Paintings of William Shakespeare’s Plays 12: Henry VIII (All Is True)

William Blake (1757–1827), Queen Katharine's Dream (c 1825), pen and ink with watercolour heightened with white and gold over graphite, 41.2 x 34.6 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Successful plays often bring the house down, but in the case of All Is True, co-authored by William Shakespeare, it burned the house down, resulting in London’s Globe Theatre burning to the ground on 29 June 1613. Few know this play under that original title, as it has since become better known as Henry VIII, and until the middle of the nineteenth century was considered to be just another of his histories of English monarchs. It was then recognised as being written jointly with John Fletcher (1579-1625), Shakespeare’s successor as house playwright to the King’s Men company of players.

The fire in the theatre was apparently during one of the play’s early productions, when a cannon was fired. Flames from the cannon set alight to the theatre’s wooden structure, and London’s original Globe Theatre quickly burned to ashes.

Although long popular, this play has seen bad times since the mid-twentieth century. As a result, it was quite extensively painted and illustrated in the two previous centuries, and is notable for a group of important paintings based entirely on Fletcher’s copious stage directions. It tells the story of the end of King Henry the Eighth’s marriage to Queen Katharine, and the birth of his daughter by Anne Boleyn, who was to grow up to become Shakespeare’s royal patron, Queen Elizabeth the First.

Cardinal Wolsey had arranged a meeting between King Henry the Eighth and his French counterpart, which gives rise to the resentment of the Duke of Buckingham, who is arrested and charged with high treason on the instruction on the Cardinal. Queen Katharine surprises the King by speaking out against Wolsey’s special taxes, which the King promptly repeals. The Cardinal spreads the rumour that it was he who brought that about. When Buckingham is brought before the King, he is persuaded of the evidence instigated by Wolsey to proceed to the Duke’s trial.

Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema (1852-1909), Queen Katharine (1896), from ‘The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare’s Heroines’, further details not known, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting, by Laura Theresa Alma-Tadema, wife of the more famous Lawrence, is a portrait of Queen Katharine published in The Graphic Gallery of Shakespeare’s Heroines in 1896.

The King arrives disguised as a shepherd at a grand banquet thrown by the Cardinal, and until his identity is revealed, takes Anne Boleyn as his dancing partner. The Duke of Buckingham is found guilty and condemned to death. A rumour is spreading that the King intends to divorce the Queen, and that a newly arrived Cardinal will hear the proceedings. Cardinal Wolsey starts to move against Katharine, and the new Cardinal is introduced to the King, with the proceedings of the divorce to be heard at Blackfriars.

Anne Boleyn discusses with her old maid and confidant the sorrows of Katharine’s position, but they’re interrupted by the Lord Chamberlain informing Anne that the King has made her Marchioness of Pembroke. The old lady seizes on her hypocrisy.

Marcus Stone (1840–1921), My Lady is a Widow and Childless (date not known), oil on canvas, 55.6 x 36.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Marcus Stone’s undated painting of My Lady is a Widow and Childless was accompanied by the quotation from this scene: ‘Tis better to be lowly born, and range with humble livers in content, than to be perk’d up in a glistering grief, and wear a golden sorrow’. This extends the old lady’s discourse into a more generally moralising painting.

Queen Katharine eloquently pleads her case against divorce from the King when the proceedings open. After denying the validity of the court and appealing to the Pope, she walks out. The King makes his case, that Katharine was formerly married to his brother, making her marriage to the King incestuous. Cardinal Campeius insists that the proceedings can’t continue in Katharine’s absence, and the case is adjourned.

George Henry Harlow (1787–1819), Court for the Trial of Queen Katharine (1817), further details not known. Image by Hantsheroes, via Wikimedia Commons.

George Henry Harlow’s painting of the Court for the Trial of Queen Katharine from 1817 appears to have been based on a stage production, and shows the Queen pointing accusatively at Cardinal Wolsey.

Later, the two Cardinals privately urge Katharine to accept divorce, but she protests and refuses.

Richard Westall (1765-1836), Abbot of Leicester and Wolsey (1802), engraving by Robert Thew (1758-1802) for John Boydell’s gallery, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Westall’s painting of Abbot of Leicester and Wolsey was engraved by Robert Thew in 1802 for John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery.

The King has intercepted letters from Cardinal Wolsey to the Pope advising that his divorce should be refused, revealing the Cardinal’s duplicity. Wolsey is summoned to the King, who has also been reading an inventory of the Cardinal’s wealth. The King praises Wolsey sarcastically, and leave him with both the inventory and his letter to the Pope to read.

Wolsey is arrested for high treason and all his property is confiscated. His replacements are already appointed, including Sir Thomas More as Chancellor, Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, and Anne Boleyn will shortly be crowned Queen.

Richard Westall (1765–1836), Wolsey Disgraced (1795), oil on canvas, 80.6 x 54.4 cm, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Westall’s Wolsey Disgraced from 1795 shows the Cardinal, dressed in red, under terminal attack.

Katharine falls ill after Anne Boleyn’s coronation, and then hears of Wolsey’s death. When she falls asleep, she has a vision of six figures in white robes holding a garland of flowers over her head.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Dream of Queen Katharine (Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Act IV, Scene 2) (1781), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Victoria and Albert Museum (Bequeathed by Rev. Chauncey Hare Townshend), London. Image courtesy of and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Henry Fuseli’s Dream of Queen Katherine from 1781, above, is a remarkable fragment of a larger painting intended to show this scene, and was commissioned by Thomas Macklin in 1779 for his Poets’ Gallery. It’s most likely to have been cut down from a copy of a painting very similar to The Vision of Catherine of Aragon (1781), below, which was commissioned by Sir Robert Smith and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1781.

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), The Vision of Catherine of Aragon (1781), oil on canvas, 147.3 x 210.8 cm, Lytham St Annes Art Collection, Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Fletcher’s stage directions read:
The vision. Enter, solemnly tripping one after another, six personages, clad in white robes, wearing on their heads garlands of bays, and golden vizards on their faces; branches of bays or palm in their hands. They first congee unto her, then dance; and, at certain changes, the first two hold a spare garland over her head; at which the other four make reverent curtsies; then the two that held the garland deliver the same to the other next two, who observe the same order in their changes, and holding the garland over her head: which done, they deliver the same garland to the last two, who likewise observe the same order: at which, as it were by inspiration, she makes in her sleep signs of rejoicing, and holdeth up her hands to heaven: and so in their dancing vanish, carrying the garland with them. The music continues.

Fuseli has adhered faithfully to these, showing the departure of the six figures on completion of their dance.

William Blake (1757–1827), Queen Katharine’s Dream (1809), illustration to ‘Henry VIII’, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

William Blake, who must have seen at least one of Fuseli’s paintings, painted his first version of Queen Katharine’s Dream in 1809, as an illustration to this play.

William Blake (1757–1827), Queen Katharine’s Dream (c 1825), pen and ink with watercolour heightened with white and gold over graphite, 41.2 x 34.6 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

In about 1825, Blake used pen and ink with watercolour to paint his second version.

Katharine’s health deteriorates rapidly, and as she nears death she sends a letter to the King asking him to look after their daughter.

Anne Boleyn is already in labour with her child by the King. The King’s Council moves against Archbishop Cranmer, but the King tips Cranmer off, and quells the Council. The play ends with the grand ceremonial baptism of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, whom Cranmer predicts will be a great monarch and initiate a golden age; she was to become Shakespeare’s patron, Queen Elizabeth the First.


Wikipedia on Shakespeare’s play.
Full text at Project Gutenberg

Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.