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The famous "History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth' was first published in the folio collection of Shakspere's works in 1623. The text, taken as a whole, is singularly correct: it contains, no doubt, some few typographical errors, but certainly not so many as those which deform the ordinary reprints.
The date of the original production of this drama has been a subject of much discussion. The opinions in favour of its having been produced in the reign of Elizabeth are far more numerous than those which hold it to be a later production. But the accomplished Sir Henry Wotton, writing to his nephew on the 6th of July, 1613, gives a minute and graphic account of the fire at the Globe in that year :-“ Now to let matters of state sleep, I will entertain you at the present with what 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 the Eighth, 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 Garter, 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 mask the Cardinal Wolsey's house, and certain cannons 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 being 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 ground. 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." Here, then, is a new play described, “representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII. ;” and further, the passage of Shakspere's play in which the " chambers” are discharged, being the “ entry " of the king to the “ mask at the cardinal's house," is the same to the letter. But the title which Sir Henry Wotton gives the new play is · All is True.' Other persons call the play so represented "Henry VIII. Howes, in his continuation of Stow's Chronicle, so calls it. He writes some time after the destruction of the Globe, for he adds to his account of the fire, “and the next spring it was new builded in far fairer manner than before.” He speaks of the title of the play as a familiar thing :-“the house being filled with people to behold the play, viz. of Henry the Eighth.” When Howes wrote, was the title “ All is True' merged in the more obvious title derived from the subject of the play, and following the character of the titles of Shakspere's other historical plays ?
The commentators also hold that the Prologue was written by Ben Jonson, to allow him an occasion of sneering at Shakspere's fools and battle-scenes. But we hold that the Prologue is a complete exposition of the idea of this drama. The Prologue is fastened upon Jonson, upon the theory that he wrote it after Shakspere's retirement from the stage, when the old play was revived in his absence. We believe in the one piece of external evidence,—that a Henry VIII.' was produced in 1613, when the Globe was burned ; that it was a new play; that it was then called 'All is True;'—and that this title agrees with the idea upon which Shakspere wrote the 'Henry VIII.' Those who believe that it was written in the time of Elizabeth have to reject this one piece of external evidence. We further believe, from the internal evidence, that the play, as it stands, was written in the time of James I., and that we have received it in its original form. Those who assert the contrary have to resort to the hypothesis of interpolation; and, further, have to explain how many things which are, to a plain understanding, inconsistent with their theory, may be interpreted, by great ingenuity, to be consistent. We believe that Shakspere, amongst his latest dramas, constructed an historical drama to complete his great series,—one that was agreeable to the tone of his mind after his fiftieth year :
Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe." Those who take the opposite view hold that the chief object of the poet was to produce something which might be aceeptable to Queen Elizabeth. Our belief is the obvious one; the contrary belief may be the more ingenious.
Shakspere has in this play closed his great series of Chronicle Histories. This last of them was to be sad, high, and working.” It has laid bare the hollowness of worldly glory; it has shown the heavy "load" of “ too much honour.” It has given us a picture of the times which succeeded the feudal strifes of the other "Histories.' Were they better times? To the mind of the poet the age of corruption was as “sad” as the age of force. The one tyrant rides over the obligations of justice, wielding a power more terrible than that of the sword. The poet's consolation is to be found in the prophetic views of the future.
We have a few words to add on the style of this drama. It is remarkable for the elliptical construction of many of the sentences, and for an occasional peculiarity in the versification, which is not found in any other of Shakspere's works.
A theory has been set up that Jonson" tampered" with the versification. We hold this notion to be utterly untenable; for there is no play of Shakspere's which has a more decided character of unity, no one from which any passage could be less easily struck out. We believe that Shakspere worked in this particular upon a principle of art which he had proposed to himself to adhere to, wherever the nature of the scene would allow. The elliptical construction, and the licence of versification, brought the dialogue, whenever the speaker was not necessarily rhetorical, closer to the language of common life. Of all his historical plays, the Henry VIII.' is the nearest in its story to his own times. It professed to be a “ truth." It belongs to his own country. It has no poetical indistinctness about it, either of time or place: all is defined. If the diction and the versification had been more artificial, it would have been less a reality.