Henry VIII (1925) Yale/Appendix C

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Appendix C

Authorship of the Play

The question of the authorship of Henry VIII is still partly unsolved. It is assigned to Shakespeare chiefly because it appears in the First Folio of 1623. That was edited by Heminges and Condell, two actors who had been in Shakespeare's company and who, by contemporary reports, had had parts in this particular play. The assumption is that when it is classed by them among Shakespeare's plays, they knew what they were talking about. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that the publication of the First Folio was a commercial venture, involving separate copyrights, and that, while the play, Henry VIII, was undoubtedly played by Shakespeare's company, it does not necessarily follow that he wrote the whole of it, the major part of it, or even any of it at all. As early as 1758 it was remarked that certain parts of the play have metrical peculiarities unlike Shakespeare's style. But it was not until a hundred years later that James Spedding, led by a remark of the poet Tennyson, made a careful investigation, and published his results in the Gentleman's Magazine, in 1850. Aside from subtler criteria, the great test is the proportionately large use of the eleven syllable line, the so-called feminine ending. As an example chosen at random, take the Chamberlain's speech in I. iii. The extra syllables are italicized.

'As far as I can see, all the good our English
Have got by the late voyage is but merely
A fit or two o' the face; but they are shrewd ones;
For when they hold 'em, you would swear directly
Their very noses had been counsellors
To Pepin or Clotharius, they keep state so.'

It is easy to rewrite this without many such endings.

'As far as I can see, all the good our English
Have got by the late voyage is but slight,
A fit or two o' the face; but they are shrewd;
For when they hold 'em, you would swear at once
Their very noses had been counsellors
To Pepin or Clotharius, they so keep state.'

It is not the question whether one type of verse is better than the other,—in the passage selected, neither is particularly good,—the point is that whereas Shakespeare in his known works uses this extra syllable comparatively rarely, such frequent use of the extra syllable is the characteristic of the style of Shakespeare's great contemporary dramatist, John Fletcher. The reader can amuse himself by testing the lines. Spedding drew up the following table:

Act Scene Lines Red. Syll. Proportion Author
1 1 225 63 1 to 3.5 Shakespeare
2 215 74 1 to 2.9 Shakespeare
3 & 4 172 100 1 to 1.7 Fletcher
2 1 164 97 1 to 1.6 Fletcher
2 129 77 1 to 1.6 Fletcher
3 107 41 1 to 2.6 Shakespeare
4 230 72 1 to 3.1 Shakespeare
3 1 166 119 1 to 1.3 Fletcher
2 (to King's exit) 193 62 1 to 3 Shakespeare
3 257 152 1 to 1.6 Fletcher
4 1 116 57 1 to 2 Fletcher
2 80 51 1 to 1.5 Fletcher
3 93 51 1 to 1.8 Fletcher
5 1 176 68 1 to 2.5 Shakespeare
2 217 115 1 to 1.8 Fletcher
3 almost all prose Fletcher
4 73 44 1 to 1.6 Fletcher

To account for the conditions as shown in the table above there are only three possible explanations. (1) Shakespeare wrote the whole play but for some unaccountable reason in many of the scenes imitated the style of Fletcher. This is the explanation given by Sir Sidney Lee. (2) Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborated. Collaboration between two or more playwrights was very common in the Elizabethan age. But here almost every great scene is written by Fletcher. If Henry VIII was a 'new' play in 1613, Shakespeare had already written Macbeth, Hamlet, and Lear; he was a veteran dramatist with an established reputation. The question consequently arises why under these circumstances the younger writer should take all the great opportunities and the older do merely the filling in. (3) Shakespeare had no hand in the play whatever; it was merely played under his direction. The non-Fletcherian scenes are not by Shakespeare, but by Massinger. This explanation was suggested in the eighties of the last century by Mr. Robert Boyle. It has recently been argued by Mr. H. Dugdale Sykes, largely on the ground of coincidences of phrasing between Henry VIII and Massinger's known plays. It may be interesting to compare the table made by Mr. Sykes with the table of Spedding.

Prologue Fletcher
Act 1, Sc. 1 Massinger
2 Massinger
3 Massinger & Fletcher
4 Massinger & Fletcher
Act 2, Sc. 1 Massinger & Fletcher
2 Fletcher
3 Massinger
4 Massinger
Act 3, Sc. 1 Massinger & Fletcher
2 (to exit of King) Massinger
(from exit of King) Fletcher
Act 4, Sc. 1 Massinger
2 Massinger & Fletcher
Act 5, Sc. 1 Massinger
2 Fletcher
3 Massinger & Fletcher
4 Fletcher
5 Fletcher
Epilogue Massinger

As a possible explanation of the peculiarities of the play and its passing under Shakespeare's name, Mr. Leicester Bradner suggests that Shakespeare's company suddenly required a play on the general subject of Henry VIII to balance the successful performance of Rowley's When You See Me, You Know Me at a rival theatre. This is, of course, only guess-work.

In conclusion: The play was hastily thrown together. It shows no one creative mind. It is a series of scenes, taken from well-known books, scenes which have little relation, even chronological, between them. It has no development of character. And its versification is, in the main, non-Shakespearean. Therefore the conclusion seems inevitable that whatever Shakespeare's share may have been in its composition, it was the minimum amount necessary to have it included by his first editors among his works.