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.
Written: About 1612.
1623 in the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's
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).
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
action takes place in England at the royal palace in London and at residences
Henry VIII: Proud, willful monarch who defies Rome's ban on divorce
to marry Anne Bullen (Boleyn).
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
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.
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
Campeius: Legate (envoy) from the pope.
Ambassador from the Emperor Charles V.
Archbishop of Canterbury.
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,
of Buckingham: Supporter of the king and opponent of Cardinal Wolsey.
Bishop of Winchester.
Gentleman-usher of Queen Katharine.
Butts: Physician to the King.
to the Duke of Buckingham
He gives commands to a sergeant-at-arms and guards to arrest Buckingham.
of the Council-chamber
and his Man
of Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester: The page is referred to as "Boy."
Lady: Friend of Anne Bullen
Woman-in-waiting of Queen Katharine.
lords and ladies in the dumb shows (parts of plays performed in pantomime),
women attendants of the queen, scribes, officers, guards, other attendants,
of stylistic differencies and inconsistencies, some scholars believe that
VIII was the collaborative work of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
(1579-1625). Others are convinced that Shakespeare wrote the entire play.
Fletcher was an English playwright who wrote for various acting companies—including
the King’s Men, the same company for which Shakespeare wrote—between
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
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.
Importance of the Imagination
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
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
very persons of our noble story
they were living; think you see them great,
follow’d with the general throng and sweat
thousand friends; then, in a moment see
soon this mightiness meets misery:
if you can be merry then, I’ll say
man may weep upon his wedding day.
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).
Michael J. Cummings...©
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,
will help me nothing
plead mine innocence; for that dye is on me
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.
makes my whit’st part black. The will of heaven
done in this and all things! I obey. (1. 1. 247-250)
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
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).
without issue die, [Buckingham will act]
make the sceptre his: these very words
heard him utter to his son-in-law. (1. 2. 151-154)
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
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.
bosom of my conscience, enter’d me,
with a splitting power, and made to tremble
region of my breast; which forced such way,
many mazed considerings did throng
press’d in. (2. 4. 195-200)
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).
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.
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.
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).
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
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
royal infant—heaven still move about her!—
in her cradle, yet now promises
this land a thousand thousand blessings,
time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be—
few now living can behold that goodness—
pattern to all princes living with her,
all that shall succeed. . . . (5. 5. 23-29).
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
Theatre Burns During Henry VIII Performance
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.
Break From Rome
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.
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.
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,
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
Which character in the play is the most admirable? Which is the least admirable?
on DVD (or VHS)
Write an essay that uses Henry VIII to demonstrate how ruthless politicians
maneuver to get their way.
Write an essay that attempts to determine whether Shakespeare’s presentation
of events in the play was an accurate reflection of history?
Write a psychological profile of the historical Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey,
Catherine of Aragon, or Anne Boleyn.
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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