Study Guide

Henry VIII

By William Shakespeare

Henry VIII Introduction

Read the full text of Henry VIII with a side-by-side translation HERE.


Somebody must be lying, because pants are totally on fire.

Way back in 1613, the Globe Theater, where Shakespeare worked, burst into flames during a performance of his play Henry VIII. The king was making his grand entrance at Wolsey's house when a canon went off to symbolize his regal blood. We guess the actors fell asleep during fire safety day, because setting fire to a cannon in a wooden, thatched-roof building doesn't sound like such a hot idea to us.

Check out how one theatergoer describes it: "[C]ertain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground […] Only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale" (source).

That's right, someone's pants were actually on fire. Leave it to ale to save the day.

Luckily, the Globe Theater was rebuilt the year after it burned down, and things went on as if nothing had ever happened. That was good news for Shakespeare's buddy and co-writer for this play, John Fletcher, because Fletcher would eventually replace old Shakes as the go-to writer for the King's Men: after all, there wouldn't really be a point in keeping a playwright around if there were no Globe theater to perform in.

By this point in his career, Shakespeare was finishing up, anyway. Henry VIII was written at the tail-end of his career, making it one of last plays—if not the last play—he ever wrote. Sometimes the play goes by the alias All is True. In fact, some scholars think this was its only title back in Shakespeare's day, and that it only became known as Henry VIII later on. Others think All Is True is just a subtitle.

Either way, it's clear that truth—or the search for the truth—is a super important in the play. We hope you can handle the truth, because almost everyone gets their hands dirty when it comes to politics in Henry's kingdom.

What is Henry VIII About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever been accused of something you didn't do? Maybe a teacher thought you were cheating on a test, or your girlfriend caught you checkin' out another chick and thought you were messing around on the side? Whatever it is, once the accusation is out there, it's hard to get rid of it. Sure, you can tell the truth, but what if your teacher or your girlfriend doesn't believe you? What do you do then? How do you prove you didn't do something when people think you did?

That's a tough one to answer: our whole legal system is based on the opposite idea—that you're innocent until proven guilty. You don't have to prove your innocence; you just have to create some doubt that you're guilty. When you think about it, it's a whole lot easier to do that than to actually prove your hands are completely clean.

Shakespeare's Henry VIII takes a look at what happens when people are faced with the dilemma of proving their innocence. Buckingham is charged with treason; Katherine is accused of an illegal marriage; and Cranmer is thrown in the Tower over complaints about his behavior. So how do they prove their innocence to everyone?

We hate to be the ones to break it to you, but some of them don't. No one stands up for the guy who's about to be executed, the woman who's getting divorced from the king, or the religious leader who has a bunch of enemies. Now, not every innocent person in this play gets punished unjustly, but the fact that some of them do makes us ask the question: can you ever really prove your innocence?

Henry VIII Resources

WEBSITES

All the Shakespeare You Want
And possibly more. The BBC has a slew of Shakespeare resources.

Pants on Fire
It's not just because there are liars around. The Globe Theater burned down during a performance of this play.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Henry VIII Goes to France
A French TV version of the play, complete with loads of pomp and circumstance.

Old-School Henry
A black-and-white production that hails from 1911.

Cardinal Rule
We knew Wolsey was the star, and so did the makers of this 1912 film.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Staging Henry VIII
Ever wonder about when and how this play was performed back in Shakespeare's day? Look no further than this guide.

Shed Some Light on Holinshed
We'll reveal Shakespeare's sources by giving you this website with Holinshed's Chronicles.

Let's Work Together
An article on how, when, and why Shakespeare collaborated on his plays with other dramatists.

Fetch Fletcher
Get the 411 on Shakespeare's co-author for Henry VIII, John Fletcher

VIDEO

The BBC Does Henry VIII
Here's the whole shebang, folks. Enjoy.

Trial by Henry
Wolsey finally receives his comeuppance in a performance at Shakespeare's Globe.

Documenting Monarchy
A BBC documentary about the real Henry VIII.

Henry, Henry, Henry
A parody of ABBA's "Money, Money, Money" with Henry's eight wives singing at him.

Horrible Histories
"Divorced, beheaded, and died; Divorced, beheaded, survived."

AUDIO

History is No Longer a Mystery
The British Library's podcasts on the historical figure of Henry VIII and his wife, Anne.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye
A complete audiobook of Henry VIII.

IMAGES

Don't Mess with Henry
Check out the man behind the play, Henry VIII.

Poor, Painted Queen
We're sure watching Ellen Terry playing Katherine would have been quite a treat.

All We Want to Do Is Dream
Leave it to Henry Fuseli to paint Katherine's creepy (and symbolic) dream.

Rumor Has It
This guy was the very first to play Henry VIII… but he wasn't the last.

Paging Henry
The first page of Henry VIII in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays.

Shake Down
He might not have shaken spears, but Shakespeare did write a bunch of plays.

Don't Forget about John
A portrait of John Fletcher, who co-wrote the play with Shakespeare.