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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary



Two gentlemen meet on a street and discuss Buckingham's trial, at which he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The first gentleman reports the witnesses who testified against Buckingham overpowered his defense. Buckingham is described as distressed but ultimately accepting of the verdict. Both gentlemen agree this is Wolsey's doing, and the common people hate him and love Buckingham.

Buckingham enters in a procession, and speaks to the following crowd. He expresses his loyalty, accepts the law has decreed his death, and forgives the people who carried it out. He implores the people who loved him to pray for his soul. He proclaims his respect for the king and wishes him blessings and long life. Buckingham reflects on his life, and how far he rose and then fell, advising those around him to be careful where they put their trust and love, since people who fall on hard fortunes are often abandoned by their friends. He says goodbye, again asking for prayer, and exits.

The second gentleman says he has heard of a secret that may be worse. At the first gentleman's entreaty, he reveals he has heard King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine may be separating. The first gentleman dismisses this as an old rumor, but the second gentleman says the separation is looking more likely now. They both agree Wolsey must have a hand in this, too, and it is terrible the queen must suffer for his ambitions.


This scene gives the audience a view of the events at court from an outsider's perspective. The audience does not get to witness Buckingham's trial: It "happens" offstage and the audience learns the details from the conversation between the two gentlemen. Their conversation about the trial reveals more than just the important details, however. It also shows Wolsey's scheming and ambitious nature is known and accepted by the common folk. They take for granted that Wolsey is manipulating things for his own ends, saying that as soon as the king favors someone, Wolsey makes up a reason to send the favored person away from court: "whoever the King favors,/The Card'nal instantly will find employment,/And far enough from court too." After Buckingham leaves, the two men's gossip turns to Queen Katherine and the rumor that the king seeks a separation from her. Again, the audience finds out about an important event not from the players directly involved but from outsiders who seem to have a strangely accurate view of events at court and who spend quite a bit of time analyzing and discussing court gossip as if it were a show for their entertainment. This hearkens back to the Prologue and the wish the audience not treat the play as a show or spectacle but rather as a serious and meaningful story. There are layers of audience in this scene. Shakespeare's audience watches the two gentlemen, who themselves are an audience for the drama going on at court.

Buckingham's acceptance of his fate and his forgiveness for those who wronged him is part of the trial pattern, which will play out repeatedly in the play. He is accused, tried, and sentenced. He accepts this and is meek; in going to his death, forgiving those around him, Buckingham turns from ambition, symbolized by Fortune's wheel moving him from a high position to a low position, to a more spiritual attitude. Buckingham's fall also proves how very much like the sun—another important symbol in the play—and life-giving Henry VIII's favor truly is. To be out of the king's good graces leaves Buckingham apathetic about his own death. This may make little sense from a character standpoint, since just a few scenes ago he railed against Wolsey in no uncertain terms and seems to have little reason to hold back now; Buckingham chooses to die loyal to the king. The play must move toward Elizabeth I, and those proving obstacles to her birth or ascension—such as Buckingham, who may have some ambition for the throne—are one by one toppled. Perhaps to emphasize the providence of Elizabeth I's life and reign, these obstacles seem to topple with grace.

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