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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How is the king characterized as Henry VIII begins, and why is Shakespeare's characterization of Henry VIII significant?

As Henry VIII opens Cardinal Wolsey exerts a great deal of power. He is taxing the people heavily, causing unrest among the population, without the king's knowledge. He is manipulating those in positions of influence to either bend to his will or be moved out of the way. He manages to have Buckingham accused, tried, and convicted of treason. In general he seems to have more influence on events in the realm than the king. This makes Henry VIII look like a weak and gullible monarch who is easily manipulated. Add to this the fact that Henry VIII has been unable to produce a male heir, which he badly wants, and the characterization is one of an ineffective king who is facing a crisis of leadership as well as crisis of his own legacy and familial line. Throughout Henry VIII the king is associated with the sun, and his favor is equivalent to a life-giving force. Therefore, a weak king whose power is waning creates a crucial conflict Shakespeare uses to set the plot in motion. The interplay between Henry VIII and Wolsey is also important in building Shakespeare's religion theme: Wolsey, who is a cardinal, sees himself as the king's equal, which necessitates Wolsey's fall from grace later. Power (in the hands of a cardinal) is out of balance as the play begins and must be restored to royalty by the end. The choice also leaves room for Henry VIII to grow as a character as the play progresses. Henry VIII, like a sun, will rise back up into a position of power and virtue by overcoming religious corruption, as suits the idea of the divine right of royalty, by the end of the play.

What is the king's motivation for wanting to divorce Katherine in Henry VIII?

Henry VIII's motivation is somewhat ambiguous in the play. He wants a male heir to secure his family's royal line. Katherine has given birth to just one living child, a daughter. Meanwhile Henry meets a beautiful young woman, Anne Bullen, one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting. He finds her desirable and moves quickly to show her his favor. Operating under these two pressures—desire for a male heir and desire for Anne Bullen—Henry VIII develops the belief that his marriage to Katherine might be against God's will, since she was married to his brother Arthur for a short time before Arthur died: "methought/I stood not in the smile of heaven, who had/Commanded nature that my lady's womb,/If it conceived a male child by me, should/Do no more offices of life to 't than/The grave does to th' dead, for her male issue ... Hence I took a thought/This was a judgment on me, that my kingdom,/Well worthy the best heir o' th' world, should not/Be gladded in 't by me" (Act 2, Scene 4). Despite the fact that the pope gave him permission to marry Katherine, the idea that his lack of male heirs might be God's punishment for his unlawful marriage seems to take hold. Was Henry truly more concerned about God's opinion of his marriage, about his desire for a son, or about his pursuit of Anne Bullen? These motivations seem to work together, and certainly the combination of them was enough to seal Katherine's fate.

What tone do the playwrights take toward Katherine in Henry VIII?

The tone the text takes toward Katherine is one of unabashed admiration. At her first appearance, she is shown arguing on behalf of the people who are feeling the sting of Cardinal Wolsey's taxes. She is never swayed by Wolsey's manipulations, easily seeing through him and correctly assessing his true power-hungry and deceptive nature. Not only does she see Wolsey for what he really is, she speaks the truth assertively. As she defends herself at her trial, she speaks convincingly on her own behalf. There is nothing in the text to suggest she is not absolutely virtuous, honest, strong, and upright.

Why do scholars believe Henry VIII is a collaboration?

Although scholars do not agree on the details of which parts Shakespeare wrote and which parts Fletcher wrote, it is generally believed John Fletcher and William Shakespeare did collaborate on the play. For one thing, John Fletcher succeeded Shakespeare as main playwright for the King's Men, and it is known that the two worked together on Two Noble Kinsman because both playwrights are listed on the title page of a very early publication of the play. Many scholars have also pointed to the very long and detailed stage directions as evidence of Henry VIII as a collaborative work, as Shakespeare's stage directions are known for their brevity.

How does the king's observation of Cranmer's trial reflect a theatrical device in Henry VIII, and how does Shakespeare use it to support Henry VIII's characterization?

Shakespeare's use of observers during the trial scenes is a theatrical device intended to constantly remind the audience they are watching a play. The purpose is to draw the audience into events and remind them they too—whatever social standing they come from—could fall if they pursue ambitious social climbing or give in to corruption. No one is entirely safe—except the king—when fortune turns against them. In watching Cranmer's trial from above, King Henry VIII takes on the role of observer previously occupied by nobles or gentlemen in earlier scenes. Which characters are observing changes as Henry VIII makes his character arc from an indifferent king to a king whose power is restored: a gentleman plays the role of observer of Buckingham's trial, at a time in the play when Henry VIII seems almost politically indifferent. Norfolk, Suffolk, and Lovell are witnesses to and observers of Henry VIII's accusation and demotion of Cardinal Wolsey, when the king finally begins to take his power back—or at least seems to be paying attention to who might be advising him. A different gentleman is the observer who later describes Anne's coronation for the other characters and the audience, while Henry VIII is on the rise, beginning a new life with Anne Bullen. However, when the king becomes the observer during Cranmer's trial, the tone is completely different, since the king has the ultimate power to restore justice, which he does by saving Cranmer and raising him even higher, giving Cranmer the honor of baptizing and being godfather to baby Elizabeth.

How does the characterization of Katherine in Henry VIII seem at odds with the ending of the play?

For the first three acts of Henry VIII, the audience feels intense sympathy for Katherine, who seems to be the victim of circumstance. She is depicted as smart, generous, truthful, and completely faithful to her husband. Through no fault of her own, she is set aside by the king, demoted in royal rank, and sent away. In Act 4, Scene 2, she is shown to be strong and honest, yet forgiving. However, In Act 4, Scene 1 (the coronation) and all of Act 5, the audience is expected to shift their sympathy first to Anne Bullen and then—as they look to the future—to Elizabeth. Anne is not as well developed as a character, and Elizabeth I is just a baby, so this shift does not honor the emotional investment made by the audience in the character of Katherine. This shift is difficult to explain and is one of the main criticisms of the play by scholars.

How does the Roman goddess Fortune play a role in the plot of Henry VIII?

The Roman goddess Fortune was believed to turn a great wheel that determined the good and bad luck of human beings. A person may be at the top of Fortune's wheel, but when the wheel turns, they quickly fall to the bottom. In the same way, a person may be at the bottom of Fortune's wheel, and when the wheel turns, the person quickly rises to the top. Shakespeare uses the well-known idea in Henry VIII to show the foolishness of putting confidence in gaining material wealth or political power. In Henry VIII Buckingham, Wolsey, and Katherine are at the top of Fortune's wheel, but as the wheel turns each one falls to the lowest possible point. Just before each one dies, he or she gives a speech describing their fall. In Act 2, Scene 1, Buckingham begs listeners to remember him: "And when you would say something that is sad,/Speak how I fell." In Act 3, Scene 1, Katherine says, "like the lily/That once was mistress of the field and flourished, I'll hang my head and perish." In Act 3, Scene 2, Cardinal Wolsey says, "I have touched the highest point of all my greatness,/And from that full meridian of my glory I haste now to my setting. I shall fall/Like a bright exhalation in the evening/And no man see me more." Also, each character becomes more spiritual when Fortune causes them to fall, staying consistent with the idea that the material world and ambition are unsafe, but God is an eternal comfort. Although Anne Bullen and Cranmer seem to be rising on Fortune's wheel in the play, Shakespeare's audience would be aware that both actual persons soon fell. Anne Boleyn would be executed; Cranmer would be burned at the stake years later. Only Queen Elizabeth I, who was Shakespeare's patron and James I, who was king at the time the play was first performed, would be above Fortune's spin. Shakespeare uses the well-known idea of the wheel of fortune to warn the nobles in his audience and honor the royalty, who may also be in his audience.

What is the purpose of including two prophetic statements about Anne Bullen in Henry VIII?

In Act 2, Scene 3, Lord Chamberlain says of 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?" In Act 3, Scene 2, Suffolk notes, "from her/Will fall some blessing to this land which shall/In it be memorized," meaning become memorable. These two prophetic statements emphasize to the audience that Henry VIII was meant to fall for Anne, and that their union is providential. They also emphasize the important part about Anne—that she becomes the mother of Elizabeth. Anne is important not for being exceptional herself, though she is described as beautiful and virtuous, but for being the mother of an exceptional woman.

How does the manner of Cardinal Wolsey's fall in Henry VIII support the theme of providence?

In Henry VIII the fall of Cardinal Wolsey occurs because he mistakenly sends Henry VIII documents that reveal his dishonesty and corruption. And in fact, he manages to send two separate documents—one that shows his extravagant lifestyle and one that reveals his interference in Henry VIII's divorce plans. This carelessness is highly unusual for Wolsey, who is characterized elsewhere as a master of manipulation. The double mistake that proves to be his downfall supports the idea that his fall is providential, a sentiment echoed by Norfolk in Act 3, Scene 2, as he comments on the coincidence to Henry VIII: "It's heaven's will!/Some spirit put this paper in the packet/To bless your eye withal."

Outside of providence or fortune, what seems to determine the rise and fall of characters in Henry VIII?

Although the play suggests in no uncertain terms that events are guided by Fortune or God, or perhaps both, there is no doubt human scheming and run-of-the-mill political intrigue are to blame for events on a human level. Buckingham is undone by Cardinal Wolsey's false accusations and the doubtful testimony of a surveyor. Katherine is doomed by her inability to bear a son and by Henry VIII's lust for Anne Bullen. Cardinal Wolsey falls because of his own deceptions and corruption. Cranmer is nearly undone by Gardiner, who is exerting his power much the way Wolsey did when he was in the king's favor. Anne rises because she is seen as a potential wife by the king. Shakespeare includes both virtue and vice within his characters, but he leaves judgment to Providence by never explicitly demonstrating that his characters are guilty of the crimes they are accused of.

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