King Henry VIII is one of Shakespeare’s most thrilling performance pieces. It is a fascinating tightrope-walk between diplomacy and drama.
Henry VIII is perhaps most famous as the play which quite literally brought the house down: during one of the early performances in 1613 a special stage effect (the firing of a cannon) set light to the Globe’s thatch and destroyed the theatre.
The play’s pageantry and spectacle made it a thrilling performance piece, although its subject matter was a dangerous choice. Henry’s reign, his marriages, the confused succession and the religious controversy was dynamite politically during both Elizabeth’s and James’ reigns. Shakespeare had to select carefully from the events of Henry’s reign, which were, after all, extremely recent. The result is a fascinating tightrope-walk between diplomacy and drama. The play ends with the birth of Elizabeth I, thus side-stepping the later controversies of Henry’s reign, but Shakespeare does not shy away from Henry’s cruel treatment of Katherine of Aragon, whose heart-rending appeal against her divorce is reproduced almost word for word from the historical record.
Published by Oxford University Press and bound in hardback buckram by The Folio Society, The Oxford Shakespeare series offers authoritative editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The early printings have been scrupulously re-examined and interpreted by eminent scholars, who also provide introductory essays covering all relevant background information, together with an appraisal of critical views and of the plays in performance. The exhaustive commentaries pay particular attention to language and staging. Reprints of sources, music for songs, genealogical tables and maps are included where necessary; many of the volumes are illustrated, and all contain an index.
Each book has an individual editor, with the whole series overseen by Stanley Wells.
Jay L. Halio is Professor of English at the University of Delaware, where he has taught since 1968. He is the author of over 40 books and editions, as well as many articles and reviews.
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