Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

King Henry VIII and his train, including Cardinal Wolsey, enter the council chamber. Henry expresses his gratitude to Wolsey for stopping Buckingham's "conspiracy." Queen Katherine enters with Norfolk and Suffolk, and she petitions Henry on behalf of his subjects who report heavy new taxation. She says Wolsey is responsible for the new tax. Norfolk says the common people are angry and unrest is brewing. Henry expresses surprise and asks Wolsey about the situation. Wolsey claims he is mainly ignorant of this taxation. Katherine says the tax is intended to fund the wars in France. Henry does not approve, prompting Wolsey to defend himself. Wolsey protests his involvement is greatly exaggerated. Henry pardons the people who refused to pay the tax, and Wolsey secretly arranges that he, Wolsey, be publicized as the person who persuaded the king to revoke the taxes and pardon the people.

Wolsey has Buckingham's surveyor testify against Buckingham, which convinces King Henry of Buckingham's treason despite Queen Katherine's urging to the contrary and her accusation that the surveyor is simply Buckingham's bitter former employee. Incensed, Henry orders Buckingham put on trial.

Analysis

This scene shows Katherine in a very flattering light, depicting her as a sympathetic and thoroughly good person. She is concerned for the welfare of the common people, and worried the new tax will cause discontent among the people. She takes her appeal to the king, showing respect for his sovereign authority. Since she will soon fall from the king's favor, her characterization as an honest, compassionate, and dignified woman here makes her fall more dramatic—from a great height—as well as reinforces the theme of providence: Both good and bad people must fall in order to make way for the reign of Elizabeth I. Shakespeare endows Katherine with the power of speech and manipulation at court usually reserved only for men. She is being placed on a level with a trusted minister or advisor to the king, but because she is a woman, she is deprived of the credit for her astute assessments.

This scene also shows tension between Katherine and Wolsey. In bringing this burdensome tax issue to the king's attention and speaking plainly about its cause and effects, she puts Wolsey on the defensive. She also defends Buckingham, whom Wolsey badly wants to see condemned. In contrast to her honest (and quite correct) assessment of both the taxation and Buckingham issues, Wolsey is shown scheming to make himself look good by taking credit for what she has actually done.

If Katherine and Wolsey are competing for influence, Wolsey seems to win the day, both by claiming her accomplishment as his own and by swaying Henry VIII to his side of the Buckingham issue. It is not a good sign for Katherine that Wolsey has such an influence over the king.

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