Study Guide

Henry VIII

by William Shakespeare

Henry VIII Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Cardinal Wolsey is the most powerful figure at court during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. During Henry VIII’s reign, however, Wolsey becomes too aggressive in his dealings with the nobility. He is of humble stock and lacks the advantages of family and ancestral office, causing the nobility to resent him deeply. Apart from his own innate abilities, he owes much to the king, who is willing—up to a point—to allow him to handle many affairs of state. Unscrupulous in seeking his own ends, Wolsey ruthlessly removes all obstacles in his climb to power.

One such hindrance to Wolsey’s ambitious designs is the duke of Buckingham. Accused of high treason through the cardinal’s machinations, Buckingham is brought before king and court for trial. Queen Katharine, speaking in Buckingham’s defense, protests to his innocence. Moreover, she argues against the cardinal’s unjust taxes and informs the king of growing animosity among his people caused by Wolsey’s continued position as his adviser. Wolsey, in his turn, produces witnesses—among them Buckingham’s discharged surveyor—who testify to Buckingham’s disloyalty. The surveyor swears that, at the time of the king’s journey to France, the duke sought priestly confirmation for his belief that he could, by gaining favor with the common people, rise to govern England. In his long and persistent testimony, the surveyor plays upon earlier minor offenses committed by Buckingham, and he climaxes his accusation with an account of the duke’s assertion that he would murder the king to gain the throne.

In spite of Katharine’s forthright protestations against Wolsey and her repeated contention that the testimony against Buckingham is false, the accused man is found guilty and sentenced to be executed. The duke, forbearing toward his enemies, recalls the experience of his father, Henry of Buckingham, who was likewise betrayed at trial by a servant. Henry VII restored the honor of the family by elevating the present duke to favor. One difference prevails between the two trials, the duke states: His father was unjustly dealt with, but he himself has had a noble trial.

Fearing reprisal from Buckingham’s son, Wolsey sends him to Ireland as a deputy; then, incensed and uneasy because of Katharine’s open accusations against him, Wolsey pricks the king’s conscience with questions regarding his marriage to her. He reminds the king that Katharine was the widow of Henry’s brother before she married Henry. Wolsey furthers his cause against Katharine by arousing Henry’s interest in Anne Boleyn, whom the king meets at a ball given by the cardinal.

Wolsey’s plan in securing a divorce for Henry is supported not only by the king’s evident trust in Wolsey but also because the male children born to him and Katharine have all either been stillborn or died shortly after birth. Consequently, Henry has no direct male heir to the throne. He feels keenly about this and strongly desires such an heir.

The cardinal’s final step to be rid of Katharine, his chief adversary at...

(The entire section is 1259 words.)

Henry VIII Act Summary

Act I
After the Prologue foretells that mightiness will meet misery, the scene opens in London, 1520, shortly after a sumptuous...

(The entire section is 765 words.)