Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 4, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

At Kymmalton Katherine speaks with her attendants—a gentleman, Griffith, and a gentlewoman, Patience. Katherine is sick, and they help her to a chair. Griffith reveals Wolsey is dead. Katherine asks how he died, and Griffith relates the pitiable circumstances surrounding Wolsey's death, whose health declined rapidly after his arrest. He spent his final days at the abbey at Leicester, repenting and meditating. Katherine pities him, and wishes him a gentle rest, but says he was a liar and a bad example to the clergy. Griffith asks permission to speak some good of him and Katherine agrees. Griffith eulogizes Wolsey kindly, extolling his virtues as a scholar and his kindness to his friends. Katherine says Griffith has inspired her to honor a man she hated, and she wishes Griffith to do the same for her after she dies. She asks for music, and falls asleep. As she sleeps she has a vision of six white-robed figures, wearing bay garlands on their heads and wearing golden masks, and holding bay and palm branches. They dance around her, and she rejoices. They vanish, and Katherine wakes, calling for the people of the vision. Katherine describes the joy of her vision to her attendants. Patience, aside to Griffith, remarks Katherine suddenly looks cold and pale. Griffith says she is dying.

A messenger enters and announces a gentleman from the king is here to see Katherine. Capuchius, ambassador of Charles V of Spain, enters. Capuchius has been sent by Henry VIII to check on Katherine. Katherine asks him to deliver a letter to Henry, in which she asks the king to treat their daughter and Katherine's attendants and followers well. She begs Capuchius to be a friend to all her followers and to ask the king to grant her final request. Capucius agrees. Katherine thanks him, and says he may tell the king that she, who was so troublesome to him, is leaving this world and blesses him, even in death. As she leaves she asks that her burial be honorable, her grave covered in flowers as a tribute to her chastity, and herself laid out as a queen and a daughter of a king.

Analysis

This scene is the last the audience hears of Katherine and Wolsey. As adversaries in life, they have seemed to find reconciliation as they move toward death. Wolsey in Act 3, Scene 2, as well as in this scene, repents of his ambitious ways (in fact, repenting of the very sins Katherine had accused him of) as his end becomes imminent, and spends his final days in prayer and meditation. Katherine, though still maintaining Wolsey was a liar and all-around bad guy, wishes him peace in death. Like Buckingham, both Katherine and Wolsey become more mild and magnanimous as they near the end of their lives. This part of the fall-from-grace pattern is extremely important to the theme of providence and the general sense that the story moves toward the blessed birth of Elizabeth I. If the presupposition is God's will was for Elizabeth I to be born, then not only must Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey be removed as obstacles, they must be removed gracefully, almost as if they consent to being set aside. There can be no lasting taint on any of the events leading to Elizabeth I's birth.

This is most difficult to achieve in the case of Katherine, who is characterized throughout the play as a virtuous, honest, and an altogether admirable woman and wife. Buckingham, though likely not guilty of treason, at least had a few enemies willing to conspire against him. Wolsey was thoroughly dislikable. But Katherine is well loved by the people, and her only real enemy is the despicable Wolsey. To justify her removal, she has a dream—a vision—that seems to welcome her into Heaven. After this comforting vision, she is willing to accept—even welcome—her own death.

The elaborate nature of Katherine's dream, described in great detail in the lengthy stage directions, reflects the play's use of pageantry to create a ceremonial mood. Ritual is a large part of the life of both royalty and clergy, and the processions, ceremonies, and formal occasions dominate the action of the play, emphasizing the interplay between church and state.

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