THE POLITICAL DANGERS OF SHAKESPEARE’S HENRY VIII. I have always marveled at Shakespeare’s willingness to write about highly charged subjects in his history plays. WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES —books, play, and television series—reflect some of the risks of being on the wrong side in the political power plays and shifting religious positions surrounding Henry VIII and his descendants. Of the monarchs in the history plays, Henry VIII was the closest in time to Shakespeare’s life and should have been the most controversial of all.
Shakespeare may have chosen the structure of the play, with a series of highlight scenes rather than an extended narrative, so that he could avoid some of the pitfalls of the period. Two figures whose Catholic positions would be expected to recall past and current religious disputes—Queen Catherine and Cardinal Wolsey—are major characters. They both have long speeches in which they express their own sense of peace and acceptance at their approaching deaths—signaling that England has moved beyond past controversies. And the play closes with a long speech by Archbishop Cranmer celebrating the birth of Elizabeth and the happy future that can be foreseen.
Finally, the alternative title for the play is “All is True”. The play follows Holinshed’s history closely (as can be seen in the footnotes of the Riverside Shakespeare), providing a defense that the play did not depart from the accepted history of the period.