With The Mirror and the Light opening next month, we explore how protagonist Thomas Cromwell was portrayed by Shakespeare in his History plays.

The third and final part of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, our stage adaptation of The Mirror and the Light opens at the Gielgud Theatre on 23 September. The trilogy tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, who went from being the son of a blacksmith to the chief minister in the court of King Henry VIII, only to be executed on the orders of the king at the age of 55.

Although Cromwell was executed in 1540, 24 years before Shakespeare's birth, his story would still have been in the public memory. Indeed, Shakespeare was born during the reign of Elizabeth I, whose mother, Anne Boleyn, was only able to marry the king after Cromwell helped smooth the way for Henry to divorce his first wife, Catherine.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell
A portrait of Thomas Cromwell.
© Hans Holbein the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Browse and license our images

Shakespeare's Cromwell

One of the first fictional portrayals of Cromwell came in 1602 with Thomas Lord Cromwell. The play's title page attributed the play to a "W.S." and while the play was added to the second impression of the Third Folio, there is nothing to suggest that this really was written by Shakespeare. Although published in 1602, the play could have been written as early as 1582, and it was heavily based on political and religious commentary.

The portrayal of Cromwell that we can confidently attribute to Shakespeare comes in Henry VIII, a history play believed to be written in collaboration with the playwright John Fletcher. Cromwell is only a minor character in the play, but there are elements that match Mantel's version of the man: in both sources, Cromwell is shown to be a loyal follower of the doomed Cardinal Wolsey, rising to increasing power in the court after the Cardinal's death.

The play ends with the christening of Elizabeth, with positive predictions about her future reign and that of her successor James I, who was king at the time. Elizabeth herself was dead by the time the play was written, around 1613, but Shakespeare still had to be sensitive to anything related to her. There is no reference to the fate of Elizabeth's mother or the four wives that came after Boleyn, and some of the timelines and events are reordered to smooth over some of the potential political issues. As Cromwell was one of the chief engineers of Anne Boleyn's fall from grace, keeping him a marginal figure and ending the play at this point would have helped avoid unnecessary awkwardness.

It is also clear why Shakespeare felt the need to praise the current king in the play. Very soon after Elizabeth's death, Shakespeare's acting company became the King's Men with James as their patron, so protecting that relationship was critical for the playwright financially, professionally and personally, even if his description of the monarch rang false for many in the audience. The company ended up acting for James I and his court far more than they ever had for his predecessor.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, in black silks and furs.
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up the Bodies.
Photo by Keith Pattison © RSC Browse and license our images

Henry VIII facts

One of the lesser-known plays, Henry VIII still has some notable features and history:

  • It was a cannon shot during a 1613 performance of the play that burned down the original Globe Theatre.
  • The first performance is believed to have been part of the ceremonies celebrating the marriage of Princess Elizabeth, eldest daughter of King James I.
  • During its early history, the play was known as All Is True, with Henry VIII only appearing as the title for the first time in the 1623 First Folio.
  • The play has more stage directions than any other Shakespeare play.
  • In 1959, John Gielgud played Wolsey in a Stratford production of the play; this year, The Mirror and the Light will play at the London theatre named after the actor.