Shakespeare, Thomas More, and Henry VIII

By Joseph Pearce.
As mentioned earlier … I was honoured to be asked to write the introduction to the first Spanish edition of the play, Sir Thomas More, which was authored by Shakespeare in collaboration with several other contemporary playwrights. Querying some of the assertions that I made in that introduction, a Spanish correspondence wrote to ask “why Shakespeare was so cautious about censorship in this play, whereas he openly signed the perhaps even more pro-Catholic Henry VIII“. Here’s my response:

First, if the dating of the two plays is correct, i.e. around 1603 or 1604 for Sir Thomas More and circa 1612 or 1613 for Henry VIII, it is significant that the former was written or at least being submitted to the censor within months of the death of Elizabeth. This would seem to explain the caginess of Shakespeare and his collaborators. The future was uncertain, as was the fate of the play. By 1613 the shadow of Elizabeth and the Tudors would have weakened considerably, enabling playwrights to criticize them with more confidence. James had no reason to protect the reputation of the woman who had sanctioned the killing of his mother, nor did he owe any particular allegiance to Elizabeth’s father. On the contrary, the Stuart Ascendancy might have tacitly welcomed a revisionist approach to their Tudor predecessors which accentuated a skeptical or ambivalent reading of recent history.

In this respect, I am tempted to see a somewhat surprising parallel between the writing of Henry VIII and Solzhenitsyn’s writing of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn’s novel was published in the midst of a repressive communist regime because it was seen by Krushchev as a work of historical revisionism attacking Stalin. In the same way that Krushchev was happy to see his predecessor’s reputation questioned and maligned, so James might have been happy enough to allow criticism of Henry VIII. By contrast, Sir Thomas More was an historical figure whose subsidiarist approach to politics, insisting that obedience to the King must always be subject to obedience to God, would have made him an enduring political threat to the reigning monarch, especially in light of the emerging political philosophy of the Divine Right of Kings.


Joseph Pearce is a Catholic author and biographer who has written about subjects as various as GK Chesterton, economics, and Shakespeare. His latest book, Race with the Devil, chronicles his conversion from racial hatred to Catholicism. He is also the Director of the Center for Faith & Culture and Writer-in-Residence at Aquinas College in Nashville as well as the editor of St. Austin Review.

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