with the fact we know how history will pan out. This also has nothing to do with the fact there are no brilliant quotes to be drawn from it: Cardinal Wolsey’s speech in Act 3 Scene 2 moves me every time I read it.

‘This is the state of man: today he puts forth/The tender leaves of hopes, tomorrow blossoms,/ And bears his blushing honours thick upon him.’

I have personally always believed it to be because the title character has never been quite as accessible as his others. That is not to say a character being ambiguous precludes their accessibility – his Richard II or Prince Hal is sometimes hard to sympathise with – but the way Henry VIII is written, coupled with the relatively small character stage time, makes for an unconvincing ‘lead’.

Despite this, my intrigue for the play continues, mainly due to the interesting movements of the other members of court. We can see throughout the shifts of power and influence, and question throughout the wisdom of these figures? Set atop this bedrock of intrigue is the impending birth of Elizabeth, one day to be the great Queen of history.

Of all Shakespeare’s histories, this is the one written closest to the time Shakespeare was alive. It is therefore another point of interest to see how the great man portrays these figures, especially ones where public opinion of them would have been particularly fresh upon its writing. This is perhaps why the play never captures the imagination as much as most – we are interested in it as an afterthought, whether that afterthought be as ‘another of Shakespeare’s histories’ or ‘an informative if unreliable source on Henry VIII’, as opposed to the play in its own right.

A further point to make is that this play is affirmed to be written by Shakespeare with the playwright John Fletcher, and known in its time as All Is True. This does not exclude it from Shakespeare canon by any means, but does make us wonder how much of the play is Shakespeare’s own. That is for Shakespeare scholars to tell me, and for me not to attempt on my own.

However, please do try Henry VIII by William Shakespeare. No matter your afterthoughts on the play, these being mine, my reading of it has enriched my understanding and experience of his works. I hope this has intrigued into reading Shakespeare further!

A first time Shakespeare reader? Maybe wait until next week, when I review Twelfth Night.

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