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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel

There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »

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Henry VIII (Folger Shakespeare Library)


Henry VIII (Folger Shakespeare Library) Cover




Shakespeare's Henry VIII

In Henry VIII, the last of his plays about English history, Shakespeare presents monarchy in a state of crisis. Noblemen are embattled with the enormously powerful Lord Chancellor Cardinal Wolsey, as both parties level charges of treason against each other almost indiscriminately. Wolsey, without the king's knowledge, has taxed the people to the point of rebellion. Yet the politics of the play are so subtle that the true cause of this crisis is not clear. In the case of the duke of Buckingham, for example, witnesses brought before Henry by Cardinal Wolsey claim that the duke, deceived by the prophecies of an evil monk, is conspiring to usurp Henry's throne. Nonetheless, as Buckingham goes to his death for treason, he seems the innocent victim of suborned testimony. Perhaps, then, the root of the crisis is Henry's failure to recognize Wolsey's exploitation of the king's favor, which, we learn later, has enabled him to amass a huge fortune through extortion and to feed his own pride and spite. Or perhaps the crisis arises from the ambition of noblemen who would strip Henry and his heirs of the throne.

The monarchy also faces a succession crisis, for Henry is without a male heir. Though Henry's queen, Katherine, has been pregnant many times, all but one of the pregnancies have resulted in miscarriages or in infants who died soon after birth. Worse, the single survivor is the girl Mary. After meeting the young and beautiful Anne Bullen, one of Katherine's ladies-in-waiting, Henry says that he is tormented by the suspicion that God has denied him a male heir because his marriage to Katherine — the widow of his brother — is invalid. The royal marriage begins to come apart. Again the precise nature of the crisis is put in question. Is Henry indeed experiencing a crisis of conscience about the sanctity of his marriage, or is he experiencing a crisis of desire provoked by the opportunity to take the young and beautiful Anne as a new wife and queen?

Whatever the ethics of Shakespeare's Henry, Katherine's integrity glows so splendidly in the play's action and dialogue that her role has long been coveted by actors. She first takes the stage as the advocate for all the English people crushed by Wolsey's oppressive taxes, and then she is properly suspicious, as Henry is not, of the motives of the witnesses who send Buckingham to his death. Her fierce opposition to Wolsey is repeatedly justified by the play's depiction of the cardinal's vices. When she is summoned to the church court that is deliberating on the propriety of her marriage, her defense of her conduct as Henry's wife is resounding in its eloquence. She has been admired for centuries by readers and playgoers alike.

After you have read the play, we invite you to turn to the essay printed after it, "Henry VIII: A Modern Perspective," by Barbara A. Mowat of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Copyright © 2007 by The Folger Shakespeare Library

Product Details

Shakespeare, William
Washington Square Press
Mowat, Dr Barbara a.
Mowat, Barbara A.
Werstine, Paul
Mowat, Dr Barbara a.
Werstine, Paul
English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
General Drama
Great britain
Great Britain - History - Henry VIII, 1509-
Drama-Shakespeare Plays
Edition Description:
Mass market paperback
Folger Shakespeare Library
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
15-30 t-o
6.75 x 4.19 in 6.125 oz

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Drama » British and Irish Anthologies
Arts and Entertainment » Drama » Shakespeare » Plays
Arts and Entertainment » Drama » Shakespeare » Works
Arts and Entertainment » Drama » Women and Ethnic

Henry VIII (Folger Shakespeare Library) Used Mass Market
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Product details 352 pages Washington Square Press - English 9780743273305 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , The world's leading center for Shakespeare studies

Each edition includes:

  • Freshly edited text based on the best early printed version of the play
  • Full explanatory notes conveniently placed on pages facing the text of the play
  • Scene-by-scene plot summaries
  • A key to famous lines and phrases
  • An introduction to reading Shakespeare's language
  • An essay by a leading Shakespeare scholar providing a modern perspective on the play
  • Illustrations from the Folger Shakespeare
  • Library's vast holdings of rare books

Essay by Barbara A. Mowat

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is home to the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works, and a magnet for Shakespeare scholars from around the globe. In addition to exhibitions open to the public throughout the year, the Folger offers a full calendar of performances and programs.

For more information, visit

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