Play Of the Month: Henry VIII

Movie pitch

A lavish look at the life of a legendary king, filled with fun characters, court intrigue, and elaborate spectacle.

Rated PG for some rude language and court intrigue

My two Cents

  • Henry is not the central character. Almost all the action in the first half is the conflict between Cardinal Woolsey (Henry’s Lord Chancellor) and Henry’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn.
  • Don’t try to do this play without a big budget. I was in a graduate school production where we didn’t have much of a budget, and honestly, it was very dull and slow without any elaborate costumes, music, and masks to put onstage. The play’s own stage directions are spectacular, including this one:
    • [Trumpets, sennet, and cornets. Enter two Vergers,] [p]with short silver wands; next them, two Scribes, in [p]the habit of doctors; after them, CANTERBURY alone; [p]after him, LINCOLN, Ely, Rochester, and Saint [p]Asaph; next them, with some small distance, follows [p]a Gentleman bearing the purse, with the great seal, [p]and a cardinal’s hat; then two Priests, bearing [p]each a silver cross; then a Gentleman-usher [p]bare-headed, accompanied with a Sergeant-at-arms [p]bearing a silver mace; then two Gentlemen bearing [p]two great silver pillars; after them, side by side, [p]CARDINAL WOLSEY and CARDINAL CAMPEIUS; two Noblemen [p]with the sword and mace. KING HENRY VIII takes [p]place under the cloth of state; CARDINAL WOLSEY and [p]CARDINAL CAMPEIUS sit under him as judges. QUEEN [p]KATHARINE takes place some distance from KING [p]HENRY VIII. The Bishops place themselves on each [p]side the court, in manner of a consistory; below [p]them, the Scribes. The Lords sit next the Bishops. [p]The rest of the Attendants stand in convenient [p]order about the stage] 
  • I’ve only seen one good production of this play, and sadly it wasn’t mine. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s production was very clever, because it didn’t focus on Henry or Woolsey, but rather on Will Summers, who was Henry’s real-life court jester, and frequent bearer of bad news, which works very well with the first lines of the play: I come no more to make you laugh: things now,
    That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
    Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe,
    Act I, Scene i, lines 1-3.

Famous Lines

” ‘Tis a cruelty to load a falling man.” Act V, Scene iii

“Had I but served my God with half the zeal as I served my king…” Act III, Scene ii.


General Data

Title: Henry VIII

Playwright: William Shakespeare

Year Written: approx. 1613

Source: Hollingshead’s Chronicles

Genre: Jacobean History

Play Data

Structure: Five Acts, 18 Scenes

Setting: London approximately 1509- 1533

Character Notes

Cardinal Thomas Woolsey

The Cardinal dominates the first half of the play. He is Henry’s right-hand man and seems to be a devoted public servant; as high chancellor he controls England’s finances, he’s an envoy to the Vatican and has approval over most legislation. In reality (in the play, at least), Woosey is amassing a huge amount of personal wealth, which he intends to use to bribe the other cardinals and make himself Pope!

Queen Katherine of Aragon

The queen is the real hero of the play. She starts off as Henry’s faithful, dutiful wife, but because she stands in the way of Henry’s desire for an heir, and the Cardinal’s machinations, she is put through legal hell with a trial, a divorce, exile, and eventually death. Shakespeare portrays her as a living saint who is rewarded for her suffering with a well-earned place in heaven.

Play Summary

Before the Play (via Oversimplified)

During the Play

  1. Cardinal Woolsey starts consolidating more and more power, taxing the nobles, and taking control of Henry’s business.
  2. King Henry falls in love with Anne Boleyn.
  3. Henry uses Woolsey to start a court case to determine how to annul his marriage with Catherine.
  4. Catherine rejects the sham trial.

Modern Inspirations

  1. Game of Thrones The bloody intrigue of the House of Westeros has Shakespeare’s DNA flowing through it. In some ways you can trace all four plays of Shakespeare’s War Of The Roses cycle; families tearing each other down to obtain the throne.
  2. ‘W’

Concerns for Teachers

  • DONT TEACH THIS PLAY- it is devoid of any useful historical information and its characters are paper thin. It is basically Tudor propaganda.

Historical Context

“War without fire, is as bland as sausage without mustard,” -King Henry V.

  • Who: King Of England from 1509-1547
  • Significance To the Play: Title character and chief protagonist.
  • Parallel Characters: W

Interesting Historical Facts
Henry ruled for only 9 and one half years.
His father usurped the crown from Richard II in 1399, when Henry was twelve.
Almost immediately after his father usurped the throne, Henry held a place in his government- fighting Welsh and Scottish rebellions, helping with the royal finance, and helping his father with foreign policy (Saccio 66). Based on the evidence, Henry seems to have been incredibly loyal to his father.
Although he was not a wastrel or a madcap, Henry did sometimes clash with his father, and there were rumors at court that he intended to usurp the throne in advance from his father (66)
In 1411, King Henry IV removed his son from his council!
Henry V ascended the throne in March of 1413, and died in August of 1422. By all accounts, he astounded the country with his skill with diplomacy, his piety, and his energy in controlling the reigns of power, while at the same time expanding England into an empire (67)
To try and appease the supporters of Richard II, Henry moved the dead king’s body from King’s Langley to Westminster Abby, the traditional burial tomb of English kings. He also restored some of their noble titles after his father condemned them as traitors (68)

Henry and contemporary politics. In

Discussion Questions:

  • While Henry fights for the throne, he also performs many parts- soldier, king, wooer, statesman, etc. Former president Reagan was also an Hollywood actor, Donald Trump was a reality TV star turned President. How does play-acting relate to elections and what tactics does Henry share with actors and politicians of today?

Concerns for Directors

  1. To cut or not to cut? As I mentioned before, this is a very long play, and few people have seen the three plays that preceede it. It is the director’s job to decide what parts of the story on which to focus: Henry, or the rise of the House Of Lancaster
  2. Pro war or anti war?
  3. Period- Civil War? 15th century? 19th Century? Now?
  4. Henry’s journey

Resources for teachers

Royal Shakespeare Company

American Shakespeare Center