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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Shakespeare and Henry VII and Henry VIII

How immensely strange that King Henry VII would have been born on 28 January 1457 -- the same day that his son King Henry VIII would die, on 28 January 1547.

It is also strange that Shakespeare's earliest plays feature Henry VII and arguably his last play is the story of Henry VIII.

Henry VII shows up in one of Shakespeare's earliest plays Henry VI, part 3 as a young Henry, Earl of Richmond. In the later Richard III play he has a much more substantial role, as he defeats the evil Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and becomes King Henry VII.

Battle of Bosworth Field

The full title of the play is The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. It is odd that Shakespeare would focus on the villainous Richard rather than the heroic Henry. Why didn't he title the play The Triumph over Richard the Third by Henry the Seventh or The Battle of Bosworth Field, or simply King Henry VII?

Why did Shakespeare want to tell the story of the villain and not the hero?

As I did research for my version of Richard III, which presents the play as it would have been performed in Elizabeth England, I came to some rather interesting conclusions.

The most important conclusion was that the play had been rewritten in order to make the story more vibrant. I think Shakespeare rewrote his own play, and the text that survives is a combination of both versions, weaved together.

The first version, which I think Shakespeare wrote around 1592, was a simple good versus evil story, where the good Henry VII vanquishes the evil Richard III.

But in order for Shakespeare to make it even more exciting for an audience, the character of Richard had to be even more villainous than in the previous version of the play. I think much of the first half of the play was rewritten, in 1593, in order to make Richard even more of a bad guy, a more three-dimensional character.

The only problem with this new version of Richard III is that the character of Henry VII comes off as rather dull by comparison. He has none of the complexity that Richard has, and I while I could find many cases where Richard's character was improved, I could not find any case where Henry may have been rewritten to make him more three-dimensional.

What then did Shakespeare think of Henry VII? Probably not much. He served a purpose only in making Richard III the amazing character he is.

Bust of Henry VII

The real historical Henry VII is not such a fascinating man. With his victory at Bosworth Field, he brought an end to the Wars of the Roses, and he ruled for 24 years in relative peace and harmony. In his later years, his reign was marked by a terrible excess in spending.

One such expense was the building of the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, where his tomb, and the tombs of many of his ancestors remain, including Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, King James I.

The Chapel is an architectural marvel, and it cost a pretty penny, about 20,000 pounds.

So, for Shakespeare there may not have been much to say about King Henry VII, and he wrote his play Richard III to entertain, make money and perhaps perform for the Queen, who would have enjoyed the charismatic villain of Richard III.

I doubt that she would have enjoyed a flat and uninspiring story of her grandfather Henry VII.

When James succeeded Elizabeth, the story would have a different significance. James greatly admired Henry VII, especially since James's parents were BOTH descended from Henry.

I think that Shakespeare probably did not stage his Richard III play very often, or at all, during the reign of James. He very well could have offended James, who would not like a depiction of his ancestor as dull and two-dimensional.

If Shakespeare did perform it for James, then it would have probably been one in which Richard was flat, and Henry more of a hero. While there are recorded performances of Shakespeare's plays for King James, there is no record of a performance of Richard III.

What did Shakespeare think of King Henry VIII?

Well, there is a play Henry VIII, which was written around 1613 and believed to have been written by Shakespeare with help allegedly from John Fletcher, who would succeed Shakespeare as the top playwright of their company, the King's Men, when Shakespeare died in 1616.

The play is considered to be one of his very last efforts, if not the very last play he ever wrote.

I have a hard time believing that ANY of the play was written by Shakespeare. It is flat and dull in much the same way that the first version of Richard III was.

Why would Shakespeare write in such a listless fashion, twenty years after he had discovered how to write such vibrant plays as Richard III?

Harold Bloom, in his monumental and brilliant book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, states that Shakespeare wrote all of it, but also notes that "no one in the drama is endowed with any inwardness."

How could Shakespeare, whose writing constantly probes into the human psyche, write such lifeless characters?

If Shakespeare really did write this play, then there must be some reason why he wrote arguably the most un-Shakespearean play of his career -- perhaps political pressure -- and that reason unfortunately may never be known.

As far as the real historical Henry VIII, whose life was full of drama and excitement, I think that Shakespeare did not reveal his opinion of the man.

Even if Shakespeare did write the play, which I doubt, then he has given us a character in the play that is inscrutable and undecipherable. Bloom calls the character "ambiguous."

We are better off reading about him online, than watching a stage version of Henry VIII, if you can find one. It is hardly ever staged, for a multitude of reasons and excuses. 

I think the simplest reason it is hardly ever staged is because it is just not Shakespeare.


David Schajer

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