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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Themes



The treatment of women in a male-dominated society is an issue addressed in the play as women participate in royal succession and become queens. The women in this play represent various perspectives on womanhood. Anne is valued mostly for her beauty and her ability to bear children—a patriarchal view that is certainly present in the play. In contrast, Katherine, as a queen linked to divinity and above common women, is a strong, wise, and confident woman who stands up for justice and is not afraid to speak the truth, even when it puts her in danger. She represents a much different type of woman than Anne is, and the play depicts her in a favorable light. Another strong woman, Elizabeth I, is present in the play only as a baby, but her presence is felt throughout the play as the events inevitably lead to her birth and reign. Finally, the old lady brings a cynical perspective to the table as she continues to insist through words and actions that women are primarily interested in money.


The rise and fall of wives and advisers seems to lead directly and prophetically to the birth and rise of Elizabeth I. By extension, the play leads also, as if through the divine intervention of Providence (conception of God as the guide of human destiny), toward Elizabeth I's heir, James I, the reigning monarch at the time of the play's writing and first performances. Buckingham, who is rumored to have ambitions for the throne, is first to fall, followed by Katherine, who as Henry's wife, is an obstacle to Anne's becoming the mother of Elizabeth I. Finally, Wolsey, who has plans for Henry VIII to marry the French king's sister as a political alliance, must fall. As these three meet their demise, the way is cleared, as Providence has decreed, for the birth and rise of Elizabeth I.


The church is a major player in Henry VIII's reign. After all, it is ultimately the divorce of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon that leads to the rift between Rome and the Church of England. The play is populated with clergymen of every rank, but these church representatives seem to lack piety. Outside of Cranmer, who seems to be without corruption, the various bishops and cardinals are shown to be about as corrupt as possible. They scheme, they have no loyalty to the king or to the church, and they seem to have few ethical concerns about doing good or acting compassionately. In contrast, Katherine appeals to Heaven, has compassion for the suffering of the overtaxed people, and argues passionately for the fair treatment of the citizens of England. Henry VIII is also shown to be in accord with Providence and religious virtue. However, his personal desire for Anne Bullen possibly undermines his religious intentions. However, the birth of Elizabeth I portrays Henry VIII as acting in accordance with Providence.

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