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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Course Hero. "Henry VIII Study Guide." March 13, 2017. Accessed June 10, 2023.


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Henry VIII | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


To begin Henry VIII, a Prologue warns the audience the story is a serious one. Cardinal Wolsey, Buckingham, and a few others enter, and soon Buckingham accuses Wolsey of putting his own interests above the interests of the king. As they argue, a guard arrives, arrests Buckingham for treason, and takes him away. Wolsey, it seems, has secretly arranged for Buckingham to be accused and tried. At an examination before King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey interrogates the surveyor, who worked for Buckingham. The surveyor says that Buckingham believed he would become king when Henry VIII died, because the king was without an heir. Henry VIII is upset at this, but Katherine suspects the surveyor of lying out of dislike for Buckingham. She's an astute observer and likely correct in her assessment.

Wolsey throws a dinner party at which Anne Bullen is a guest. The king attends the dinner in a masked costume, along with several other masquerading guests. When Henry VIII meets Anne Bullen, he is smitten by her beauty.

Buckingham, well-liked by the people, offers a moving defense at his trial, but he is sentenced to execution regardless. Later it is rumored that Henry VIII plans to divorce Queen Katherine. Anne, not realizing the king has her in his sights, hears the rumor and remarks that she would not want to be queen. Shortly afterward, Henry VIII elevates her to "Marchioness of Pembroke" and gives her a financial gift as a sign of his favor.

Katherine speaks out boldly and eloquently against the divorce and against Wolsey, whom she defies, accusing him of disloyalty. But the wheels have been set in motion, and Henry VIII makes his case that their marriage (now more than 20 years old) was never legitimate. Later, in her apartments, Wolsey visits Katherine and pressures her to simply give in to the divorce, saying she can then still be provided for. She remains defiant, citing her years as a loyal and faithful wife. Henry VIII divorces Katherine.

Wolsey's turn comes, though, when Henry VIII discovers a letter from Wolsey to the pope arguing that Henry VIII's divorce should be refused. Henry reveals his knowledge to Wolsey, takes away his title and wealth, and sends him away. Wolsey seems repentant. He dies shortly after leaving court.

Henry then marries Anne, and she is crowned his queen in an elaborate coronation ceremony. Anne is soon pregnant and delivers a daughter. Meanwhile, Cranmer is summoned to answer charges against him in front of the council. Unbeknownst to his accusers, however, Henry VIII and Cranmer have already discussed the council's complaints against Cranmer, and the king has given Cranmer a ring as a sign of his favor. As the council threaten to imprison Cranmer, he reveals this ring. Henry VIII then interrupts the council and their plan to have Cranmer imprisoned in the tower is foiled.

As a throng of commoners attempts to crowd in, Anne's daughter, Elizabeth I, is taken to be christened by Cranmer. At the christening, Cranmer prophesies great things for the future queen as well as another monarch who will come after her (James I, the king at the time of the play's writing). The Epilogue urges the audience to show their approval with a round of applause.

Henry VIII Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Wolsey accuses Buckingham of a plot against the king.

Rising Action

2 Buckingham is found guilty of treason and executed.

3 Henry VIII meets and falls for Anne Bullen at a party.

4 Henry VIII seeks a divorce from his wife, Queen Katherine.


5 Henry VIII divorces Katherine and marries Anne Bullen.

Falling Action

6 Henry VIII dismisses Wolsey from court for scheming.


7 Anne Bullen bears Elizabeth I, who is baptized by Cranmer.

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