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Table of Contents
Type of Work Composition and Publication Sources Time of Action Place of Action Characters
Authorship Question Role of the Imagination Plot Summary Themes Conflicts Climax Figures of Speech
Burning of the Globe Henry's Break From Rome Cardinal Wolsey Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text
Revised in 2010, 2011.©
Henry VIII is a history play focusing on the reign of England's King Henry VIII (1491-1547) up to the time of the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth I. Henry, the son of Henry VII, reigned from 1509 to 1547.
Shakespeare based Henry VIII primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also use Actes and Monuments (also known as the Book of Martyrs), by John Foxe (1516-1587).
Time in Henry VIII is compressed, making events appear as if they took place over a short period. In fact, they took place between 1520 and 1533, the year of the birth of Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth, the future Queen of England.
stylistic differences, some scholars believe
that Henry VIII was
collaborative work of William Shakespeare and
(1579-1625). Others are convinced that
Shakespeare wrote the entire
play. The stage directions are longer in Henry
VIII than in
other Shakespeare plays, suggesting that
another writer had a hand in
its composition. In addition, the first
written—seems to lack the Shakespearean word
fire that flares up in the
second and third scenes of Act II, suggesting
that Shakespeare's quill
lay at rest in parts of the play and rose to
action in other
Attending a play in Shakespeare’s time required theatregoers to use their imaginations to visualize settings, events, and personages from another time. This was no easy task, for props and special effects were severely limited. There was not even a curtain that opened and closed between acts. Sometimes a prop used in one scene had to remain on the stage for other scenes because it was too heavy to remove during the play. Perhaps the biggest limitation of all was that males played all the characters; law and custom forbade females from acting. It is no wonder, then, that Shakespeare reminded audiences from time to time to activate their imaginations at the beginning of a performance. He did so in Henry V, and he did so again in Henry VIII. In a prologue at the beginning of Henry VIII, the speaker tells the audience to
Think ye seeOddly, though, it was the very limitations of the stages of the Globe and other theatres where Shakespeare presented his plays that helped make his plays popular with theatregoers and readers of every age, as the following quotation points out:
Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet’s pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre. (Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947, page 8)Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003, 2011
Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530) wields enormous power as Cardinal of York and Lord Chancellor of England. So great is his power that it rivals even his enormous appetite for food. The upright Duke of Buckingham, who serves as Lord High Constable, worries about Wolsey’s power and his influence on King Henry VIII (1491-1547). So he decides to warn Henry that Wolsey is bad news. Wolsey, however, has already envenomed the king’s ear against Buckingham, telling Henry that Buckingham covets the crown and means to win it. It is true that Buckingham would inherit the crown if Henry dies without an heir, but it is not true that Buckingham has kingly ambitions. Nevertheless, the king’s officers arrest him for treason. As they march him to the Tower of London for imprisonment, he says:
It will help me nothingMeanwhile, the king’s wife, Katherine of Arragon (1485-1536), importunes Henry to relieve a tax burden on the people. Katherine’s plea springs from genuine concern for the welfare of her subjects. She is good and sincere and caring. Her motives, unlike those of Wolsey, are pure, without taint of desire for political gain or fortune. The tax—recently imposed by Wolsey without the king’s knowledge—requires citizens to pay the Crown one-sixth of their income, supposedly to defray the costs of military action against France. Henry says he knows nothing of the tax. When he asks Wolsey about it, the cardinal plays dumb. The king resolves the issue by granting Katherine’s wish, repealing the onerous tax law and absolving activists who opposed it. Out of hearing of the king, Wolsey orders letters sent to every county in England announcing that it was he who persuaded Henry to unburden the populace of new taxation.
As to Buckingham, Queen Katherine pleads on his behalf to the king. However, a surveyor apparently under the control of Wolsey, tells Henry that
If the kingHenry holds this issue in abeyance while attending to other matters—in particular, a banquet at Wolsey’s residence at which he meets the comely Anne Bullen (1507-1536), the daughter of Sir Thomas Bullen. When Henry dances with her, she captivates him and he says, “The fairest hand I ever touch’d! O beauty, / Till now I never knew thee!” (1.4.100-101).
At a trial, Buckingham is declared a traitor and sentenced to death. Afterward, he forgives his accusers, then yields his neck to the executioner’s axe. But Henry does not dwell on Buckingham’s death; instead he bends his mind toward Anne. To make room for her, he claims that his marriage to Katherine is profane. After all, she is the widow of his own brother, Arthur. (There was a belief, prevalent before and during the Sixteenth Century, that marriage to an in-law was a form of incest.) Also, Henry asks: Could not the child Katherine has given him, Mary, be considered illegitimate, as a bishop has suggested? Deeply disturbed by these matters, Henry tells Wolsey and the Bishop of Lincoln that
This respite shookMeanwhile, in a conversation with an old lady in an antechamber of the queen’s apartment, Anne expresses pity for Katherine after hearing that the king means to renounce his marriage to her. Anne declares that she herself would not want to be queen—“not for all the riches under heaven” (2.3.45). The old lady pronounces Anne a fool for saying such a thing. At that moment, the Lord Chamberlain interrupts their conversation to announce that the king admires Anne and has conferred on her the title of Marchioness of Pembroke and a purse of a thousand pounds a year.
Later, in a courtroom, Henry, Wolsey, a papal envoy named Cardinal Campeius, and other officials hold a hearing on whether Katherine’s marriage to the king is valid. Katherine defends her honor and her loyalty to Henry, then impugns Wolsey as the instigator of the hearing. Wolsey denies the charge even though it was he who urged the king to invalidate the marriage. However, Wolsey strongly opposes marriage between Henry and Anne, a Lutheran. Instead, he wants Henry to marry the Catholic Duchess of Alençon, the French king’s sister, to form an alliance with France.
“I’ll no Anne Bullens for him,” Wolsey says. “ There’s more in’t than fair visage” (3.2.119-120).
When Katherine appeals to Pope Clement VII to prevent a divorce, Wolsey abets her by sending letters to Rome to seek a delay in the requested divorce proceedings; his purpose is to gain time to promote his plans for Henry to marry the duchess. But the letters miscarry and end up in Henry’s hands. In an antechamber of the king’s apartments, the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk disclose this information to the Earl of Surrey. The three men are Wolsey’s adversaries. A fourth adversary, the Lord Chamberlain, tells the other three that the letters were for naught anyway, for the king has already married Anne Bullen (on January 25, 1533) and scheduled her coronation. It was not the Pope who annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, but the Archbishop of Canterbury. He did so, without Vatican approval, to ingratiate himself with the king.
While the two dukes and the earl continue their conversation, Wolsey enters the room, followed moments later by the king. Henry presents Wolsey the intercepted letters, then walks away, frowning. Norfolk, Suffolk, and Surrey crowd around the cardinal, telling him to surrender the great seal (with which official papers are stamped to signify the king’s approval), the symbol of his power as Lord Chancellor.
Surrey is especially pleased at Wolsey’s sudden reversal of fortune—and with good reason: the beheaded Buckingham was his father-in-law. He, Suffolk, and Norfolk then charge Wolsey with a catalogue of offenses, including making numerous agreements with foreign rulers without King Henry’s knowledge. Suffolk tells Wolsey he must forfeit all of his property—lands, buildings, chattels—to the Crown. Sir Thomas More is to replace him as Lord Chancellor. Wolsey has only one course of action: to retire from court. When bidding farewell to his old friend and servant Cromwell, Wolsey repents his past actions, surrenders his fortune to the king, and advises Cromwell to eschew ambition, saying, “Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; / Corruption wins not more than honesty” (3.2.522-523).
Anne becomes queen; Katherine becomes princess dowager and takes up residence at Kimbolton, where illness afflicts her. She asks Griffith, her gentleman-usher, what has become of Wolsey. Griffith tells her that he was received at an abbey at Leicester and three days later—“full of repentance, / Continual meditations, tears, and sorrows” (4.2.33-34)—died. Capucius, an ambassador serving the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, visits Katherine at the request of Henry to tell her that the king wishes her good health. She tells Capucius that time has run out for her but expresses hope that Henry prospers while she keeps company with worms in her grave. Katherine asks Capucius to deliver a message asking the king to give their daughter, Mary, a proper upbringing with every advantage and to look kindly on the women and men who served Katherine.
Archbishop Cranmer, the rubber stamp who annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, proves unpopular with the nobles, and only the king’s intervention prevents him from imprisonment in the Tower of London. At the christening of Henry and Anne’s child, Elizabeth, Cranmer predicts a glorious future for the child and England:
This royal infant—heaven still move about her!—
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Great power breeds great corruption. Powerful English leaders misuse their authority for their own ends. Cardinal Wolsey appears the most reprehensible character in the play. But after his downfall, he repents his abuses. Others who misuse their power include King Henry and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer.
Rulership requires constant vigilance. For a long time, Henry delegated his authority to Cardinal Wolsey, who used the authority to pursue his own agenda and fatten his personal coffers.
Henry VIII thirsts for a form of immortality—the perpetuation of himself and his royal line in the form of a male heir. In the face of papal excommunication, Henry divorces Katherine to marry Anne Bullen (Boleyn) and beget a male heir.
Women suffer ill treatment in a male-dominated society. Henry and his advisors manipulate Katherine (Catherine of Aragon, the queen) and Anne for their own ends. The king believes a female heir is unacceptable. Ironically, two of his daughters—Mary (by Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (by Anne Boleyn)—became queens of England. Mary ruled from 1553 to 1558; Elizabeth ruled from 1558 to 1603.
It is never too late to repent. Near death, Cardinal Wolsey repents his past actions, surrenders his fortune to the king, and advises Cromwell to eschew ambition, saying, "Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; / Corruption wins not more than honesty" (3.2.522-523). In so doing, he appears to redeem himself.
The supporters of the king's marriage to Anne Bullen, a Protestant, are in conflict with Wolsey, who has been plotting to sabotage the marriage while promoting a marriage between the king and the Catholic sister of the king of France. Henry VIII becomes involved in the conflict when he learns that Wolsey secretly acted against his wishes.
Katherine of Aragon is in conflict with Wolsey because of his abuse of power.
Katherine of Aragon is in conflict with the king because of his renunciation of his marriage to her.
Supporters of the Duke of Buckingham are in conflict with Wolsey because the cardinal poisoned the king's ear against Buckingham, who is innocent of wrongdoing.
The climax of Henry VIII occurs the second scene of Act 3, when Henry asserts his kingly authority to reclaim power from Cardinal Wolsey. Previously, he had allowed Wolsey to make decisions on his behalf. The moment comes after the king learns that Wolsey attempted to sabotage the king's plan to marry Anne Bullen. Wolsey wanted to arrange a marriage between the king and the Catholic Duchess of Alençon, the French king’s sister, in order to form an alliance with France.
Following are examples of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Heat not a furnace for your foe so hotAnaphora
Think ye seeMetaphor
I can see his prideMetaphor and Synecdoche
The more shame for ye! holy men I thought ye,Paradox
More than my all is nothing. (2.3.84)Simile
To-day the FrenchGlobe Theatre Burns During Henry VIII Performance
During a performance of Henry VIII on June, 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre burned down. Apparently, ordnance heralding the entrance of the actor playing Henry VIII ignited the thatched roof. The Globe was rebuilt with a non-flammable tile roof. However, it was torn down in 1644 after a fire of another sort, Puritan zeal, closed all theatres. Puritans were strict Protestants who favored strait-laced living and opposed theatre performances. After the Globe was razed, tenements replaced it. Between September 2 and 5, 1666, the Great Fire of London—which destroyed more than thirteen thousand dwellings and more than eighty churches—consumed the foundations and whatever else was left of the Globe. Not a stick of wood from it was left. Modern recreations of the Globe are based on 17th Century descriptions and drawings.
Henry's Break From Rome
approved the Act of Supremacy in 1534,
establishing the Church of
England as a Protestant entity under King
Henry VIII. Events leading to
this action commenced in 1527. At that time,
Henry embarked on a
campaign to win papal annulment of his
marriage to Catherine of Aragon,
enabling him to marry Anne Boleyn and attempt
to sire a male heir to
the throne. Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious
politician and adviser to the
king, managed the king’s campaign. But Pope
Clement VII steadfastly
refused to annul the marriage.
Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530), the son of a
butcher, received Holy Orders
as a Roman Catholic priest in 1498 and became
chaplain to Henry VIII's
father, King Henry VII, in 1507. When Henry
VIII became king in 1509,
Wolsey won appointment as royal almoner and
two years later as a a
privy councillor. In 1513, he masterminded an
invasion of France and
negotiated a treaty in the next year. From
1514 to 1515, with the
king's blessing, he received appointments from
the Vatican as bishop of
Lincoln, archbishop of York, and cardinal.
1...Which character in the play is
the most admirable?
Which is the least admirable?