Henry VIII (1925) Yale/Appendix A
Sources of the Play
The sources of Henry VIII are Holinshed's Chronicle for the first four acts and the last scene of the fifth act, and Foxe's Book of Martyrs for the first four scenes of the fifth act. Mr. Chambers posits an earlier version of the play called by the name of Buckingham. This does not seem probable because Holinshed is not the 'source' in the rather vague sense applicable to the other plays. Here much of the play is merely Holinshed's scenes dramatized and his words put into blank verse. A fair illustration is the speech of the First Gentleman, II. ii. 149–153.
Yes, but it held not;
For when the king once heard it, out of anger
He sent command to the lord mayor straight
To stop the rumour, and allay those tongues
That durst disperse it.
Compare this passage with Holinshed:
'The king was offended with those tales, and sent for Sir Thomas Seimor maior of the citie of London, secretlie charging him to see that the people ceased from such talke.'
But as the play covers a period of twenty-four years, over a hundred folio pages in Holinshed, the playwrights selected passages to dramatize. From this condition three criticisms follow:
(1) The chronology is hopelessly confused, as the action is compressed into six or seven days. This confusion is partly unavoidable; the changes which occur during a quarter of a century must be ignored. The characters of the first act would have actually been old men or have died at the time the last must be dated. But also the playwrights did not care about the actual sequence of events, and the historical order of events is unnecessarily disarranged in the play.
(2) The characters neither develop, nor are they consistent. An illustration of the first point may be found in the treatment of the character of Henry himself. In 1520, the date of the opening of the play, he was twenty-nine years old, in the full vigor of his young manhood, athletic, fond of pleasure, and still tricked by the external; in 1544, the latest date in the play, he was old, sick, with an indomitable will and a shrewd sense that made him the most powerful personality in Europe. But the King Henry of the play is the same from the first act to the fifth. This may be due to the fact that the writers are frankly disregarding the lapse of time. The explanation for the inconsistency of the characters is quite different. The best illustration of this is to be found in the character of Wolsey. The fallen Wolsey of Act III has little in common with the arrogant prelate that plotted the fall of Buckingham. In Act III he is a heroic character with whose misfortunes the audience sympathizes; in Act I he is a tyrant, and there is no attempt to bridge this gap. These opposing interpretations of the same person are to be found in the original authority. Holinshed's work is not a history in the modern sense. A modern historian studies the period, determines the relative values of the various incidents, and presents us with a unified interpretation of the events. But this is not the method of the old chroniclers. Holinshed copies previous writers, stating the fact in the margin, but he makes no attempt to reconcile them. For the character of Wolsey he relies first upon the narrative of Polydore Vergil. The latter was an Italian who came to England about 1501. He got into trouble with Wolsey and was put into prison by the latter. Consequently when he wrote his history of England, he gave an unfavorable account of Wolsey and imputed base motives for his actions. This account Holinshed followed. But toward the end of his account he ran into the life of Wolsey written by George Cavendish, who had been Wolsey's gentleman usher. Naturally to Cavendish Wolsey was ideal magnificence personified. Consequently when Holinshed grafted Cavendish's opinion of Wolsey's character upon the narrative of Polydore Vergil it formed an unexpected conclusion. In one scene of the play the two points of view are brought into sharp contrast. In Act IV, scene ii, Katharine is giving vent to ideas of Polydore Vergil, whereas Griffith replies by talking Cavendish.
(3) In any drama the scenes should have an organic relation, the succeeding scene should develop from those preceding, until in the last act the audience perceives the drama as a unified whole. That is far from the case here. The leading personage of the first part is Buckingham; then Wolsey takes the stage, then Katharine, and we end with Cranmer and the christening of Elizabeth. Thus the drama is not a drama at all; it is a series of almost unrelated scenes, describing events that occurred in the reign of Henry VIII, and with him as vaguely felt center. This again is due to the writers' dependence upon Holinshed. He had no philosophical conception of the reign, and they did little more than dramatize selected scenes as they came to them. According to the statements in the Prologue they regarded this dependence as a virtue. That is the obvious meaning of the line
'To make that only true we now intend,'
and the emphasis upon truth in line 9. In other words, they felt that they were following Holinshed as carefully as possible.
- E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 2, p. 202.