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"The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eight," was first printed in the folio of 1623, where it occupies twenty-eight pages; viz. from p. 205 to p. 232, inclusive. It is the last play in the division of "Histories." It fills the same place in the later impressions in the same form.
THE principal question, in relation to Shakespeare's "Henry the Eighth," is, when it was written. We are satisfied, both by the internal and external evidence, that it came from the poet's pen after James I. had ascended the throne.
Independently of the whole character of the drama, which was little calculated to please Elizabeth, it seems to us that Cranmer's prophecy, in Act v. sc. 4, is quite decisive. There the poet first speaks of Elizabeth, and of the advantages derived from her rule, and then proceeds in the clearest manner to notice her successor :
"Nor shall this peace sleep with her but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in estimation as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one
(When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness)
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix'd."
Ingenuity cannot pervert these lines to any other meaning; but it has been said that they, and some others which follow them, were a subsequent introduction; and, moreover, that they were the work of Ben Jonson, on some revival of the play in the reign of James I. There does not exist the slightest evidence to establish either proposition. Any person, reading the whole of Cranmer's speech at the christening, can hardly fail to perceive such an entireness and sequence of thoughts and words in it, as to make it very unlikely that it was not dictated by the same intellect, and written by the same pen. Malone and others made up their minds that "Henry the Eighth" was produced before the death of Elizabeth; and finding the passage we have quoted directly in the teeth of this supposition, they charged it as a subsequent addition, fixed the authorship of it upon a different poet, and printed it within brackets.
As to external evidence, there is one fact which has never had sufficient importance given to it. We allude to the following memorandum in the Registers of the Stationers' Company:
"12 Feb. 1604
"Nath. Butter] Yf he get good allowance for the Enterlude of K. Henry 8th before he begyn to print it; and then procure the wardens hands to yt for the entrance of yt: he is to have the same for his copy."
Chalmers asserted, without qualification, that this entry referred to a contemporaneous play by Samuel Rowley, under the title of " When you see me you know me," 1605; but the "enterlude" is expressly called in the entry "K. Henry 8th," and we feel no hesitation in concluding that it referred to Shakespeare's drama, which had probably been brought out at the Globe Theatre in the summer of 1604. The memorandum, judging from its terms, seems to have been made, not at the instance of Nathaniel Butter, the bookseller, but of the company to which Shakespeare belonged, and in order to prevent a surreptitious publication of the play. The "12 Feb. 1604," was, of course, according to our present reckoning, the 12 Feb. 1605, and at that date Butter had not begun to print "Henry the Eighth.” No edition of it is known before it appeared in the folio of 1623, and we may infer that Butter failed in getting good allowance" with "the wardens' hands to it."
The Globe Theatre was destroyed on 29th June, 1613, the thatch with which it was covered having been fired by the discharge of some small pieces of ordnance. (Hist. of Engl. Dram. Poetry and the Stage, vol. iii. p. 298.) It has been stated by Howes, in his continuation of Stowe's Chronicle, that the play then in a course of representation was "Henry the Eighth;" but Sir Henry Wotton, who is very particular in his description of the calamity, asserts that the play was called " All is True." There is little doubt that he is right, because a ballad, printed on the occasion, has the burden of "All is True" at the end of every stanza. The question then is, whether this was Shakespeare's "Henry the Eighth" under a different title, or a different play? Sir Henry Wotton informs us in terms that it was "a new play," and as he was right in the title, we may have the more faith in his statement respecting the novelty of the performance.
In the instance of "Henry the Eighth," as of many other works by our great dramatist, there is ground for believing that there existed a preceding play on the same story. Henslowe's Diary affords us some curious and important evidence on this point, unknown to Malone. According to this authority two plays were written in the year 1601 for the Earl of Nottingham's players, on the events of the life of Cardinal Wolsey, including necessarily some of the chief incidents of the reign of Henry VIII. These plays consisted of a first and second part, the one called "The Rising of Cardinal Wolsey," and the other, "Cardinal Wolsey." We collect that the last was produced first, and the success it met with on the stage was perhaps the occasion of the second drama, containing, in fact, the commencement of the story. Of this course of proceeding Henslowe's Diary furnishes several other examples.
The earliest entry relating to "Cardinal Wolsey," (the second
play in the order of the incidents, though the earliest in point of production) is dated 5th June, 1601, when Henry Chettle was paid 20s. "for writing the book of Cardinal Wolsey." On the 14th July he was paid 40s. more on the same account, and in the whole, between 5th June and 17th July, he was paid 57., as large a sum as he usually obtained for a new play.
We have no positive testimony of the success of "Cardinal Wolsey," of which Chettle was the sole author; but we are led to infer it, because very soon afterwards we find no fewer than four poets engaged upon the production of the drama under the title of "The Rising of Cardinal Wolsey," which, doubtless, related to his early life, and to his gradual advance in the favour of Henry VIII. These four poets were Drayton, Chettle, Munday, and Wentworth Smith; and so many pens, we may conjecture, were employed, that the play might be brought out with all dispatch, in order to follow up the popularity of what may be looked upon as the second part of the same history." Another memorandum in Henslowe's Diary tends to the same conclusion, for it appears that the play was licensed piece-meal by the Master of the Revels, that it might be put into rehearsal as it proceeded, and represented immediately after it was finished.
A farther point established by the same authority is, that Henslowe expended an unusual amount in getting up the drama. On the 10th Aug. 1601, he paid no less than 217. for "velvet, sattin, and taffeta " for the dresses, a sum equal now to about 100%. Upon the costumes only, in the whole, considerably more than 2001. were laid out, reckoning the value of money in 1601 at about five times its value at present.
We may conclude with tolerable certainty that Shakespeare wrote "Henry the Eighth" in the winter of 1603-4, and that it was first acted at the Globe soon after the commencement of the season there, which seems to have begun towards the close of April, as soon as a theatre open to the weather could be conveniently employed. The coronation procession of Anne Bullen forms a prominent feature in the drama; and as the coronation of James I. and Anne of Denmark took place on the 24th July, 1603, we may not unreasonably suppose that the audiences at the Globe were intended to be reminded of that event, and that the show, detailed with such unusual minuteness in the folio of 1623, was meant as a remote imitation of its splendour. The opinion, that Shakespeare's "Henry the Eighth" was undoubtedly written after the accession of James I., was expressed and printed by us nearly twenty years ago. The words "aged princess," (no part of the imputed addition by Ben Jonson) would never have been used by Shakespeare during the life of Elizabeth.