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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 2, Scene 4 | Summary



In a hall at Blackfriars, the court is arrayed for Katherine's defense. Katherine pleads her case before the king. She asks in what way she has erred as a queen and wife to make Henry seek a divorce, and she asks him to consider her history of loyalty and duty. She further says their fathers were considered wise, and this marriage, arranged by them, was carefully considered and found to be a prudent and well-intentioned choice. After she makes her speech, Wolsey advises her to have the learned men available plead her case for her, and Cardinal Campeius agrees. Katherine is not done, however. She speaks directly to Wolsey, accuses him of being her enemy, and says the division between the king and queen is his fault. She refuses him as her judge on account of his dishonesty. Cardinal Wolsey defends himself, and says she does not sound like herself, since she has always been charitable and gracious. He claims he is not the cause of the rift, and he asks her to take back what she has said. Katherine will have none of this, and bites back sarcastically, accusing him of hiding his arrogance behind a mask of humbleness. She says he cares more about his own reputation than his spiritual office, and she again refuses him as her judge, appealing to the pope. Then she departs.

Campeius disapproves of Katherine's stubbornness. After she leaves, Henry speaks about what a great wife and queen she has been, but he does not change his mind about the need for a trial. Wolsey is still angry about Katherine's accusations. Henry explains at length what prompted his conscience to question if the marriage is lawful: mainly the loss of so many male heirs and the fear of leaving no male heir behind made him wonder if he were being judged by God and "not in the smile of heaven." He agrees to stay married to Katherine if the court deems the marriage lawful. Campeius has the court adjourned, since Katherine has left. Henry, in an aside, remarks he is tired of Rome's long processes, and mentions he wishes his servant Cranmer to return because it will bring the king comfort.


Just as Buckingham was put on trial and given the opportunity to offer a defense, Katherine now stands before the assembled court and speaks eloquently on her own behalf and against the divorce. Her reasonable and passionate speech in this scene is beautifully written. It brings to mind other Shakespearean women who argued eloquently, especially Hermione, who in The Winter's Tale passionately defends her faithfulness while on trial for adultery, and Portia, who in The Merchant of Venice argues impeccably while disguised as a lawyer at trial.

However, like Buckingham, Katherine loses the battle. Katherine, in fact, lost the battle before it even started. Henry VIII has already decided this divorce will happen, and he is in full rationalization mode. He has taken the line of logic introduced by Wolsey in order to facilitate a marital alliance with France, and is using it to free himself of Katherine so he can marry Anne. He has already completed this process in his mind, and can hardly be bothered to attend to Katherine's heartfelt words. During the proceedings Henry hardly interacts with Katherine at all. In addition he refuses to read aloud the message from Rome regarding the divorce, and is dismissive of Rome's "sloth and tricks." This shows his impatience, but it is also a clue that whatever message came from Rome, it is not quite what Henry wanted to hear.

As in Act 1, Scene 2, Katherine is the epitome of honesty and easily sees through Wolsey's machinations. She accuses him of being the source of the division between herself and Henry, which is correct. She identifies Wolsey as an enemy or adversary, which is also quite true. Katherine's frequent use of religious language gives the contrast between herself and Wolsey's religious overtones. The contrast between honest, pious queen and corrupt man of the church develops the theme of religion that is woven throughout the play.

Shakespeare's audience would have seen both Queen Katherine and King Henry VIII as ruling by divine right with a direct line to Providence, so the clash in their conflicting viewpoints is important in the play. Henry's questioning whether he has displeased God will make him appear virtuous, as Katherine's renunciation of the clergy will do the same for her character. King and Queen are locked in a moral showdown, but, as a male, Henry's power overrules Katherine's in Shakespeare's time.

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