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450 years after the birth of one of the world’s most influential and often-quoted writers, it’s still astonishing to realize just how much of our perception of the major figures of that time is influenced by Shakespeare’s writings. Until the discovery of the skeleton of deposed usurper Richard III, there was no solid evidence that he had any kind of physical deformity, yet we all think of him as the hideous hunchbacked demon of the play RICHARD III.  Representations of Henry VIII’s “Great Matter” are still colored by Shakespeare’s depiction of events, especially the infamous moment in the Blackfriars court when Katherine, called by the bailiff, instead kneeled at her husband’s feet and made an impassioned plea, then got up and left. There is some contemporary evidence for this, but still – what a great moment for a playwright to use.

Shakespeare was writing the sixteenth-century equivalent of propaganda films. They’re entertainment, first and foremost, but he’s careful to ally himself with the side that won at Bosworth Field in 1485.

We still revere Henry V, and think of Agincourt because of the play. Yes, he appears to have been the medieval ideal – young, handsome, militarily successful – but he also continued decades of war and then conveniently died before he could solidify his winnings.  England spent the next 150 years steadily retreating from France.

In some ways, I think it’s a pity Shakespeare never got the chance to write about the Stuart kings. Imagine what he could have done with Charles I.

Without further commentary, I present to you this famous monologue from HENRY VIII:

KATHERINE: Sir, I desire you do me right and justice,
And to bestow your pity on me; for
I am a most poor woman and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions: having here
No judge indifferent, nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? What cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure
That thus you should proceed to put me off
And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness,
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable,
Even in fear to kindle your dislike,
Yea, subject to your countenance–glad or sorry
As I saw it inclined. When was the hour
I ever contradicted your desire
Or made it not mine too? Or which of your friends
Have I not strove to love, although I knew
He were mine enemy? What friend of mine
That had to him derived your anger, did I
Continue in my liking? nay, gave notice
He was from thence discharged? Sir, call to mind
That I have been your wife in this obedience
Upward of twenty years, and have been blest
With many children by you. If in the course
And process of this time you can report,
And prove it too, against mine honor aught,
My bond to wedlock, or my love and duty
Against your sacred person, in God’s name
Turn me away, and let the foul’st contempt
Shut door upon me, and so give me up
To the sharp’st kind of justice. Please you, sir,
The king your father was reputed for
A prince most prudent, of an excellent
And unmatched wit and judgment. Ferdinand,
My father, King of Spain, was reckoned one
The wisest prince that there had reigned by many
A year before. It is not to be questioned
That they had gathered a wise council to them
Of every realm, that did debate this business,
Who deemed our marriage lawful. Wherefore I humbly
Beseech you, sir, to spare me till I may
Be by my friends in Spain advised, whose counsel
I will implore. If not, i’ th’ name of God,
Your pleasure be fulfilled!