Henry VIII
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Key Dates
Time of Action
Place of Action
Authorship Question
Role of the Imagination
Plot Summary
Burning of the Globe
Henry's Break From Rome
Cardinal Wolsey
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Free Text

Type of Work

.......Henry VIII is a history play focusing on the reign of England's King Henry VIII (1491-1547) up to the time of the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth I. Henry, the son of Henry VII, reigned from 1509 to 1547.

Key Dates 
Date Written: About 1612.
Publication: 1623 in the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays. 


.......Shakespeare based Henry VIII primarily on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?), who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe. The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also use Actes and Monuments (also known as the Book of Martyrs), by John Foxe (1516-1587). 

Time of Action

.......Time in Henry VIII is compressed, making events appear as if they took place over a short period. In fact, they took place between 1520 and 1533, the year of the birth of Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth, the future Queen of England. 

Place of Action
.......The action takes place in England at the royal palace in London and at residences nearby. 

Protagonist: Henry VIII
Antagonist: Cardinal Wolsey 
King Henry VIII: Proud, willful monarch who defies Rome's ban on divorce to marry Anne Bullen (Boleyn).
Cardinal Wolsey: Powerful Lord Chancellor of England and accomplished politician who manipulates the king and his subjects in order to swell his pocketbook and his power. He attempts to defeat Henry's plan to marry Anne Bullen, promoting instead a marriage between Henry and a French duchess. His duplicity, formidable as it is, eventually catches up with him, and he loses everything--power, property, and life. But before he dies, he repents his unpriestly activity. In some ways, he is the most interesting--and most human--character in the play. 
Katherine of Arragon (Catherine of Aragon): Queen of England until Henry deposes her. She is the noblest and most virtuous character in the play. The youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, she married Henry VIII after the death of her first husband--Henry's brother, Prince Arthur, oldest son of King Henry VII of England. 
Anne Bullen (Boleyn): Maid of honor for Katherine. Henry covets Anne and means to make her his wife if Pope Clement VII will annul Henry's marriage to Katherine.
Cardinal Campeius: Legate (envoy) from the pope.
Capucius: Ambassador from the Emperor Charles V.
Cranmer: Archbishop of Canterbury.
Gentlemen of the King's Court: Duke of Norfolk, Duke of Suffolk, Earl of Surrey, Lord Chamberlain, Lord Chancellor who succeeds Wolsey, Lord Sandys, Sir Thomas Lovell, Sir Henry Guildford, Sir Anthony Denny, Sir Nicholas Vaux, Lord Abergavenny.
Duke of Buckingham: Supporter of the king and opponent of Cardinal Wolsey.
Gardiner: Bishop of Winchester.
Bishop of Lincoln
Cromwell: Wolsey's servant.
Secretaries to Wolsey
Griffith: Gentleman-usher of Queen Katharine.
Three Gentlemen
Doctor Butts: Physician to the King.
Garter King-at-Arms
Surveyor to the Duke of Buckingham
Brandon: He gives commands to a sergeant-at-arms and guards to arrest Buckingham.
Doorkeeper of the Council-chamber
Porter and his Man
Page of Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester: The page is referred to as "Boy."
Old Lady: Friend of Anne Bullen
Patience: Woman-in-waiting of Queen Katharine.
Minor Characters:.Several lords and ladies in the dumb shows (parts of plays performed in pantomime), women attendants of the queen, scribes, officers, guards, other attendants, spirits.

Authorship Question

.......Because of stylistic differencies and inconsistencies, some scholars believe that Henry VIII was the collaborative work of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher (1579-1625). Others are convinced that Shakespeare wrote the entire play. John Fletcher was an English playwright who wrote for various acting companiesincluding the King’s Men, the same company for which Shakespeare wrotebetween the early 1600's (probably beginning between 1604 and 1607) and the year of his death, 1625. He sometimes collaborated with the dramatist Francis Beaumont and other writers, including William Rowley, Nathan Field, Philip Massinger, and, apparently, Shakespeare. He may also have collaborated with Ben Jonson and George Chapman. Fletcher generally focused more on plot twists than character development to generate audience interest. Among the notable plays he wrote without collaboration are The Loyall Subject, The Faithfull Shepheardesse, A Wife for a Moneth, The Chances, The Wild Goose Chase, The Mad Lover, The Humourous Lieutenant, Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, Women Pleas’d, and The Island Princesse. Among the notable plays he wrote with Beaumont are A King and No King, Philaster, and The Maides Tragedy.  Fletcher died in London of plague.

The Importance of the Imagination

.......Attending a play in Shakespeare’s time required theatregoers to use their imaginations to visualize settings, events, and personages from another time. This was no easy task, for props and special effects were severely limited. There was not even a curtain that opened and closed between acts. Sometimes a prop used in one scene had to remain on the stage for other scenes because it was too heavy to remove during the play. Perhaps the biggest limitation of all was that males played all the characters; law and custom forbade females from acting. It is no wonder, then, that Shakespeare reminded audiences from time to time to activate their imaginations at the beginning of a performance. He did so in Henry V, and he did so again in Henry VIII. In a prologue at the beginning of Henry VIII, the speaker tells the audience to 

                                 Think ye see 
The very persons of our noble story 
As they were living; think you see them great, 
And follow’d with the general throng and sweat
Of thousand friends; then, in a moment see 
How soon this mightiness meets misery: 
And if you can be merry then, I’ll say 
A man may weep upon his wedding day.
Oddly, though, it was the very limitations of the stages of the Globe and other theatres where Shakespeare presented his plays that helped make his plays popular with theatregoers and readers of every age, as the following quotation points out:
Whenever place or time mattered [in a Shakespeare play], some references to them could be introduced into the dialogue, and if special atmospheric or dramatic effects were needed, they could be created by the poet’s pen. Hence, it is to the Elizabethan stage that we are indebted in great measure for the exquisite descriptive poetry of Shakespeare. Such conditions, moreover, encouraged a greater imaginative cooperation on the part of the audience in the production of a play, and this active participation was further increased by the informality of the platform stage. With such intimacy, soliloquies, asides, and long set speeches are natural and not absurd as they are in modern theatre. (Watt, Homer A., and Karl J. Holzknecht. Outlines of Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: Barnes, 1947, Page 8)
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530) wields enormous power as Cardinal of York and Lord Chancellor of England. So great is his power that it rivals even his enormous appetite for food. The upright Duke of Buckingham, who serves as Lord High Constable, worries about Wolsey’s power and his influence on King Henry VIII (1491-1547). So he decides to warn Henry that Wolsey is bad news. Wolsey, however, has already envenomed the king’s ear against Buckingham, telling Henry that Buckingham covets the crown and means to win it. It is true that Buckingham would inherit the crown if Henry dies without an heir, but it is not true that Buckingham has kingly ambitions. Nevertheless, the king’s officers arrest him for treason. As they march him to the Tower of London for imprisonment, he says: 
It will help me nothing 
To plead mine innocence; for that dye is on me 
Which makes my whit’st part black. The will of heaven 
Be done in this and all things! I obey. (1. 1. 247-250)
.......Meanwhile, the king’s wife, Katherine of Arragon (1485-1536), importunes Henry to relieve a tax burden on the people. Katherine’s plea springs from genuine concern for the welfare of her subjects. She is good and sincere and caring. Her motives, unlike those of Wolsey, are pure, without taint of desire for political gain or fortune. The tax—recently imposed by Wolsey without the king’s knowledge—requires citizens to pay the Crown one-sixth of their income, supposedly to defray the costs of military action against France. Henry says he knows nothing of the tax. When he asks Wolsey about it, the cardinal plays dumb. The king resolves the issue by granting Katherine’s wish, repealing the onerous tax law and absolving activists who opposed it.  Out of hearing of the king, Wolsey orders letters sent to every county in England announcing that it was he who persuaded Henry to unburden the populace of new taxation. 
.......As to Buckingham, Queen Katherine pleads on his behalf to the king. However, a surveyor apparently under the control of Wolsey, tells Henry that 
                                                      If the king 
Should without issue die, [Buckingham will act] 
To make the sceptre his: these very words 
I’ve heard him utter to his son-in-law. (1. 2. 151-154) 
.......Henry holds this issue in abeyance while attending to other matters—in particular, a banquet at Wolsey’s residence at which he meets the comely Anne Bullen (1507-1536), the daughter of Sir Thomas Bullen. When Henry dances with her, she captivates him and he says, “The fairest hand I ever touch’d! O beauty, / Till now I never knew thee!” (1. 4. 100-101). 
.......At a trial, Buckingham is declared a traitor and sentenced to death. Afterward, he forgives his accusers, then yields his neck to the executioner’s axe. But Henry does not dwell on Buckingham’s death; instead he bends his mind toward Anne. To make room for her, he claims that his marriage to Katherine is profane. After all, she is the widow of his own brother, Arthur. (There was a belief, prevalent before and during the Sixteenth Century, that marriage to an in-law was a form of incest.) Also, Henry asks: Could not the only child Katherine has given him, Mary, be considered illegitimate, as a bishop has suggested? Deeply disturbed by these matters, Henry tells Wolsey and the Bishop of Lincoln that
                                 This respite shook 
The bosom of my conscience, enter’d me, 
Yea, with a splitting power, and made to tremble 
The region of my breast; which forced such way, 
That many mazed considerings did throng 
And press’d in. (2. 4. 195-200)
.......Meanwhile, in a conversation with an old lady in an antechamber of the queen’s apartment, Anne expresses pity for Katherine after hearing that the king means to renounce his marriage to her. Anne declares that she herself would not want to be queen—“not for all the riches under heaven” (2. 3. 45). The old lady pronounces Anne a fool for saying such a thing. At that moment, the Lord Chamberlain interrupts their conversation to announce that the king admires Anne and has conferred on her the title of Marchioness of Pembroke and a purse of a thousand pounds a year.
.......Later, in a courtroom, Henry, Wolsey, a papal envoy named Cardinal Campeius, and other officials hold a hearing on whether Katherine’s marriage to the king is valid. Katherine defends her honor and her loyalty to Henry, then impugns Wolsey as the instigator of the hearing. Wolsey denies the charge even though it was he who urged the king to invalidate the marriage. However, Wolsey strongly opposes marriage between Henry and Anne, a Lutheran. Instead, he wants Henry to marry the Catholic Duchess of Alençon, the French king’s sister, to form an alliance with France. “I’ll no Anne Bullens for him,” Wolsey says. “ There’s more in’t than fair visage” (3. 2. 119-120).
.......When Katherine appeals to Pope Clement VII to prevent a divorce, Wolsey abets her by sending letters to Rome to seek a delay in the requested divorce proceedings; his purpose is to gain time to promote his plans for Henry to marry the duchess. But the letters miscarry and end up in Henry’s hands. In an antechamber of the king’s apartments, the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk disclose this information to the Earl of Surrey. The three men are Wolsey’s adversaries. A fourth adversary, the Lord Chamberlain, tells the other three that the letters were for naught anyway, for the king has already married Anne Bullen (on January 25, 1533) and scheduled her coronation. It was not the Pope who annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, but the Archbishop of Canterbury. He did so, without Vatican approval, to ingratiate himself with the king. 
.......While the two dukes and the earl continue their conversation, Wolsey enters the room, followed moments later by the king. Henry presents Wolsey the intercepted letters, then walks away, frowning. Norfolk, Suffolk, and Surrey crowd around the cardinal, telling him to surrender the great seal (with which official papers are stamped to signify the king’s approval), the symbol of his power as Lord Chancellor. 
.......Surrey is especially pleased at Wolsey’s sudden reversal of fortune—and with good reason: the beheaded Buckingham was his father-in-law. He, Suffolk, and Norfolk then charge Wolsey with a catalogue of offenses, including making numerous agreements with foreign rulers without King Henry’s knowledge. Suffolk tells Wolsey he must forfeit all of his property—lands, buildings, chattels—to the Crown. Sir Thomas More is to replace him as Lord Chancellor. Wolsey has only one course of action: to retire from court. When bidding farewell to his old friend and servant Cromwell, Wolsey repents his past actions, surrenders his fortune to the king, and advises Cromwell to eschew ambition, saying, “Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; / Corruption wins not more than honesty” (3. 2. 522-523).
.......Anne becomes queen; Katherine becomes princess dowager and takes up residence at Kimbolton, where illness afflicts her. She asks Griffith, her gentleman-usher, what has become of Wolsey. Griffith tells her that he was received at an abbey at Leicester and three days later—“full of repentance, / Continual meditations, tears, and sorrows”(4. 2. 33-34)—died. Capucius, an ambassador serving the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, visits Katherine at the request of Henry to tell her that the king wishes her good health. She tells Capucius that time has run out for her but expresses hope that Henry prospers while she keeps company with worms in her grave. Katherine asks Capucius to deliver a message asking the king to give their daughter, Mary, a proper upbringing with every advantage and to look kindly on the women and men who served Katherine. 
.......Archbishop Cranmer, the rubber stamp who annulled Henry’s marriage to Katherine, proves unpopular with the nobles, and only the king’s intervention prevents him from imprisonment in the Tower of London. At the christening of Henry and Anne’s child, Elizabeth, Cranmer predicts a glorious future for the child and England:
This royal infant—heaven still move about her!— 
Though in her cradle, yet now promises 
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings, 
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be— 
But few now living can behold that goodness— 
A pattern to all princes living with her, 
And all that shall succeed. . . . (5. 5. 23-29).
Great power breeds great corruption. Powerful English leaders misuse their authority for their own ends. Cardinal Wolsey appears the most reprehensible character in the play. But after his downfall, he repents his abuses. Others who misuse their power include King Henry and the Archbishop of Canterury, Thomas Cranmer. 
Henry VIII thirsts for a form of immortality—the perpetuation of himself and his royal line in the form of a male heir. In the face of papal excommunication, Henry divorces Katherine to marry  Anne Bullen (Boleyn) and beget a male heir. 
Women suffer ill treatment in a male-dominated society. Henry and his advisors manipulate Katherine (Catherine of Aragon, the queen) and Anne for their own ends. The king believes a female heir is unacceptable. Ironically, two of his daughters—Mary (by Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (by Anne Boleyn)—became queens of England. Mary ruled from 1553 to 1558; Elizabeth ruled from 1558 to 1603.
It is never too late to repent. Near death, Cardinal Wolsey repents his is past actions, surrenders his fortune to the king, and advises Cromwell to eschew ambition, saying, "Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee; corruption wins not more than honesty." In so doing, he appears to redeem himself. 


The climax of Henry VIII occurs when Henry asserts his kingly authority to rescue Thomas Cranmer. Previously, he had allowed Wolsey to make decisions on his behalf. 
Globe Theatre Burns During Henry VIII Performance 
.......During a performance of Henry VIII on June, 29, 1613, the Globe Theatre burned down. Apparently, ordnance heralding the entrance of the actor playing Henry VIII ignited the thatched roof. The Globe was rebuilt with a non-flammable tile roof. However, it was torn down in 1644 after a fire of another sort, Puritan zeal, closed all theatres. Puritans were strict Protestants who favored strait-laced living and opposed theatre performances. After the Globe was razed, tenements replaced it. Between September 2 and 5, 1666, the Great Fire of London—which destroyed more than 13,000 dwellings and more than 80 churches—consumed the foundations and whatever else was left of the Globe. Not a stick of wood from it was left. Modern recreations of the Globe are based on 17th Century descriptions and drawings. 

Henry's Break From Rome

.......Parliament approved the Act of Supremacy in 1534, establishing the Church of England as a Protestant entity under King Henry VIII. Events leading to this action commenced in 1527. At that time, Henry embarked on a campaign to win papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, enabling him to marry Anne Boleyn and attempt to sire a male heir to the throne. Thomas Cromwell, an ambitious politician and adviser to the king, managed the king’s campaign. But Pope Clement VII steadfastly refused to annul the marriage. 
.......On January 25, 1533, Henry married Anne in secret. On March 30, 1533, Thomas Cranmer, a priest who enjoyed the king’s favor, became the Archbishop of Canterbury, swearing an oath to the Pope even though he was a de facto Protestant who sympathized with Martin Luther’s revolt against Rome. In April, Cromwell won parliamentary approval of the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which outlawed matrimonial appeals to Rome and acknowledged England as a sovereign empire. In May, Cranmer approved the king’s annulment and, in June, Anne Boleyn was publicly recognized as the English queen. Finally, in 1534, the Act of Succession forced English citizens to acknowledge Henry’s marriage as legal and the Act of Supremacy sanctioned Henry as head of the Church of England. Cranmer, accepting this act as valid, thus became the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury.

Cardinal Wolsey

.......Oxford-educated Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530), the son of a butcher, received Holy Orders as a Roman Catholic priest in 1498 and became chaplain to Henry VIII's father, King Henry VII, in 1507. When Henry VIII became king in 1509, Wolsey won appointment as royal almoner and two years later as a a privy councillor. In 1513, he masterminded an invasion of France and negotiated a treaty in the next year. From 1514 to 1515, with the king's blessing, he received appointments from the Vatican as bishop of Lincoln, archbishop of York, and cardinal. 
.......In 1515, Wolsey became Lord Chancellor of England and the de facto overseer of government affairs, both foreign and domestic, all the while amassing a considerable personal fortune. His wealth and power rivaled the king's, and his legal mind was first rate. But he fell from grace after failing to persuade Pope Clement VII to dissolve Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1533. He was arrested for treason but died soon thereafter.

Study Questions and Essay Topics 

1. Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
2. Write an essay that uses Henry VIII to demonstrate how ruthless politicians maneuver to get their way.
3. Write an essay that attempts to determine whether Shakespeare’s presentation of events in the play was an accurate reflection of history?
4. Write a psychological profile of the historical Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, Catherine of Aragon, or Anne Boleyn.
5. In monarchies, rulership passes to a son or daughter of the king and queen. Is a monarchy a flawed system of government? Or does it have its merits? 

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