Shakespeare's Staging
King Henry VIII
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Friday, 22 April 2005 06:12

King Henry VIII: Laura Cowie as Anne Bullen and Arthur Bouchier as Henry VIII in Beerbohm Tree's production, 1910.

STAGING KING HENRY VIII

First known as All Is True, this play has an extremely eccentric stage history, not least because its first production resulted in the burning to the ground of the original Globe Theatre on June 29, 1613, as a result of too elaborate staging, with cannons firing wadding that set fire to the theatre's thatched roof. One possible peculiarity of its staging history is that if the production transferred to the surviving indoor theatre of the King's Men at Blackfriars after the burning of the Globe Theatre, it would have been performed in the same historical location where the original divorce trial was held, which provides a major scene of the play using the Queen's actual words in the trial. The same scene appears in Calderón's La Cisma de Inghilterra.

The extravagance of the first production was censured by Sir Henry Wotton: "The King's Players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the Reign of Henry 8, which was set forth with many extraordinary Circumstances of Pomp and Majesty, even to the matting of the Stage; the Knights of the Order, with their Georges and Garter, the Guards with their embroidered Coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous." It appears that the role of Henry VIII was taken by John Lowin (4.1.5), who supposedly passed on details of Shakespeare's direction of the play to the playwright's godson, Sir William Davenant, who revived the play successfully when he secured the rights to it at the Restoration.

Because of Lowin's claim, the play is one of the few with a continuous production history, which has strongly maintained a tradition of historical realism in costume, setting, and acting style. It has always been staged in costumes approximating to Holbein's pictures of Henry's court. This historicism reached a peak in the Victorian period with productions by Charles Kean, Henry Irving, and Beerbohm Tree (the latter's being recorded to make one of the first cinematic costume epics; see 2.2.19). Over the years the dominant part passed from King Henry with Betterton (see 2.2.10), to Queen Katherine with Mrs. Siddons (see 2.2.11, 2.2.12), to Wolsey with Irving and Tree (see 2.2.18; 10.g.1.6, 10.g.1.7). As Queen Katherine Sarah Siddons is held to have excelled her Lady Macbeth in intensity and self-identification with her role, an approach shared by Peggy Ashcroft in Trevor Nunn's production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1969.

Samuel Johnson considered that the play succeeded "above any other part of Shakespeare's tragedies, and perhaps above any scene in any other poet, tender and pathetic, without gods, or furies, or poisons, or precipices, without the help of romantic circumstances, without improbable sallies of poetical lamentations, and without any throes of tumultuous miseries." However, the play suffered contrasting, ruinous critical censure after James Spedding questioned its authorship in 1850, attributing much of it to John Fletcher, Shakespeare's successor as dramatist to the King's Men, on purely internal not historical grounds, for it was printed as Shakespeare's in the First Folio. The twentieth-century theatre mostly avoided major productions until a series of elaborate revivals (e.g. 6.1.26), epitomized by that of Tyrone Guthrie at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1949. Since then it has been staged more frequently. The version in the BBC television series with Claire Bloom as Queen Katherine (see 1.7.7) was considered the best of all that group by academic Shakespeareans. It has always been seen as appropriate for production concurrently with coronations of English monarchs. HMR

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Sarah Siddons as Catherine of Aragon.

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