In the old days of Hollywood, studios used to sell certain kinds of movies with a classic advertising line: “A cast of thousands!” It implied spectacle, pageantry, action on an enormous scale. Throughout its long history, Shakespeare’s Henry VIII—probably the last play he ever wrote (or co-wrote)--has stood for the same kind of wide-screen, or wide-stage, extravaganza.
Even in Shakespeare’s day, the play was presented as a pageant. A spectator who saw the first production of Henry VIII at the Globe Theatre in 1613 said it contained “many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty.” One “special effect” backfired in all too literal a sense: a cannon, fired to celebrate King Henry’s entrance in act 1, set fire to the thatched roof of the Globe and burned the playhouse to the ground. No one was injured; the sole casualty (apart from the most famous theatre in the history of the world) was a pair of pants. They caught fire, but the man wearing them had the presence of mind to put the fire out with a bottle of ale.
However, behind the pageantry of Henry VIII is a web of intrigue and betrayal. As in the courts in Richard II and As You Like It, grandeur masks greed, envy, and a never-ending struggle for power. Henry VIII, while not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays, is nevertheless one which has been frequently staged in England—especially at times of national rejoicing. It may have been written to be performed as part of the festivities related to a royal marriage—that of the daughter of James I, Princess Elizabeth—and it was staged again in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In 1916, an English production of the play was brought to New York in observation of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
The play covers events which occurred over a span of twenty-four years, creating certain structural problems: it is basically a series of episodes, with some remarkable scenes among them. Actors and critics have also noted that he play contains a number of great roles for actors and actresses, among them Queen Katherine and Cardinal Wolsey.