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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What is the significance of Norfolk's characterization of Cardinal Wolsey as "the eldest son of Fortune" in Act 2, Scene 2 of Henry VIII?

In Act 2, Scene 2, Norfolk says Cardinal Wolsey, "like the eldest son of Fortune,/Turns what he list." The Roman goddess Fortune, turning her wheel, was believed to control the rise and fall of humans. So Norfolk likens Cardinal Wolsey to Fortune's son and heir because of the way Wolsey seems to influence the rise and fall of various people. For example, Wolsey orchestrates the fall of Buckingham by convincing the surveyor and numerous other characters to speak against him. Cardinal Wolsey is likewise responsible for the rise of Gardiner, a man loyal to Wolsey who is appointed as the king's secretary. Cardinal Wolsey's near take over of power reflects the tension between politics and religion in the play, and portraying Wolsey as someone with the power to spin Fortune's wheel suggests how powerful the church has become in Shakespeare's time.

How does Henry VIII's alternate title, All is True, apply to the content of the play?

Although the title All is True echoes the Prologue's sentiment that if the audience is willing, they may "find truth" in the play, there seems to be precious little truth telling going on among the characters. Cardinal Wolsey is thoroughly dishonest, those who testify against Buckingham seem to be fabricating or exaggerating their testimony in large part, Henry VIII acts as if the letter from Rome supported the divorce when it did not, and so on. And even though Buckingham clearly didn't commit treason, it isn't entirely clear if he is without guile. While Katherine, Anne Bullen, and Cranmer seem to be completely honest, this would hardly support the assertion that "all is true." However, the play does engage the idea of searching for or discovering truth. Cardinal Wolsey's downfall happens because Henry VIII learns the truth about him. In addition, the play may be suggesting the events of the play are true in the sense of aiming true, in that they are part of a providential plan whose true direction is to move toward placing Elizabeth I on the throne. Or the events in the play may be exposing political maneuverings for what they really are: corruption, desire for personal gain, and unfriendly backstabbing and disloyalty.

How does Henry VIII explore characters' guilt and innocence?

With its repetition of the accusation–trial structure, Henry VIII lends itself to an exploration of how a person's guilt or innocence is determined, and whether the punishment one might receive from a trial is just. However, the events of the play, as they often do in real life, show that justice is not always accomplished within human systems supposedly devoted to seeking it. Those who suffer or are punished in the play—Katherine, Buckingham, and Cardinal Wolsey—are a mix of innocent and guilty. There is no justice in that. However, in some sense there is an arc of movement toward a more blessed monarchy—that of Elizabeth I and her heirs. In addition, Katherine, a character who is punished, yet is innocent, has a visionary dream of heavenly figures welcoming her. So, while human justice is flawed in the play, divine justice seems to be intact.

How do the Prologue and Epilogue affect the way the audience views Henry VIII?

The Prologue warns the audience to be prepared for a serious, sad story. This sets up an expectation in the audience that the events of the play will be both important and tragic, which turns out to be correct. The Epilogue is much different in tone, remarking that the audience likely did not enjoy the play. Together, these two characters draw attention to the audience's reactions to the play—whether those reactions are to feel bored, sad, sympathetic, or amused—and reinforce the notion that the court pageantry and drama provides a sort of entertainment for those outside of it. They also place the audience in the role of observers, just as the gentlemen, various commoners, and other characters play the role of observers throughout the play.

Why does the Epilogue in Henry VIII mention that the men in the crowd should do what will please the women?

After the play's action concludes, the Epilogue says a brief word to the audience, concluding with "'tis ill hap/If [the men] hold when their ladies bid 'em clap." This ending leaves the focus of the play on women, suggesting women are important and should be obeyed; and the women of the play are important. Anne Bullen and Katherine are both queens of England for a time, and Anne gives birth to one of the most famous monarchs of English history, Elizabeth I. By ending with a focus on men obeying women, the Epilogue nods to the obedience all of England owed to Elizabeth when she came into power.

How do Katherine and Cardinal Wolsey develop the theme of religion in Henry VIII?

Katherine and Cardinal Wolsey are at odds throughout most of the play, and they are presented as opposites and adversaries in a variety of ways. However, one important contrast between them is their spirituality. Cardinal Wolsey, of course, is a leader of higher rank in the church. Yet, his actions do not reflect his faith. He is a liar and a deceiver, and lives a lavish lifestyle without regard for the poor; his taxes are an enormous burden on the people. In contrast, Katherine shows compassion for the poor as she speaks out against Wolsey's taxes. She speaks honestly and is a faithful wife to the king. Though not a member of the clergy, she lives a life aligned to church teachings. In Act 3, Scene 1, she points out how far from holiness she thinks Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius are: "Holy men I thought you,/Upon my soul, two reverend cardinal virtues;/But cardinal sins and hollow hearts I fear you." Compassion, which Katherine has in abundance, seems to be missing from these "holy" men, suggesting the church, or at least some of its leadership, is corrupt.

How might the original audience of Henry VIII interpret the themes in the play, considering their knowledge about the fates of Elizabeth I, Anne Bullen, and Cranmer?

The original audience would have known Elizabeth I becomes a great queen, but not before being declared illegitimate when her mother fell out of favor and the marriage between Anne and Henry VIII was annulled, and not before being imprisoned for over a year by her half-sister, Mary I. They would also have known quite well that both Anne Boleyn (Bullen) and Archbishop of Canterbury Cranmer were executed after the events the play covers. Anne was accused of high treason (including adultery and trying to kill the king), tried, and beheaded. Cranmer was accused of treason and heresy, tried, and burned at the stake when Mary I—the daughter of Katherine and Henry VIII—became England's monarch and relentlessly persecuted and executed non-Catholics. In the play the theme of providence is an important one, and within the development of this theme is the tension between the providential forward motion toward the birth of Elizabeth I and the random nature of Fortune's wheel. For the events of the play, there is a sense that Fortune's wheel assists providence in bringing about Elizabeth. Yet Fortune's wheel continues to turn after the play concludes, and both Elizabeth, Anne, and Cranmer find themselves at the bottom of it at some future point.

How is loyalty to the king part of each "defense" offered by accused characters in Henry VIII, and why is it significant?

An important aspect of each person's defense in response to accusations is loyalty to the king. In Act 2, Scene 1, Buckingham says he has kept his vows to the king and is guiltless of the charge of treason: "My vows and prayers/Yet are the King's and, till my soul forsake,/Shall cry for blessings on him." Buckingham also contrasts his behavior with the disloyal behavior of those who falsely accused and testified against him. In Act 2, Scene 4, Katherine describes her loyalty in sweeping terms as she defends herself against the actions taken against her. She says to Henry VIII: "I have been to you a true and humble wife,/At all times to your will conformable ... When was the hour/I ever contradicted your desire,/Or made it not mine too?" In Act 3, Scene 2, Cardinal Wolsey claims all his actions were taken for the good of the country and the king. He tells Henry VIII: "mine own ends ... pointed .../To th' good of your most sacred person and/The profit of the state ... My prayers to heaven for you, my loyalty,/Which ever has and ever shall be growing." Even though the play presents Wolsey as a person who seeks his own power and is not awfully loyal to the king, he knows that this is something he is expected to say. All three accused characters profess their loyalty. However, loyalty is not tangible; it is a matter of perception. Regardless of the accused characters' professions of loyalty, Henry VIII believes only Cranmer is sincere, and Cranmer is the only character the king protects from falling from grace. In Shakespeare's time, justice is a matter of perception, and Shakespeare is showing how unreliable it is—no one is safe.

How can Henry VIII be read as a patriotic play about England's independence and national identity?

During the course of the play, England sheds or refuses alliances with other powerful nations and leaders. Katherine's marriage to Henry VIII was originally sought as a political alliance with Spain, yet in the play Henry divorces her. Although Cardinal Wolsey desires Henry to marry a royal French bride, Henry chooses to marry an Englishwoman, Anne Bullen, after his divorce from Katherine. The French and their fashions are disdained by England's leaders. In addition Henry shows signs of moving away from the influence of Rome—ignoring the content of messages that arrive concerning the divorce—a distancing that will culminate in a complete break between the Church of England and the pope. So it is possible to draw out threads of nationalism from the play, as each of Henry's actions leaves him less beholden to the influences of other great powers.

How is Henry VIII influenced by the popular 17th-century entertainment of the masque?

Masques—a form of entertainment that grew out of the tradition of courtly pageants and "disguises" in which performers surprise the audience—were in fashion from the time of Henry VII through Tudor times. Masques often included dancing, pageantry, costume, and a focus on the reigning monarch (some monarchs participated in these masques, and some preferred to observe them). Their influence can be seen in Shakespeare's Henry VIII in several ways. The way in which Henry VIII and his men enter Cardinal Wolsey's dinner masked and costumed as shepherds is in the masque tradition. The elaborate processions, detailed in the stage directions, are another example of the influence of the masque. Courtiers and commoners alike love a good, elaborate spectacle, and Henry VIII does not disappoint.

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