Study Guide

Henry VIII What's Up With the Title?

By William Shakespeare

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What's Up With the Title?

So, the title is Henry VIII, so is anyone surprised that the play is about a guy named Henry VIII? 

But let's get more specific: this is a history play about what happened when Henry ruled, leading up to the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth, who was queen when our old pal Shakes was around.

There's even more to the story, though: this play has an alias, or another title it sometimes goes by: All is True. In fact, some scholars think this was the play's real title back in Shakespeare's day, and it only became known as Henry VIII later on. Others think All is True is just a subtitle. Either way, we think we should ask what this title means.

Well, truth—or the search for the truth—is a big theme in the play. For example, when Buckingham is accused of treason, there's a trial to see if he's guilty. Henry is searching for the truth, of course, but we are, too. We want to know: has Wolsey orchestrated the whole situation, even the Surveyor's testimony? Is the Surveyor lying, as Katherine thinks he is? Is Buckingham guilty of even some of what he's been accused of?

Maybe we can't handle the truth… but we want to know anyway.

Then, as our friend the Prologue says, there's the need for a "true" performance. We're told that while watching the performance, we're supposed "to make that only true we not intend" (Prologue.21). According to the prologue, the actors want us to think of them as the actual historical figures they're portraying, and not as random actors on the stage.

Now, that's a little bit strange, since really, let's face: this is a play, and those are actors on the stage. So not everything is really true, right? It's almost as if the title All is True is telling us to watch out: everybody in this play would like for us to believe everything they say, but we know they can't all be telling the truth.

If truth is as slippery as Shakespeare makes it seem, then does that mean that history itself is a pretty slippery thing? Maybe the official versions of stories are not as true as some people would like us to believe? Keep those questions in mind as you read this play.

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