New Proof that “Henry VIII” Was Written
Before the Spring of 1606
Copyright 1947 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, Autumn 1947.
IN OUR JULY, 1946 issue. Dr. L. P. Bénézet made plain the false reasoning behind the general assumption that Henry VIII was written shortly before June 1613, when a play laid in that reign was given at the Globe.
Additional evidence in support of the Bénézet arguments can be found in the internal structure of the drama. Part of this is positive, part negative. And none of it seems to have been taken into account by accepted authorities on Henry VIII, though they apply tests of the same kind to various of the other plays.
The historic Parliament of November 1605, which was postponed for a few weeks upon discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, issued a vigorous act against the abuse of the name of God in plays.
This was the result of years of agitation by the Puritans. It was approved by the King and well publicized. Being rigorously enforced by the Master of the Revels, who censored Plays for production, this act provides a definite barrier in the creative records of the British drama, and should be given due heed when attempting to fix the dates Of composition and stage production of all disputed plays of that period.
For example, the First Quarto of Othello, published as late as 1622 by Thomas Walkley from a shortened stage script, contains a number of oaths and other legally offensive exclamations which are either omitted or softened down in the 1623 First Folio version. This is definite proof that the Quarto script had been used for stage purposes prior to the spring of 1606. The fact is corroborated by the now authenticated Revels Records which list Othello as shown before James I on November 1, 1604. In addition, Ben Jonson’s references to “the Moor” in The Poetaster, (1) with other circumstances, make it clear that Othello was being acted by Ned Alleyne, and others in the 1590’s.
To approximate the date of composition of Henry VIII, the same oath test should be equally valid. Using it, what do we find? Just this—that the name of God is used no less than thirty-two times in its pages. Several of these uses would probably have passed the censorship, with Wolsey’s
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king . . .
But by far the greater number of these references to the Deity are the old Tudor oaths and asseverations of exactly the same “name of God!” vintage favored by the Virgin Monarch herself.
Thus it becomes abundantly apparent that in Henry VIII we have nothing less than an authentic Elizabethan Script dating from some period well within the personal purview of the great Queen herself—whose christening it celebrates with charming effectiveness at the final curtain.
* * *
On the negative side, consider this:
When orthodox “authorities” declare that Henry VIII was first composed about 1612, they take it for granted that William of Stratford had at least a controlling hand in its writing. Incidentally, it is always pointed out that William Shakspere owed much to the patronage of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (though unfortunately for this argument, no contemporary documentation bears out the conjecture). But the concomitant, of such an assumption is that the Stratford citizen sought to honor his “great friend” Wriothesley whenever occasion offered.
If this latter assumption were truly tenable, how comes it that Wriothesley’s own grandfather, 1st Earl of Southampton, and an unusually able and well-liked adherent of that monarch, isn’t given any part at all—not even passing mention—in the play of Henry VIII?
Thomas Wriothesley (1505-1550), retained the confidence and high regard of the King with a consistency matched by practically no other Tudor statesman. He rose from a small secretarial post under Cromwell to the high office of Lord Chancellor of England. And when the dissolution of church properties took place, Henry rewarded him with many and valuable estates. Nor was Wriothesley adversely affected by the fall of his political mentor, Thomas Cromwell. In fact, he grew so great after Cromwell’s execution that from 1542 onward, he was the de facto governor of England. Wriothesley was an executor of Henry’s will, and in accordance with one of the King’s last expressed wishes, was made Earl of Southampton in 1547.
It would seemingly have been both a gracious and an easily contrived compliment to his alleged great patron, had the alleged genius of Stratford brought Grandfather Wriothesley to life in the play supposedly written in 1612. As a loyal prop and vigorous spokesman for the Tudor dynasty, no fitter character would seem available.
Instead, we are baffled to find that he doesn’t receive the slightest attention. How strange! And especially so—if we accept the orthodox dating of Henry VIII—when it is further considered how very appropriate such a compliment would have appeared to the 3rd Earl of Southampton in the years 1612-13. For at that time he still enjoyed the high regard of James I, besides being one of the most admired noblemen in the realm because of his labors to reestablish the Virginia Colony on a permanent basis.
Thus we must concur in the conclusion that Dr. Bénézet reaches on other grounds.
The orthodox assignment of Henry VIII to 1612-13 will not stand up under realistic examination of its own content. Instead, it must be assigned to a much earlier Elizabethan period—and one when compliments to the 3rd Earl of Southampton were not in order.
1. See “Creative Calendar,” p. 46, Vol. 4, No. 4, NEWS-LETTER.