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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


Why does Lord Chamberlain tell Surrey that Cardinal Wolsey "brings his physic/After his patient's death" in Act 3, Scene 2 of Henry VIII?

In Act 3, Scene 2, Surrey is explaining how Cardinal Wolsey's letter to the pope suggests the divorce between Katherine and Henry VIII be denied for the time being. To this bit of news, Lord Chamberlain reveals his own bit of gossip, telling Surrey,"All [Cardinal Wolsey's] tricks founder; and he brings his physic/After his patient's death." This means Wolsey's efforts to delay the divorce are like a doctor (a physic) who arrives after the patient has died. Lord Chamberlain explains why in the next phrase. Henry VIII and Anne Bullen are already married. Wolsey's actions are in vain, because Henry VIII didn't wait for the pope's permission anyway.

Why is Katherine called "Princess Dowager" in Henry VIII, and why does Henry let her keep a title?

Before she was married to Henry VIII, Katherine was married to his older brother Arthur, Prince of Wales. But Arthur died just a few months after the marriage. As the widow of the Prince of Wales, she was entitled to the title "Princess Dowager." In the play the king begins to believe Katherine's marriage to Arthur was lawful but her subsequent marriage to him was not. So, when Henry VIII divorces her, she loses the title of queen but retains the lesser title. The title is not just a random title assigned to her, but one that indicates the alternate narrative Henry VIII prefers to believe: She was the wife of Arthur, but never his wife. However, the fact that Henry VIII lets Katherine keep any title is a clue to the king's real motivation for divorcing her. If, in fact, Katherine's marriage to Henry VIII is invalid, it means Katherine's first marriage was consummated. Henry does not pursue the possibility that Katherine lied to him originally about her first marriage, nor does he pursue punishment for such a lie.

What does the king's interaction with Cardinal Wolsey reveal about Henry VIII in Act 3, Scene 2 of the play?

The king's interaction with Cardinal Wolsey in Act 3, Scene 2 reveals a somewhat more active Henry VIII than has been seen in the play so far. Henry VIII actively engages Wolsey in a conversation meant to lure Wolsey into professing his loyalty to the king, just before Henry reveals he knows Wolsey has been acting for his own interests rather than the king's. This is the beginning of a less passive Henry VIII; from this point the king becomes more interested in exerting his own influence on events. In addition the scene reveals a craftier side of Henry than has been evident so far. Previous actions have depicted a stubborn man unwilling to listen to opinions he doesn't share, and subject to desires for offspring and a certain beautiful woman. Here, Henry VIII toys with Wolsey, even though he has already decided the cardinal is guilty and has (presumably) made plans for Wolsey's punishment. This shows Henry VIII may have a cruel streak, or at least a callous one.

Is Cardinal Wolsey's repentance sincere in Act 2, Scene 3 of Henry VIII?

Once Cardinal Wolsey is confronted by Henry VIII, he knows the game is up and his repentance soon follows. Wolsey claims he is totally innocent of any wrongdoing in Buckingham's death when he is confronted by Surrey, just after Wolsey reads the incriminating papers left with him by the king. He also tells Norfolk and Surrey, "So much fairer/And spotless shall mine innocence arise/When the King knows my truth." These lies seem petty and futile. Yet, alone, he speaks about fate and the long fall between the king's favor and disfavor. With Cromwell, Wolsey seems to truly recognize his own failings and warn Cromwell against making the same mistakes. These details suggest Wolsey's repentance is genuine, although he can't help but lie to save face in front of the nobles. In addition, the fact that Wolsey goes into a monastery for his final days does make him seem to be truly sorry for his arrogant, scheming ways.

Why does Surrey refer to the "brown wench" who would "Lay kissing in your arms" as he speaks with Cardinal Wolsey in Act 3, Scene 2 of Henry VIII?

In Act 3, Scene 2 Surrey tells Wolsey he will startle Wolsey, "Worse than the sacring bell when the brown wench/Lay kissing in your arms." Surrey is referring to the fact that Cardinal Wolsey—who, as a Catholic clergyman, is not supposed to have a lover—is known to have a mistress named Joan Lark. By saying that his mistress was brown, Surrey implies that she is low-class, not protective of her fair complexion as a noblewoman would be. Some scholars suggest Surrey's reference to a lark just a few lines earlier is another reference to Wolsey's mistress. In the line Surrey suggests Wolsey tries to dazzle the nobles the way larks can be captured by bright colors or shiny objects, creating a double meaning. Wolsey has likely used the same wiles he uses on the king to gain his mistress's affections.

Why does the porter's man say, "I am not Samson, nor Sir Guy, nor Colbrand" in Act 5, Scene 3 of Henry VIII?What is the effect of these words?

In this scene the porter and the porter's man are trying to keep out a crowd of commoners who want to see Elizabeth's christening. The porter's man isn't doing a great job, and the porter is chastising him for his ineffective crowd control. To describe his own personal limitations versus a giant crowd, the porter's man refers to three famous strong men: Samson, who in the biblical book of Judges is famous for his strength and ability to defeat thousands of soldiers in battle; Sir Guy of the medieval story Guy of Warwick, another famous fighter; and Sir Guy's giant opponent, Colbrand, from that same story. Evidently the crowd is so enthusiastic about Elizabeth it would require a man of legendary strength to keep them under control.

What is the effect of the imagery Buckingham uses to describe Cardinal Wolsey in Act 1, Scene 1 of Henry VIII?

Buckingham uses animal imagery and disease imagery to describe Cardinal Wolsey in Act 1, Scene 1 of the play. For example he says Wolsey is a "butcher's cur"—a ferocious dog—but also one who is "venomed-mouthed." These images combine the characteristics of a fierce dog with those of a poisonous snake or spider to give rise to a monstrous image. He goes on to expand on the dangerous nature of Wolsey by saying, "I/Have not the power to muzzle him; therefore best/Not wake him in his slumber." Since Buckingham cannot keep the monster from biting, he knows the safest course is to let the sleeping dog lie. These images depict Wolsey as a dangerous, poisonous creature. They clue the audience in to how fearful the nobles are of him. Just a few lines later he calls Wolsey a "holy fox," commenting upon the cardinal's tricky nature, and a "wolf," commenting on his appetite: "This holy fox,/Or wolf, or both—for he is equal rav'nous/As he is subtle." These images depict Wolsey as a sneaky, hungry creature. The powerful imagery set up in this scene will perhaps serve to arouse pity in the audience when Buckingham is wrongfully accused and executed, going to his death meekly. The audience may not be certain all the witnesses against Buckingham have lied, but they will be certain Wolsey is capable of maneuvering a deceit on a grand scale, involving numerous false witnesses. Buckingham also suggests Wolsey is somehow diseased, saying his mind and his powerful position combined are what make him so corrupt: "his mind and place/Infecting one another." The effect of this image is to depict Wolsey as not just poisonous, but poisoned or infected within. It negates the idea of Wolsey's being a trustworthy member of the church.

In Act 1, Scene 2 of Henry VIII, what is significant about Cardinal Wolsey's instruction to his secretary to "Let it be noised/That through our intercession this revokement/And pardon comes"?

After Katherine eloquently argues against the new taxes that have been levied on the people by Cardinal Wolsey in the king's name, Henry VIII is persuaded and tells Wolsey to send letters revoking the taxes and pardoning those who could not pay. But Wolsey is determined to take the credit, so he tells his secretary "Let it be noised/That through our intercession this revokement/And pardon comes." Although he uses our here, Wolsey is not trying to share credit. He is using the royal "we," referring to himself in the plural as monarchs do. What Wolsey really means here is "through my intercession." Not only is Wolsey claiming credit for what Katherine has accomplished, he is speaking as if he were a king. In this one sentence, he shows himself to be both arrogant and deceptive.

Why does Cranmer call Elizabeth the "maiden phoenix" as he speaks at her christening in Act 5, Scene 4 of Henry VIII?

A phoenix is a mythical bird who bursts into flames at the end of its life and is reborn from the ashes of the fire. The word maiden is another term for virgin. So together, the phrase suggests a creature that can reproduce magically, rather than biologically. Elizabeth I was famously a virgin, at least publicly, and yet was able to have an heir, her nephew, James I: "Her ashes new create another heir/As great in admiration as herself." So Cranmer is not just prophesying how great Elizabeth will become, but also looking forward even further than her reign to the reign of James I, and suggesting that James I is somehow Elizabeth's mystical offspring if not her biological one.

Why is it important that the king asks the council to embrace Cranmer at the end of Act 5, Scene 2 of Henry VIII?

Although people have spoken of forgiveness elsewhere in the play, reconciliation has not been practiced beyond the softening of attitudes as Buckingham, Katherine, and Cardinal Wolsey near their final moments of life. Yet at the end of the council meeting, which the audience may expect to end in the fall of Cranmer, the king asks the council members to embrace Cranmer—not just metaphorically, but physically. Gardiner is reluctant, but eventually does give Cranmer a hug. This breaks the pattern of accusation–trial–fall seen throughout the play, suggesting there is change in the air; something is different about Elizabeth I, and her presence is already causing change for the better. Ending the council with reconciliation and forgiveness foreshadows the prophetic speech Cranmer will make at Elizabeth's christening, in which he says she will bring about peace and prosperity. Given the fact that she later takes the throne after a period of violence and unrest, and manages to reign over a more or less peaceful England, this tone of reconciliation looks forward to the Elizabethan era rather than to the near future.

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