‘Henry VIII‘ is the last play by the legendary William Shakespeare. This historical play has some good features to recommend it but in some other aspects falls below the standard, given the precedence of its author. There are some remarkable lines in the dialogue, well-developed characters, and a good plot. But on the other hand, some of the characters lack depth or significance and for a historical play, the accuracy of some details of the play is questionable.
For me, whoever is the author of ‘Henry VIII‘ (as the authorship is still a debatable matter) deserves full marks for the depiction and development of the character Cardinal Wolsey—much is said about him by other characters in the play and his own words and actions corroborate what is said about him, giving the audience a clear understanding of his character. Also, his character undergoes a significant change from evil to good.
Unfortunately, apart from Cardinal Wolsey and a few other characters like Duke of Buckingham and Queen Katherine, many other characters appear repeatedly but still fail to add significantly to the plot or make an impression on the audience. For instance, characters like Thomas Lovell and Lord Sands, despite numerous appearances, can easily remain forgettable if removed from the play.
A quick piece of advice to readers— if you’re looking for an accurate account of events in King Henry VIII’s reign, please do not limit your sources to the story of ‘Henry VIII‘ by Shakespeare.
Some of the details are vague, mixed up, and can be misleading. For instance, in the play, Sir Thomas More is mentioned as the man who succeeded Cardinal Wolsey as Lord Chancellor which is historically correct, but Sir Thomas More resigned from his position as Lord Chancellor in the year 1532, before the birth of Elizabeth I in 1533. Yet in Act V, Scene III of the play, we see the character of a Lord Chancellor presiding over a trial after the birth of Elizabeth I and nowhere in the play was it stated that Sir Thomas More had ceased to be the Lord Chancellor at that time. So, this can mislead some readers into thinking that Sir Thomas More was still Lord Chancellor after Elizabeth I was born.
Also, some of the characters’ names are spelt differently from the names of the actual historical figures they are based on. For instance, the historical figure Queen Catherine of Aragon is misspelt as ”Katherine” in the play, and Anne Boleyn is spelt as ”Anne Bullen” in the play.
Reading the play is recommended but not as a reliable source of history.
The plot of ‘Henry VIII‘ by Shakespeare is one of the good points in the play’s favour. For me, the tragic execution of the Duke of Buckingham orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey is quite arresting, but the grief of the reader is eventually assuaged by the nemesis that catches up with Cardinal Wolsey when he is stripped of his power by the king and disgraced.
The two events above give the play a worthwhile plot. Without them, the other events in the plot would be rather dull.
Language and Dialogue
Modern readers often find it challenging to read and understand Shakespearean texts and ‘Henry VIII‘ will likely not be an exception. 21st Century English has evolved into what feels like an entirely different language from what was used in the 16th and 17th centuries, and so it is natural for modern-day readers to experience some comprehension hitches. However, the challenge in comprehending the language is not beyond what a careful perusal can rectify. A helpful tip for better comprehension is to read dialogues twice.
The dialogues in the play contain some wise quotes. Therefore, I’d strongly recommend that readers follow the dialogues attentively. Also, figurative language is brilliantly deployed in the dialogues to make for an enjoyable read.
Henry VIII Review
Lasting Effect on a Reader
Henry VIII Review: The Light Fades on Shakespeare as he takes this Last Bow
Henry VIII is the last play credited to the legendary William Shakespeare. This historical play while not being a bad piece, still falls below expectation given the precedence of the author and the interesting English monarch after whom the play is named. King Henry VIII of England is a historical character whose life and reign were royally dramatic, and it is not out of place to expect more when a man considered the greatest playwright of all times makes his last play about such an epic character.
However, barring very high expectations, the play is not so bad a read. It still contains some quotes, themes and literary devices that make it a worthwhile read.
- Interesting elements in the plot
- Dialogues with nuggets of wisdom
- Great use of literary devices and figurative language
- Some poorly developed characters
- Unclear sequence of historical events