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Henry VIII is an entirely self-contained work. It makes no cross- reference to other plays, as many of Shakespeare’s other English History plays do. The authorship of the play is a much- discussed issue. The majority of the experts believe it to be a joint effort of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. It is generally accepted that Fletcher arranged the scheme of the play and supplied the close whereas Shakespeare provided the opening of the play and the scenes introducing chief characters.
This play was written in Shakespeare’s later period, stretching from 1608 to 1612. In 1608 he abandoned the tradition of tragedy which characterized his work from 1601 to 1608, and he reverted to the romantic Mood of his earlier days (1592 to 1601). This plays lacks the triumphant battle oratory, comic exuberance and thoughtful analysis of the monarch that are characteristic of his earlier patriotic dramas. Henry VIII, written during his Jacobean phase, has the political reflection that indicated a shift from the great Elizabeth to an era under James I of political and religious confrontation, impasse and eventual drift toward civil war.
The historical matter of the play that relates to the fall of Wolsey and the divorce of Katherine was derived originally from George Cavendish, who was gentleman wishes to Wolsey and himself an eye-witness to much that he describes.
Much that falls within the plot of the drama is found in the historical chronicles of Holinshed and Stowe. In act V, the incidents, and in many cases the very words, are taken from Acts and Movements of the Church, which was first published in 1563. It grew to be a very popular book in Shakespeare’s times.
The book is set in the reign of Henry VIII, the second King of the tutor dynasty, which was founded in England by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond in 1485. Great families had disappeared in the Civil wars, giving rise to a new aristocracy: a palace and anteroom nobility whose wealth and dignities depended on the royal favor. The clergy was degenerate and the Parliament was corrupt. Henry VIII bought members and obliged Westminister to sanction his every whim.
Meanwhile, the renaissance was sweeping Europe. The quickening of the human mind during the Renaissance was accompanied by a questioning of long held theories. The urge to inquire spread from the fields of classical learning to that of religious studies. Thus the Renaissance tired the intellectual foray with the Pope. He started the movement, which within a decade swamped the European continent, and it came to be known as the ‘Reformation.’ It spread from Calvin in Geneva across France to the Netherlands and Britain, where it was most strongly felt in Scotland.
The introduction into every household of the Bible, translated into prose, is the most important literary event of the reign of Henry VIII. William Tyndale translated the New Testament in English in the year 1526. Henry VIII, who was then a defender of Orthodoxy, tried to stop it being introduced in England. But he failed to do so because the public demand could not be controlled. Henry VIII eventually broke away from the papacy and sent Thomas More a Catholic saint to the scaffold in 1535. Thus, the reformation was officially established in England and Tyndale’s translation was broadcast in 1535 all over the country.
In spite of being a devout Catholic, Henry VIII broke away from the papacy to facilitate his divorce from Katherine, which the Pope could not grant. This created a state Church in England. The King became the head of the church called the "Anglican Church" by a sanction given by the Parliament in 1534. Thus, the English reformation under Henry VIII received its grinding impulse from the King’s passions and his desire for power.