Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 2, Scene 3 | Summary



In an antechamber of Queen Katherine's apartments, Anne Bullen and an old lady discuss the divorce. Anne expresses distress and sympathy for the queen, saying the actions against Katherine are sad because she is so good and faithful. Anne says it would be better for Katherine to never have been a queen at all, so the pain of such a divorce could be avoided. Anne says she herself would not want to be queen. The old lady disagrees, however, and says she would be foolish to pass up the opportunity if it came to her.

Chamberlain enters and asks what they are talking about, and Anne says they pity the queen. Chamberlain sympathizes, and says he has come from the king, who has bestowed the title of Marchioness of Pembroke on Anne as a sign of his favor. Anne is confused, but grateful. Chamberlain remarks in an aside that she has caught the king's eye and suggests she will be the source of greatness in England. He leaves, and the old lady immediately tells Anne this is her opportunity for advancement. Anne is skeptical, but the old lady is sure the king is in love with her. Anne asks her not to tell the queen what has just happened, and the old lady agrees.


Although Anne is a powerful motivating force in Henry's decision making, this is the only scene in which she is developed as a character. She is only briefly introduced at the dinner party, and there the focus is on Henry's attraction to her. After this scene she will appear only in the coronation scene (but will not speak), and all the other relevant action concerning Anne—marriage, childbirth—will take place offstage. Her importance, therefore, is only in what she represents to Henry—motivation to leave Katherine—and what she means to the future ruler of England, Elizabeth I. This rather shallow vision of womanhood is echoed in crude terms by the old lady, who suggests women are motivated by wealth: "a woman's heart, which ever yet/[Desired] eminence, wealth, sovereignty." When Anne protests she would not want to be queen "for all the riches under heaven," the old lady says she'd be queen for "a threepence bowed," or a bent coin of little worth. Chamberlain's aside regarding Anne—"Beauty and honor in her are so mingled/That they have caught the King. And who knows yet/But from this lady may proceed a gem/To lighten all this isle?"—is blatant flattery of Elizabeth I, and by extension, Elizabeth I's kinsman James I, king of England at the time this play was written. With this prophetic pronouncement, Chamberlain identifies Anne's main function in English history: to bear Elizabeth I, who will be succeeded by James I with Elizabeth's blessing just before she dies.

However, by way of the structure in the scene—learning Anne's inner thoughts and then seeing her public reaction to Henry VIII when Chamberlain enters—Shakespeare juxtaposes Anne's compassionate feelings for Katherine against what she must say outwardly when offering her gratitude to the king for honoring her. Anne has no choice but to thank the king, or, as is implied in this scene, marry him and bear his children. She certainly cannot rebel or stand up for what she believes.

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