Henry VIII (1925) Yale/Appendix B
The History of the Play
On June 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre, the theatre with which Shakespeare was connected, burned to the ground, 'the house being filled with people to behold the play, viz. of Henry the Eighth.' Such is Stowe's brief account. The day following Thomas Lorkin wrote to Sir Thomas Puckering:
'No longer since than yesterday, while Burbage's company were acting at the Globe the play of Henry VIII, and there shooting off certain chambers [cannon] in way of triumph, the fire catched and fastened upon the thatch of the house, and there burned so furiously, as it consumed the whole house, all in less than two hours, the people having enough to do to save themselves.'
The most famous account is that written on July 2 by Sir Henry Wotton to his nephew:
'Now, to let matters of state sleep, I will entertain you at the present with what has happened this week at the Bankside. The King's players had a new play, called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, 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 garters, the Guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now, King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey's house, and certain 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 an 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 grounds. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; 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 bottle ale.'
There are other contemporary allusions to the famous fire, but the foregoing are the most precise. Thus there is no question that the Globe was set on fire during the performance of a play dealing with the reign of Henry VIII. Although there were other plays centering around Henry VIII at this time, the probability is that the particular play is, certainly for the most part, the one we have. Contemporary verses mention both Heminges and Condell as being the actors in it; and Heminges and Condell ten years later printed our play as belonging to the Shakespearean repertoire. In 1623 they could scarcely have forgotten the play that had proved so disastrous to them. If this is the play, either Sir Henry Wotton was mistaken about the title, or it was advertised under an alternative title All is True, and the lines of the Prologue may allude to this alternative title. There are two slight corroborative details. In Act I, scene iv (l. 49), a stage direction reads 'chambers discharged'; the Globe would seem, then, to have burned at the end of the first act. And the 'business' of the part of King Henry was said after the Restoration to have been handed down from Shakespeare himself.
The suggestion of Chambers and others that it was an old play revamped does not seem probable. Sir Henry Wotton speaks of it as a 'new play.' This seems borne out by internal evidence. The play apparently was thrown together hurriedly, without much planning, to meet some emergency. What that emergency was it is impossible to tell at this late date. It has been suggested that the play was written to celebrate the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth with the Elector Palatine, which took place on the fourteenth of February, 1613. But as runs were very brief in that age, it is questionable whether Wotton would have described it four months later as 'new' if that had been the case. There is no need for positing a great ceremonial, or an affair of state, to call for the play. The emergency may equally well have been purely theatrical: that the manager was disappointed in a play for which he had contracted, or that the play he had intended to produce was unavailable for one of a hundred reasons, and a new play had to be substituted. At least, Henry VIII shows signs of hurried work. As we do not have the manuscript, it is always possible that the obvious errors in the text are due to the mistakes of the typesetter. That is not true in some cases here. The authors themselves must be held responsible for imprisoning Wolsey in Asher House, the residence of the Bishop of Winchester, when Wolsey was himself Bishop of Winchester. Such a slip can mean only that the authors had read their Holinshed rapidly. The banquet after the coronation is plainly stated to have been held in Westminster Hall; on a preceding page, following the account of a previous procession, Holinshed tells us that Anne retired to Whitehall. Presumably the authors lost the place in the chronicle and they have put the coronation banquet in Whitehall. Sandys, who was 'Lord' Sandys in Act I, is degraded to mere knighthood in Act II. Such mistakes as these are not due to an ignorant typesetter; they are due to a writer that cares vastly more for the theatrical significance of the scene than for historical accuracy. Other errors, while possibly typographical, are probably due to careless composition. Reading the black letter of Holinshed hastily, the authors transformed his phrase 'bottom of my conscience' into 'bosom of my conscience' (II. iv. 180) and his noun chattels, which he spells 'cattels,' into 'castles' (III. ii. 344). Slips like these all favor the assumption that for some reason a new play was required and authors set to work at full speed to produce one. It was written to be played, not to be read, and such errors as the foregoing, are, from the point of view of the audience, immaterial. The wonder is, not that the play is so poor, but that it is so good. The authors have succeeded in constructing a drama with pageant-like scenes and a few opportunities for good actors. These were the characteristics of it from the very beginning. According to contemporary accounts Burbage himself played in it, and Wotton stresses the elaborateness of the costumes. And these are the characteristics that have caused it to be revived over and over again. Pepys saw the great production in 1664, when Betterton played the King; Harris, Wolsey; Smith, Buckingham; and Mrs. Betterton, Queen Katharine. His comment is unfavorable:
'But my wife and I rose from table, pretending business, and went to the Duke's house (Lincoln's Inn Fields), the first play I have been at these six months, according to my last vowe, and here saw the so much cried-up play of "Henry the Eighth"; which, though I went with resolution to like it, is so simple a thing made up of a great many patches, that, besides the shows and procession in it, there is nothing in the world good or well done. Thence mightily dissatisfied back at night to my uncle Wight's. . . ."
Four years later, however, he is not so fastidious:
'After dinner, my wife and I to the Duke's playhouse, and there did see "King Harry the Eighth"; and was mightily pleased, better than I ever expected, with the history and the shows of it.'
There were at least twelve revivals in the eighteenth century. In 1727 was the famous one at Drury Lane, at which the management spent £1000 on the coronation scene alone. Most of the great actors and actresses are associated with it, and theatrical anecdote concerning the business used by them is still current. When Colley Cibber declaimed the lines
This candle burns not clear; 'tis I must snuff it;
Then out it goes . . . (III. ii. 97)
he imitated snuffing a candle with a pair of snuffers!
The same popularity continued in the nineteenth century; Kemble, Kean and Macready starred in it, and Mrs. Siddons made a traditionally great Queen Katharine. In more recent times Irving gave a great production of it in 1892 at the Lyceum; he himself played Wolsey; Ellen Terry, Katharine; and Forbes Robertson, Buckingham. And it was Henry VIII that Beerbohm Tree brought to New York to celebrate Shakespeare's tercentenary in 1916, a choice that must have made Shakespeare turn in his grave! This production, also, stressed the scenic values of the play, more than the acting.