Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Symbols


Wheel of Fortune

The idea of a goddess or lady spinning a wheel of fortune had been around for centuries before Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII. For Shakespeare and his audiences, the spirits of Fate, Dame Fortune, and Providence were interchangeable forces turning the wheel. The blurring of sacred agency (Providence, or divine action on the events of human beings) and secular frames of reference (Dame Fortune, Fate) meant no ambitious gentleman or lady could escape being placed on the rim of the wheel as it turned. Everyone who seeks to "play the game" experiences both upward and downward positions. The king, however, as an extension of the divine, is not subject to the wheel of fortune.

In Henry VIII the wheel of fortune topples three main characters—Buckingham, Wolsey, and Katherine—causing each of them to fall from grace. However, Shakespeare leaves the designation of whether the characters are virtuous or evil to be judged by God, not by human beings or even King Henry. Yet, Shakespeare's employment of the wheel metaphor suggests that all who play the game are fools.

King's Ring

When Henry VIII determines to shield Cranmer from the wrath of the council, he gives him a ring. The king's ring is a symbol of the king's favor—not just in the literary sense, but in a very practical sense. Both the English monarchy and the church are institutions that use symbolic clothing and accessories to designate rank and role, so the king's ring isn't simply a token of personal favor. It is a symbolic token of the king's official favor. Cranmer is reluctant to produce it until he sees the council have already decided against him, because he knows its power and likely would prefer to win on his own merits. The council recognize as soon as the ring appears they cannot touch Cranmer.

In a play in which the rise and fall of various people forms most of the plot, the ring is a reminder that this rise and fall is not due to chance, but due to the king's favor.

Wolsey's Seal

When the king finds out Wolsey has been operating behind his back, he demands Wolsey give up his seal. This seal would be used to seal correspondence sent in the king's name and with his authority behind it. Wolsey, by virtue of this seal, had been given great power in the realm to act on behalf of the king. He has been abusing that power, using the seal to attach the king's name to his own self-gratifying actions. As a result, he is reluctant to give it up when the king demands its return, saying to Norfolk, Suffolk, and Surrey in Act 3, Scene 2,

That seal
You ask with such a violence, the King,
Mine and your master, with his own hand gave me;
Bade me enjoy it, with the place and honors,
During my life.


The sun is used in the play to symbolize monarchs, and sometimes more specifically, England's monarch. In Act 1, Scene 1, Norfolk notes that people call Henry VIII and Francis I, the French king, "suns" because they are such shining lights. Later in the scene, Buckingham complains Wolsey takes the king's glory for himself, rather than let it shine on the whole nation, metaphorically using sun imagery. According to Buckingham, Wolsey will "Take up the rays o' th' beneficial sun/And keep it from the Earth."

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