King Henry the Eighth

Hey guys.

Fuck this play.

This is, seriously, the first play out of the batch that I don’t like at all.  There’s a handful of good moments, and I’ll talk about them.  The sort of things that could be done well as a scene in an educational context.  But for the most part, nothing happens.  A boner joke, but that’s about it.  Henry VIII meets Anne Bullen for the first time, and they dance together.  The Cardinal, Wolsey, points out to the king that “Your Grace, I fear, with dancing is a little heated,” to which Henry immediately responds: “I fear, too much.” And then he awkwardly leaves the room.

This also counts as my Presidential comparison for this history play.

This is the plot: Cardinal Wolsey is manipulating the King for the sake of his own advancement.  A bunch of the Dukes are trying to intervene, but Buckingham gets wrongly charged with treason his head is cut off.  “Ha!” I think, decapitation!  That is how a bunch of Henry’s wives are killed, this is foreshadowing!  No.  No it’s not.  We even hear about Thomas More at one point, but as far as we know things turn out wonderfully for him.

Above: England, according to this fucking play.

But the Cardinal is a scheming devil, maybe there’s something happening there?  I mean, they make reference to the events of Richard III, where we see Henry’s father crowned king at the end of horrible war.  Henry VIII opens after a long reign of peace, perhaps we’re going to see some more ill-fated wars with France?  The split with the Catholic Church?  No, none of that.  He sort of divorces Katherine of Aragon, because “It seems the marriage with his brother’s wife Has crept too near his conscience.” Bull.  Shit.  As Suffolk says: “No, his conscience has crept too near another lady.” Though Henry meets Anne Bullen at Wolsey’s banquet and the whole thing gets blamed on the Cardinal.  And Katherine is actually an interesting character – correction, THE interesting character – because she fights really hard to stay with her husband.  But in the end Henry marries Bullen offstage, and has a kid by her.  What kid, you ask?

THIS kid.

And that’s the end of the play.

I’m not kidding, the last scene is Henry VIII, the Child Elizabeth, her godfather Cranmer, and some other people of significance – Bullen apparently not among them – talking about how awesome this kid is gonna be when she grows up.  Like, so awesome.  “In her days every man shall eat in safety, Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing the merry songs of peace to all his neighbors.” Wow, it’s almost as if this kid grew up to be Shakespeare’s biggest supporter.  Oh, wait, she did.

However, it’s worth noting that Henry VIII is Shakespeare’s last play, chronologically, being performed sometime around 1612.  But James had been King in England for about a decade by then, on account of Elizabeth being dead.  Which brings me to the next part of this stupid scene: “Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix, Her ashes create another heir as great in admiration as herself; So shall she leave her blessedness to one,” yadda yadda “Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, His honor and the greatness of his name Shall be, and make new nations.”


So that’s the play, nothing of dramatic value happens, even though we are only one monarch removed from Richard III’s crazy violence, and then Queen Elizabeth is born.  Never mind what happens to her mom, the important thing to remember is that James I is pretty awesome, too.

Welcome to the sell-out's club, William.

So, what happened?  How did one of the greatest writers in the English language create something so dry and pointless?  I’ll tell you: he had help.

Some little shit named John Fletcher collaborated with Shakespeare on this play, and it is commonly accepted among scholars that John Fletcher was not that great.  He also collaborated with Shakespeare on a play called Two Noble Kinsmen, a comedy that isn’t very well liked either, but because it wasn’t even included in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s published works they don’t really count it.  If they did, 2NK would be Shakespeare’s last play.  But they don’t, so this fat festering hunk of crap is.  But seriously guys, this play was pretty horrifically pointless.  It’s not the only time Shakespeare did less than stellar work, but this is the first time I’ve ever encountered something by him that I personally consider un-producible.

I mean, the play starts off with a great line: “I come no more to make you laugh.” Seriously, that is intense shit, coming from Shakespeare.

"This is the state of man: to-day he pulls forth The tender leaves of hope; to-morrow blossoms And bears his blushing honours thick upon him; The third day comes a frost, a killing frost"

And there are a handful of good bits.  When Anne Bullen hears that Henry may want her for a bride, she repeats some of the sentiment we’ve heard before in Henry VI – that a crown is more trouble than it’s worth.  Queen Katherine is truly heartbreaking, and the only chance this play has to uphold that opening line.  And Cardinal Wolsey, after he has fallen from the King’s favor, has some cool moments. The highlight of the play is something that Buckingham says, as he is taken offstage for execution: “Those you make friends And give your hearts to, when they once perceive the least rub in your fortunes, fall away Like water from ye, never found again But where they mean to sink ye.” So there’s that chunk of awesomeness, not much else.

On one level, I get it.  The playwrights have to be very careful with the way they handle this subject matter.  Since it is so recent, and the English didn’t have freedom of the press in their favor, the whole thing about Henry’s bluebeard fetish had to be avoided explicitly.  So when the play ends with the King happily married, it’s kind of like the end of the old Jason and the Argonauts, where Jason sails off into the sunset with his new wife Medea.  We know what crazy stuff is going to happen afterward, and it can have sort of a cool bittersweet horror at the end.

In case you didn't know, she murders all of the children.

But – also like the original Jason and the Argonauts – the amazing amount of tedium is barely even worth seeing the huge battle with the skeletons…  Except there are no skeletons.  It’s just only mildly interesting in an academic way.  Or if you’re reading an act of Shakespeare a day just to say you can.  Shakespeare wrote this during a fascinating period of history, and the amount of stuff that does not get mentioned speaks volumes.  The Gunpowder Plot was foiled a few years earlier, and America was being colonized by crazy religious zealots who were even more extreme than the religious zealots who wind up decapitating King Charles of England, outlawing theatre, and ruling for about a decade with a republic that predates the United States and also committed genocide against the Irish.

While I'm on the subject: Fuck Cromwell.

So it’s really interesting that Shakespeare and Fletcher felt compelled to avoid controversy with this play, which only hints at religious conflict, remains ambiguous about the King’s sexual motivations for his brides, and downplays Henry’s quest for a male heir.

Also, he wasn't fat and ugly.

Interesting to analyze, but not compelling to watch.

So let’s think forward to the future, shall we?  I’ve decided on a schedule for the rest of my readings.

Here’s my proposed list, in order of how I plan to read them:


Henry IV, Part I
Henry IV, Part II
Henry V
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Measure for Measure
Much Ado About Nothing
Taming of the Shrew
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus
Julius Caesar
Antony and Cleopatra
Romeo and Juliet
All’s Well That Ends Well
Two Gentlemen of Verona
King John
Richard II
The Comedy of Errors
Love’s Labours Lost
The Merchant of Venice
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Tempest
Troilus and Cressida
Twelfth Night
Winter’s Tale
King Lear

A seemingly random order, I realize.  But it made sense to me while I was compiling it, and that’s what matters.  If you want to follow along, that might be really fun.

Oh, and you may notice that Two Noble Kinsmen isn’t on that list.  I may add it afterwards.  I got the idea in my head that I will start exploring other Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, in the interest of finding cool copyright-free material that should be produced.

So, it is with great excitement that I end this post with a quote from a palace Porter in the final act, observing the throng of commoners come to see the infant Elizabeth after her Baptism:

“Bless me, what a fry of fornication is at door!”

This is the most famous depiction of Henry VIII. Now compare it with Jonathan Rhys Myers up there when he played Henry VIII on Shotime. Yeah.


8 Responses to “King Henry the Eighth”
  1. Brandy Reichenberger says:

    But wasn’t he a bit older in that picture? (that is, you know, the most famous depiction bit.) To my understanding, he was a big ole hottie for the majority of his life–until he got gout and got fat and started having the sores on his legs drained with the application of burning hot bits of metal.
    To start off the comment with the most random thing possible.
    What I actually wanted to say was: very cool blogging idea. I’ll be reading a bit of Shakespeare this semester myself, and I’ll be interested in what you have to say. I won’t be following your crazy schedule (a bit too busy for that, I’m afraid), but I think I’ll probably read along.
    I’d like to know what you think of Two Gentlemen of Verona as well, when you get to it. I think it’s a bit crap personally. Anyhow, you’ll get to it eventually.
    Keep up the lovely work, it’s a smart and funny blog about something that’s actually interesting! (I was excited to note that there is not even a mention in this post of what you’ve eaten or purchased in the last week. Good show, old chap!!)
    Anyway, sorry for the excessively long comment. cheers!

    • srhob says:

      Yes, but even when they did that painting on the show, they simply could not bring themselves to stuff that sexy ball of manflesh into a fat suit. Maybe I’m displacing some of my dislike for that show and this play onto the historical Henry. I honestly can’t speak to his earlier sex appeal. All I know is: he got pretty gross, and regardless of how he looked when he bedded Bolen Shakespeare downplays every questionable thing he did.

  2. srhob says:

    I don’t think he’s a suck-up. Like Stephen Spielberg, he just stopped caring as much about making good stuff after a certain point.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] is fairly accepted among scholars that Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher on two plays: King Henry VIII,  and Two Noble Kinsmen.  Considering that the former play was one of the worst plays  have […]

  2. […] out into things like the Winter’s Tale and eventually whitewashes anything bad in the sterile Henry VIII.  Hamletoccupies an interesting middle ground, but ultimately aligns with that earlier cynicism […]

  3. […] that abandons the traditional focus on plot over character.  And it’s different from Henry VIII, which is just bad.  Troilus and Cressida suffers from a similar problem as Two Noble Kinsmen, […]

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