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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is the focus and tone of the king's final lines in Henry VIII, and why is this important to understanding the play?

The tone of Henry VIII's final speech in Act 5, Scene 4 is one of gratitude. He thanks Cranmer for his words and the assembled people for their presence. He is overjoyed by the birth and christening of the child. His focus is Elizabeth. He seems to suggest she is the ultimate achievement of his life, saying: "Never before/This happy child did I [be]get anything ... when I am in heaven I shall desire/To see what this child does and praise my Maker." This is important to understanding the play because it shows how the events of the play have been selected and presented as a narrative arc with a culminating point in the christening of Elizabeth. Both Cranmer's sweeping prophecy and Henry's characterization of Elizabeth as his best achievement are informed by later events—the ascension of Elizabeth to the throne; the reign of her successor, James I—that neither Henry nor Cranmer would have known. As a result, the final words of the king remind the audience of the play as a theatrical creation, an effect that is heightened by the Prologue.

What is the meaning and significance of Buckingham's description of his fate as having "the long divorce of steel" fall on him in Act 2, Scene 1 of Henry VIII?

Buckingham is describing his upcoming execution, in which his head will be separated—divorced—from his body. At the time, beheading was the way nobles were punished for their crimes, including treason (as burning at the stake was used to execute heretics and hanging was used to execute common murderers, and so on). However, the use of "divorce" here cannot be accidental, since a large part of the plot following this line is concerned with the divorce between Henry VIII and Katherine. In addition, the separation/divorce between England and Rome is simmering under the surface of the play's events, as Henry VIII will shortly separate the English church from the pope's authority.

What is Norfolk's opinion of Buckingham's criticisms of Cardinal Wolsey at the beginning of Henry VIII, and how does this opinion change?

As the play begins, Buckingham criticizes Cardinal Wolsey for acting in his own interests, because of his ambition: "No man's pie is freed/From his ambitious finger." Norfolk admits Wolsey is "revengeful," but he advises Buckingham to be more careful about what he says against Wolsey, suggesting Buckingham is just as prideful as any ambitious cardinal: "Ask God for temp'rance," he tells Buckingham. "That's th' appliance only/Which your disease requires." Norfolk also doesn't want to go as far as to use the term "treasonous" to describe Wolsey. At this point Norfolk thinks caution should be used when dealing with Wolsey, not attack. By Act 2, Scene 2, however, Norfolk has come around to Buckingham's way of thinking, characterizing Wolsey as a man who "dives into the King's soul and there scatters/Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,/Fears and despairs." Along with Suffolk, he determines to take a more active role in bringing Wolsey down. Evidently the accusation and execution of Buckingham have lit a fire under Norfolk and Suffolk, who now think attack, not caution, may be the right course. By Act 3, Scene 1, Norfolk is openly discussing how to bring Wolsey down with Suffolk, Surrey, and Lord Chamberlain. It turns out they don't have to do much except sit back and wait for Wolsey to self-destruct, though. And when he does, Norfolk and the others think it is for the best.

What evidence suggests that the corruption of Cardinal Wolsey influences the council's treatment of Cranmer in Henry VIII?

After it becomes plain that Cardinal Wolsey is corrupt, the various lords at court, Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey, Lord Chancellor, and Lord Chamberlain, seem far more eager to take measures against Cranmer, who they perceive as having influence that might grow into something dangerous. While the lords are passive for a long time while Wolsey is gathering power and wealth for himself, they do not waste time when it comes to Cranmer. The council seem hastily assembled, and they propose to send Cranmer to the Tower (never a good sign) after barely a preliminary hearing and without allowing him to give much of a defense. In fact, they have already decided what they are going to do before Cranmer even enters the room. Lord Chancellor notes that "we all are men,/In our own natures frail, and capable/Of our flesh— few are angels—out of which frailty/And want of wisdom you, that best should teach us,/Have misdemeaned yourself, and not a little" (Act 5, Scene 4), suggesting that, based on their recent experience with Wolsey, the court is more attuned to the possibility that a clergyman might be as susceptible to the sinfulness of human nature as other men.

How might Cardinal Wolsey's advice to Cromwell in Act 3, Scene 2 of Henry VIII affect the audience's view of Wolsey?

After Cardinal Wolsey's fall, he has the opportunity to pass on some of his hard-won wisdom. He tells Cromwell, "I charge thee, fling away ambition! ... Love thyself last; cherish those hearts that hate thee./Corruption wins not more than honesty./Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace ... Be just, and fear not./Let all the ends thou aim'st at be thy country's,/Thy God's, and truth's." So, Wolsey's main advice is to do the opposite of what Wolsey did during the height of his power. Wolsey's ambition, ruthlessness toward those who stood in his way, corruption, and habit of using his influence for his own gain rather than the country's gain were the hallmarks of his life right up to when the king found out about all of his scheming and punished him. This may seem like a sudden turnaround, surprising the audience with how extreme a change could happen in such a short time. However, it may soften the audience's feelings toward Wolsey, since he does seem to have a sense of what his own wrongs were and doesn't want another leader to fall into the same bad behaviors. Although the suddenness is jarring, Wolsey's repentance seems earnest, making him slightly more likable.

Given Henry's motivations in Henry VIII, what situational irony is inherent in the fact that Elizabeth will rise to power and usher in a golden age in England?

Much of the play is dominated by Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine, and part of what made him become dissatisfied with her is the fact that she was not able to give him a male heir. Despite the fact that the church gave him permission to marry Katherine, Henry VIII begins to believe God has denied him a male heir because his marriage with Katherine is unlawful, since she had been briefly married to his older brother. So the expectation is that Henry will be satisfied if and only if he gets a male heir. In a case of situational irony—when the opposite of the expected outcome occurs—he seems to be overjoyed by the end of the play to have a daughter.

What is the significance of the Prologue's telling the audience they will likely feel pity as they watch Henry VIII?

To begin the play, the Prologue tells the audience, "Those that can pity here/May, if they think it well, let fall a tear;/The subject will deserve it." This is one way of warning the audience the play's events will make them feel pity—not anger or necessarily sorrow, but pity. It also introduces the idea of pity, which will become an important and repeated word in the play. In the play pity is most often used to describe a charitable attitude toward someone who is in a position of weakness. It is suggested that pity is a proper Christian attitude: In Act 3, Scene 2, Surrey sarcastically refers to Cardinal Wolsey's "holy pity." In Act 2, Scene 3, Anne Bullen—depicted in this scene as a virtuous Christian woman—says about Katherine's situation: "It is a pity/Would move a monster." Both Buckingham and Katherine repeat the Prologue's appeal to their own audiences. In Act 2, Scene 1, Buckingham appeals to the "audience" gathered to see his execution: "All good people,/You that thus far have come to pity me,/Hear what I say, and then go home and [forget] me." And in fact the first gentleman does feel pity after Buckingham's speech, noting, "O, this is full of pity, sir!" And when Katherine appeals to the king at the divorce proceedings in Act 2, Scene 4, she begs him, "Sir, I desire you do me right and justice, And to bestow your pity on me; for/I am a most poor woman and a stranger." Later, she also asks Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius to pity her. Throughout, it is almost as if the characters on stage continue to appeal to the audience's sense of compassion for human frailty and vulnerability.

In Act 5, Scene 1 of Henry VIII, how does the news Lovell tells Gardiner about Anne Bullen foreshadow later events?

Lovell gives the king the news that Anne Bullen is in labor with his child, but the labor isn't going well and people think she might not make it: "The Queen's in labor—/They say in great extremity—and feared/She'll with the labor end." This reference to Anne's difficulty in childbirth is based in history, but it also sounds fairly ominous in context. The audience can't forget Anne doesn't last long after the play's events—she is executed by Henry after failing to bear the son he is hoping for in this scene. The use of the word end suggests some finality about the birth of the child, as if this labor in particular—and this child—is the final chapter of a story. Since Elizabeth's christening is the final scene of the play, with her birth, Anne's importance to the story is now complete.

What do the metaphors Gardiner uses in Act 5 of Henry VIII to express his opinion of Elizabeth I, Anne Bullen, and Cranmer have in common?

In Act 5, Scene 1, Gardiner refers to Anne's child as "fruit": "The fruit she goes with/I pray for heartily, that it may find/Good time and live" But he goes on to say that the "stock"—as in the root stock, which is the root of the fruit-bearing tree—should be pulled up or dug out of the ground: "but for the stock, Sir Thomas, I wish it grubbed up now." Anne, as the "stock," should be dug up, but the "fruit" should live. Later, he says Cranmer is "a rank weed" and he needs to "root him out." All of these metaphors are gardening or farming metaphors, which seems appropriate for a character named "Gardiner."

What does the old lady tell the king about Anne Bullen's baby in Henry VIII, and why is this significant?

In Act 5, Scene 1, the old lady comes to report the news Anne has delivered a child. Henry tells her to say it is a boy, and even though the child is a daughter, the old lady obliges: "Ay, ay, my liege,/And of a lovely boy." But the old lady quickly goes on to tell a bit more of the truth, while still creating a way that having a girl child is really quite similar to having a boy child—for a daughter can grow up to have a child and that child might be a boy: "The God of heaven/Both now and ever bless her! 'Tis a girl/Promises boys hereafter." This is an interesting statement because Elizabeth I never had any children, boys or girls. She was known as the "Virgin Queen." The old lady adds that the child is as like the king "[a]s cherry is to cherry." This may have been important because a physical resemblance between the child and Henry would assure the king the child was indeed his, and give him more sympathy toward a child who was born a girl rather than the desired boy.

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