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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



The Duke of Norfolk, the Duke of Buckingham, and Abergavenny meet at court. They discuss the recent meeting of Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France, which Buckingham missed due to sickness. Buckingham asks who arranged this event, and Norfolk reveals it was Cardinal Wolsey, whom Buckingham despises. The three men discuss how Cardinal Wolsey, having no noble ancestry, has managed to become so influential over the king. Abergavenny then mentions that several nobles overspent in their preparation for the events in France, and Norfolk bemoans the cost of peace between England and France. Buckingham continues to complain about Wolsey, criticizing the cardinal for his poor handling of the situation between England and France. Norfolk cautions him to be more careful on that topic.

Cardinal Wolsey walks by in a procession with guards and secretaries, and he and Buckingham share a disdainful look. Cardinal Wolsey calls for some papers regarding the Duke of Buckingham's surveyor, and he makes the ominous statement that Buckingham's big, meaning haughty, look will soon be lessened. He then exits with his train. Buckingham rails against Wolsey, calling him corrupt and treasonous, but then the guards enter to arrest Buckingham for high treason. They also inform Abergavenny he must go to the Tower. Buckingham realizes the surveyor Wolsey mentioned must have betrayed him, and Cardinal Wolsey is behind it.


Without delay the play introduces the "fall from grace" pattern that will persist throughout the play: A noble character—in this case the Duke of Buckingham—is brought low by some event not in his or her control. Buckingham, who is concerned that Wolsey is too ambitious and influential, has no idea Wolsey has been secretly plotting against him. In the midst of accusing Wolsey of treasonous activities, Buckingham is himself arrested for the same crime.

This scene also introduces the scheming Wolsey, a man of the church who has an enormous impact over events in the play. He clearly has influence and is willing to use it. Here, Wolsey seems to use his influence to secure his own power—Buckingham's opinion of him can hardly be a secret, since he shows little self-control in keeping his mouth shut about Wolsey even when his friends warn him more than once to be more cautious when speaking against the cardinal. Wolsey, seeing Buckingham as a threat, has arranged to remove him, thereby ensuring his own safety, at least for a while. The number of clergymen in the play helps develop the theme of religion. Throughout the play, men of the church will be shown to both abuse their power and use it for good ends.

The sun symbol used to represent Henry VIII as monarch begins when Buckingham says falling out of the king's favor is like "dark'ning my clear sun." Wolsey, the very first moment he appears on stage, carries the king's purse, a symbol of royal approval and power, and Wolsey is the one to obscure the favor Buckingham recently dwelled in, as these two symbols clash against each other, mirroring how the nobles vie for power.

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