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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does the year the Henry VIII was written influence its theme or themes?

The play covers events that are not far removed in time from its writing, and it is closely tied with both the reigning monarch at the time of its writing and the reigning monarch of most of Shakespeare's adult life. Queen Elizabeth's reign ended just about a decade before the play was first performed, and it is her christening that is the culminating event of the play. She was an important person for Shakespeare and his colleagues, as it was her patronage that allowed their company to thrive. In addition, her heir and successor, James I, was of the same royal family. He, too, was a patron of Shakespeare's company. These ties to Elizabeth I and James I influence the play's themes of providence and religion, because the text is clearly meant to be supportive of an interpretation that these two monarchs were chosen by God to rule.

How does the conversation between Anne Bullen and the old lady in Act 2, Scene 3 of Henry VIII foreshadow later events?

The most noticeable example of foreshadowing in this scene is Anne's repeated statement that she would not want to be queen, even for a great deal of money and lofty titles: "I would not be a queen" she insists. Of course, this ironically foreshadows the fact that a messenger from the king arrives immediately to offer her both money and title, and of course she soon does become queen. However, the old lady gently teases Anne a little, and in that exchange there is an additional example of foreshadowing. The old lady says, "What think you of a duchess? Have you limbs/To bear that load of title?" And Anne says, "No, in truth," to which the Old Lady replies, "Then you are weakly made ... If your back/Cannot vouchsafe this burden, 'tis too weak/Ever to get a boy." This teasing statement proves to be prophetic, as Anne was not able to bear a son who lived (and historically was later executed in part because of the king's disappointment in her).

How do the trials of Buckingham, Katherine, Wolsey, and Cranmer compare and contrast in Henry VIII?

The trials of Buckingham and Katherine are very much alike. In both, the trial seems unjustified and the "charges"—charges of treason against Buckingham and the idea that Katherine's marriage to Henry is somehow illegitimate—are weak and fairly unsupportable. Buckingham's accusers include a disgruntled former employee and a priest willing to forsake the sanctity of the confessional; the idea that a Church-approved marriage 20 years old could be void is a tenuous one. In both trials the defendants speak out eloquently on their own behalf. Cardinal Wolsey's "trial" is less formal, as it does not take place in front of an assembly specifically for the purpose, but instead in front of a group of nobles who just happen to be present when Henry VIII confronts Wolsey. In addition, Wolsey is likely guilty—a significant difference—and he does not speak eloquently. Cranmer's trial is of the formal variety, more like Buckingham's, but it is interrupted by the king, and so does not result in his fall or in a forgiving speech. In addition three symbols play out through the trials. Wolsey loses his seal, representing the king's favor, while Cranmer is gifted the king's favor, represented by the king's ring. Katherine, as royalty, is also sun-like, but in her dream in Act 4, Scene 2, angels "cast thousand beams upon [her], like the sun," connecting royalty to Providence and deepening the meaning of the symbol in the play.

How do the final words and actions of Cardinal Wolsey differ from the final words of Buckingham and Katherine in Henry VIII?

As Buckingham and Katherine near death, they forgive others' faults. Buckingham says of his accusers in Act 2, Scene 1, "I heartily forgive 'em." In Act 4, Scene 2, Katherine responds to Griffith's appeal on behalf of Wolsey with a more forgiving tone toward the cardinal: "So may he rest. His faults lie gently on him!" Cardinal Wolsey, once his doom is clear, also becomes gentler and more spiritual as he nears death. Yet rather than focusing on how he can forgive others, Wolsey's final words and actions are repentant, in order to secure his own forgiveness. While Buckingham and Katherine, who are innocent, dispense forgiveness, Wolsey, who is guilty, must receive it.

How do Anne Bullen and Queen Katherine compare and contrast in Henry VIII?

Anne Bullen is not a well-developed character. She speaks very little in her first scene in the play, and so is important simply for her ability to catch the eye of the king. Later, she begins to be characterized more fully as she talks frankly with the old lady, saying she would not want to be queen for any money! Her coronation takes place offstage, as does the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth, and so she ceases to be an active character very quickly after her conversation with the old lady. However, she is vitally important to the plot because her meeting with Henry VIII precipitates his divorcing Katherine, and she is Elizabeth's mother. In contrast, Katherine is a fully drawn character whose beautiful language, strong spirit, and devotion to the truth come through from the first moment she walks onstage. She is completely aware of the intrigues going on at court and Cardinal Wolsey's questionable ethics, yet is willing to hope his eternal fate is not too terrible when she hears of his repentance. She is such a virtuous character she has a heavenly vision just before her death.

What are the roles of the first, second, and third gentlemen in Henry VIII?

These three gentlemen are the town gossips. The first gentleman attends Buckingham's trial and meets the second gentleman on the street, where he eagerly informs the second gentleman of all the details of the trial. The third gentleman attends Anne Bullen's coronation and meets the first and second gentleman to inform them of the details of the ceremony. These three men emphasize the pageantry of the events taking place at court—the trials, divorces, weddings, coronations, and the like—and the way those not involved in the drama perceived these events as audience members would a play. In addition, the gentlemen help the audience know how to feel toward certain characters. Since it is clear they think Cardinal Wolsey is a crook while Buckingham is a good guy, the audience can think that too. They believe Anne is blessed, so the audience is to think that also.

What do Buckingham, Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey have in common in Henry VIII?

Buckingham, Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey are much different characters, with different levels of virtue. But they share one common characteristic: All must make way for the rise of Elizabeth, and it is only their fall that can make that happen. Buckingham is said to have designs on the throne since Henry VIII has no heir. Katherine must make way for Anne Bullen to become Henry's wife so she can bear Elizabeth, who goes on to be Elizabeth I. Cardinal Wolsey opposes and works against the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Bullen, preferring a match between Henry and the French king's sister. Since the goal is for Elizabeth to be born so she can ascend the throne and bring about an era of peace in England, these three must fall to give her a path to this destiny.

How does Henry VIII develop the idea of forgiveness?

In the very first act (Act 1, Scene 2), Henry VIII introduces forgiveness as an important idea when he pardons those who could not pay Cardinal Wolsey's tax. In Act 2, Scene 1, Buckingham forgives those who conspired to have him executed for treason. In the same scene Lovell asks Buckingham's forgiveness, and Buckingham graciously grants it. In Act 2, Scene 2, Norfolk flatters the king by calling him a "gracious king that pardons all offenses," suggesting forgiveness is a kingly attribute. In Act 4, Scene 2, Katherine is forgiving toward Cardinal Wolsey, saying she hopes his faults "lie gently on him." Throughout these scenes a forgiving attitude is seen as a noble characteristic, and those who are noble display it. This sets the stage for Elizabeth to come from a background of forgiveness and graciousness, traits seen as befitting a monarch and ones that support a narrative that Elizabeth was divinely appointed to bring peace and grace to England.

Why is Henry VIII portrayed as an inconsistent protagonist in Henry VIII?

Although Henry VIII is the titular character, he is a passive character for much of the play, taking action only when he finds out Cardinal Wolsey is corrupt. As the supposed protagonist of the play, he doesn't seem to have a strong antagonist. If Cardinal Wolsey is the antagonist in the first part of the play, it is Katherine, and to a lesser extent, Buckingham, and some of the other nobles, who are shown to be in direct opposition to him in the subsequent scenes. Katherine and Wolsey are set up to be protagonist and antagonist throughout the first acts of the play, until the divorce is achieved. Yet Henry does take a more active role as the play progresses, and certainly takes decisive action against Wolsey and in support of Cranmer. While Henry's portrayal as protagonist is inconsistent, it grows as the play moves forward. Since Shakespeare is demonstrating throughout the play how fate's role is bigger than human motives, it makes sense for a conglomeration of characters to form an antagonist in the play. To show the protagonist, Henry VIII, wavering in and out of power—and the plot line—also supports the idea that fate is more powerful than human actions.

How does the character of Katherine in Henry VIII help develop the theme of providence?

Since Katherine is both an excellent and virtuous wife and a strong, intelligent woman, it is difficult to make a case that her downfall is just. Henry VIII seems to care little for doing what is right, although he tries to argue their marriage is illegitimate in God's eyes as justification for the divorce. The audience is presented with a moral dilemma: Either Henry VIII made an immoral choice in divorcing her, or God had a different plan and she was not part of it. Yet, since Elizabeth would not have been possible without Katherine out of the way, the play would be on shaky ground if it implied Henry VIII's divorce from her was sinful. The play must suggest an alternative—God's plan was for Elizabeth to be born and so Anne had to become Henry's wife. In this view Katherine's fall is providential. This may explain why she has such a beautiful, heavenly vision before she dies: the audience is reassured she will be rewarded for her goodness in heaven.

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