Henry VIII

by William Shakespeare
176 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

Disjointed and at times tedious, though still containing gems; some sexual and moral content.


The last of Shakespeare's historical plays, "Henry VIII" revolves around the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the king's divorce of Katherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, and ends with the christening of the future Queen Elizabeth I.


Cardinal Wolsey, the king's chancellor and right-hand man, is portrayed as a proud, ambitious, greedy man who uses his position to manipulate the king and add to his own coffers. The nobles chafe under his authority and seek to uncover his machinations before Henry. Later on, however, he seems to show at least remorse if not repentance.

A major part of the play deals with Henry's desire to annul his marriage to his first wife, Katherine, and marry one of her ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. He presents this as a matter of "conscience" and uses as an excuse the fact that Katherine was the widow of his older brother (theoretically making his own marriage to her incestuous). In fact, Henry wanted to marry Anne Boleyn and have a male heir. The play is sympathetic to Katherine, but also paints Anne Boleyn as an apparently virtuous woman (highly questionable given the facts). Few noticeable moral judgments are made.

Ambitions and political in-fighting crop up frequently throughout the play. The corruption of the Church at that time also shows between the lines, although Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, is portrayed as an upright churchman.

Spiritual Content

The play takes place before England's split with the Roman Catholic Church, but religion has very little part in the tale. Most of the churchmen are, again, seeking their own ends. At one point Katherine has a vision of spirits or angels. Characters occasionally offer up brief prayers (with varying piety) or swear by God.


A man is accused of treason; his execution is implied.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Wine flows freely at a party.

Sexual Content

During a feast involving noblemen and ladies-in-waiting, several characters express more admiration for the women (and particularly Anne Boleyn) than is appropriate. In this same scene, the married king meets and woos Anne; his desire to divorce Katherine and marry Anne plays a significant role after this. Queen Katherine defends her faithfulness to Henry in no uncertain terms. Cardinal Wolsey is accused of keeping a mistress and having illegitimate children. See Crude Language.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

God's name is frequently taken in vain. At a christening, two men jest that the gathering crowd of men and women will result in debauchery and more christenings to come.


"Henry VIII" is a difficult play to judge. Owing to the comparatively tame reign of its titular character (this second Tudor king did little fighting, being instead primarily known for his break with Rome and obsession with having a male heir), it is neither action-filled like Henry V nor suspenseful like Richard III. Instead, the acts are only loosely joined together by the threads of Wolsey's machinations, Katherine's fall and Anne Boleyn's rise, with a few semi-random elements (Cranmer, particularly) thrown in. It also has a significant amount of stage directions - the most of any Shakespearean play - that tend to weigh down the dialogue, while the story itself relies heavily on gossip between various unnamed characters.

All that on the negative side. On the positive side, it is interesting to trace what is fact and what is propaganda in this "historical play." There are also still some of Shakespeare's trademarks in the high-flown speeches, Wolsey's remorseful monologue and Cranmer's blessing of the infant Elizabeth in particular. While it cannot really be touted as Shakespeare's best work, it does undeniably have its gems.

Fun Score: 2
Values Score: 2
Written for Age: adult

Review Rating:

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