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Henry VIII | Motifs

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Women's Voices

Shakespeare celebrates the wisdom of women by placing his criticisms of society, politics, and religion into their mouths, where these observations may go undetected by all but careful listeners. Katherine speaks clearly about the hypocrisy and corruption of religion. Yet to protect herself, she must also voice humility by disparaging her intellect and expressing a social station below men, even if she is a queen. Anne Bullen says only a monster would remain unmoved by the indignity Katherine suffers. Yet Anne, too, must protect herself with immediate contradiction since she has no power over her life in a patriarchy. Shakespeare's audience would know the real Anne Boleyn's fate was far worse than the real Queen Katherine's: Anne was beheaded by Henry VIII for false accusations of infidelity when she could not produce a male heir. Nonetheless, the play as a whole glorifies Elizabeth I, whose rise to be an all-powerful queen in a time when kings were favored is an astonishing accomplishment.

Accusations

As characters fall out of the king's favor, they are accused, tried, and punished, providentially making way for Elizabeth I to come to power. This pattern can be seen in the ruin of Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey. Yet, there are other accusations, as well. Buckingham accuses Wolsey of ambition and of scheming. Katherine holds little back as she accuses Wolsey of these faults as well as being un-Christian. Cranmer is accused of heretical teaching. These accusations support the theme of providence when they serve to remove obstacles from the trajectory of Elizabeth I's rise to power. They also support the theme of religion when they serve to point out the lack of piety among the clergy.

Pageantry

A costume party, Katherine's dream, and courtly rituals emphasize the contrast between the public and private. From the beginning, the audience is told by the Prologue they should not expect to be entertained, but to feel pity. However, the truth or real meaning of this statement is called into question by the various internal "audiences" the play features. These include the gentlemen and the crowds of commoners who seem to hang on every juicy rumor and bit of court gossip. The presence of these audiences suggests the private and serious events of the lives of those at court—the births, deaths, trials, divorces, and weddings—are really just a public spectacle meant to entertain the masses.

Stage Directions

The long, detailed stage directions are unusual in Shakespeare, and some scholars believe they are evidence of Fletcher's influence on the play. The stage directions often describe the detailed processions and ceremonies that take place in the play. The emphasis on these rituals shows the importance of order in the courtly society on which the play focuses. The ceremony and pageantry may have also been flattering to royalty in the audience.

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