Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The two gentlemen meet again in a street in Westminster. It is the day of Anne's coronation. The first gentleman knows of several gentlemen who will receive promotions as a coronation custom. The second gentleman asks about these promotions, but also about Katherine, who is now divorced and has been demoted to Princess Dowager. The first gentleman says the Archbishop of Canterbury (who was Wolsey, but is now Cranmer) confirmed the divorce, although Katherine refused to appear at the proceedings. She has moved to Kymmalton, and is sick. The second gentleman expresses his pity, but then the coronation procession passes by. It is a decadent procession, and as it passes, the two gentlemen keep up a commentary, finally admiring Anne.

The procession exits the stage, and the third gentleman enters. He was present at the coronation, and the first two gentlemen ask him about the ceremony. The third gentleman describes Anne as the most beautiful woman in the world, and says all the people were filled with joy when they saw her. He compliments her grace and modesty, and compares her to a saint. The second gentleman asks about two of the bishops in the procession. The third gentleman says they were a bishop of Winchester and a bishop of London. The second gentleman adds the Bishop of Winchester, who is Gardiner, is not fond of Cranmer. The third gentleman agrees, but says Cromwell is a fast friend of Cranmer, and Cromwell is highly esteemed by the king. They all leave together for the court, the third gentleman promising to tell them more.

Analysis

The two gentlemen who begin this scene are the same men who discuss Buckingham's trial and see Buckingham's sad procession toward death. In the previous scene, the first gentleman is present at the trial and can fill his friend in on all the juicy details. In this scene, the first two gentlemen miss out on the coronation, and a third gentleman arrives to fill the other two in on the juicy details of that ceremony. This is an efficient way to move the plot along without having to show each and every event, especially ones that would be difficult, controversial, or irreverent to stage, such as executions or religious ceremonies. But these scenes also reinforce the sense that the play's audience is watching another audience (the gentlemen) watch the spectacle of court shenanigans. Shakespeare uses—as he did in his other plays—Roman theatrical conventions, and in this case he uses the gentlemen as a kind of "chorus," commenting on the events of their day. This serves as a commonplace intermediation between audience members and the characters in the play. They say things between themselves overheard by the audience in the play, things which they could never actually say in the presence of others at court. This is another way Shakespeare has of putting the truth, or the representation of what is believed to be true, into the mouths of underlings.

The third gentleman heaps praise upon Anne in what seems like shameless pandering to James I on the part of the playwrights. In similar fashion the second gentleman says everyone near Anne must be happy, and compares them all to stars. However, this comment is somewhat ominous as he goes on to mention that sometimes stars fall. Since, historically, Anne Boleyn was later beheaded and several other of the king's advisers were also executed, this comment may hint at the historical events happening after the events in the play. The presence of Cranmer and Cromwell are in the same vein: Both play important roles in the events of this play, but they become even more important in the events that historically follow the play's events. The original audience, of course, would have been quite familiar with the scandals of Henry VIII's several marriages.

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