Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII, the king of England. Possibly because he may be a composite portrait by two authors and possibly because of the difficulty of writing about a controversial political figure so nearly contemporary, King Henry is not one of the more successful creations in the playwright’s gallery. At times, he seems to be an allegorical figure of Royalty, like Magnificence in John Skelton’s morality play of that title. The injustice of his treatment of Queen Katharine is partly offset by his generous protection of Cranmer against the council’s attack.
Thomas Cardinal Wolsey
Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, the cardinal of York and Lord Chancellor of England. A far better dramatic creation than the king, he is drawn as arrogant and stubborn when he is in power and ruthless in hounding the duke of Buckingham to his death and in attempting to force Queen Katharine to submit the decision on her divorce to Henry and Wolsey. He falls through pride but accepts his fall with dignity. His death is reported to Queen Katharine as a good death, and she speaks of him with forgiveness.
Queen Katharine, called Katharine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. Characterized by dignity, firmness, and compassion, she never allows her adversity and her material losses to shake her integrity or reduce her to bitterness. Even her successful rival for the king’s affections, Anne...
(The entire section is 1011 words.)
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Buckingham (Duke of Buckingham)
Buckingham is a noble, afterwards condemned as a traitor. In this play about falling from greatness, Buckingham is the first to fall. Beloved of the commoners and respected by his peers, he is the victim of a plot presumably launched against him by Wolsey, whom Buckingham accuses of having bribed his servants to testify against him. Buckingham's surveyor (a kind of overseer), who has been recently discharged after Buckingham's tenants complained about him, tells Henry that Buckingham has pretensions to the throne and has spoken openly about murdering both Henry and Wolsey. In an off-stage court scene described by two gentlemen, the surveyor's story is corroborated by three other servants, including Buckingham's confessor, who as a priest ought to keep Buckingham's confessions confidential, and a monk who supposedly fed Buckingham with prophecies that he would govern England. Despite the questionable characters of all four witnesses, Buckingham is condemned upon this testimony—his unwavering assertion that he is innocent notwithstanding—and he is marched through the streets of Westminster to his execution.
The cause of Wolsey's enmity towards Buckingham is not entirely clear, but it most likely arises from a dislike and perhaps a fear of the duke who is one of his strongest detractors. Norfolk warns Buckingham not to incur Wolsey's ill favor because ''What his high hatred would effect wants not / A minister in his power'' (Li. 107-08), in other words,...
(The entire section is 733 words.)
Henry (King Henry VIII of England)
Henry VIII is not so much the story of Henry the man, as it is the story of what happens in the kingdom while Henry is king. It begins with Henry's spectacular visit of state to Francis I of France, and ends thirteen years later with the christening of his daughter Elizabeth. The play is foremost a celebration of the Tudor dynasty, which begins with Henry's father and culminates in Queen Elizabeth I and her heir, James Stuart.
Behind the events of this celebratory play looms Henry: royal, benevolent, and beyond the reach of fortune. In Shakespeare's time, it was believed that kings were God's earthly agents, and as such, higher than ordinary men. In the play, Henry is not subject to the whims of fortune that claim Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey; in fact, he demonstrates his almost god-like power through his ability to rescue Cranmer from a similar fate. The king's favor is redemptive, but his frown can bring men down, as it does with Wolsey. Henry's power is absolute, and throughout the play—no matter what he does—he inspires the respect, admiration, loyalty, and love of his subjects. Cranmer, speaking of Princess Elizabeth, describes her as a phoenix, able to rise again from her own ashes (V.iv.40). This extraordinary feat applies to Henry as well, as he reforms and reshapes his England after his own liking, while never suffering the disapprobation of his subjects.
As king, he is above the ravages of worldly fortune. As a character,...
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Katherine (Queen Katherine)
Katherine of Aragon is wife to Henry and is afterwards divorced. Much of the central action of the play concerns Henry's attempt to divorce Katherine, his wife of over twenty years. Historically, Katherine, daughter of the Spanish King Ferdinand II, had originally been married to Arthur, Henry's older brother and heir to the English throne. However, when Arthur died a few months afterward, his marriage unconsummated, Katherine was married to Henry, the new heir. At the time, it was considered a form of incest to marry a brother's widow, but the pope determined that since the first marriage had never been consummated, Katherine had not really been Arthur's wife and therefore the marriage between Katherine and Henry was legitimate. However, when nearly all of their children were either born dead or died shortly after birth, Henry began to believe that God was punishing him for incest. It was the fear that he was endangering his immortal soul by living in sin that prompted him to seek a separation from Katherine. By this time Katherine's nephew, Charles V of Spain, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor, had marched into the Vatican and was holding the pope prisoner. It seemed very unlikely that Charles would allow his aunt to be cast aside by the English king. Unable to obtain a divorce sanctioned by the pope, Henry broke with the Catholic church of Rome and established himself head of the church in England. This Reformation, brought about in order to divorce Katherine,...
(The entire section is 865 words.)
Wolsey (Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York; Lord Chancellor until III.ii)
Henry's prime minister until his fall, Wolsey is a butcher's son who has risen to his high position through his own ambition. As cardinal, Wolsey holds power in the Catholic Church; as chancellor, he holds power in affairs of state. He is almost universally disliked throughout the kingdom. In almost the first reference to Wolsey in the play, Buckingham complains "The devil speed him! no man's pie is freed / From his ambitious finger" (I.i.52-53). Norfolk warns that "The Cardinal's malice and his potency" are equal, and that "his nature" is "revengeful" (I.i.105,108,109). It is not just the noblemen who distrust Wolsey, but the commoners, the gentlemen, and even the queen. Before he even becomes Henry's agent against her in the divorce, Katherine suspects Wolsey of framing things ''which are not wholesome'' against the commoners and the king (I.ii.45). The nobles believe the demise of "This bold bad man" cannot come soon enough (II.ii.43).
The suspicions against Wolsey are not unjustified. He reveals his ambitious nature nearly every time he appears on stage. When Henry revokes the tax levied by Wolsey, the cardinal whispers to his secretary to inform every shire that their relief comes about only through his own intercession (I.ii. 102-08). Later, he reveals to Campeius that Gardiner, the king's new secretary, is secretly under his command. When Campeius expresses concern for the demise of the old secretary, who was banished by Wolsey, Wolsey...
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Aburgavenny (Lord Aburgavenny)
Lord Aburgavenny is Buckingham's son-in-law, and he shares Buckingham's dislike of Wolsey. He corroborates Buckingham's charges against Wolsey, explaining that Wolsey bankrupted some of the nobles when he organized the visit to France (I.i.80-83). He is arrested with Buckingham.
Not listed in the cast of characters, two aldermen are called for in the stage directions in V.iv. They are part of the spectacular procession at Elizabeth's christening. Middle class officers from the city of London, they and the mayor are the only ones in this scene not associated with Henry's court.
Anne (Anne Bullen, afterwards Queen Anne)
Archbishop of Canterbury (Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury)
Baby (Princess Elizabeth)
Bishop of Lincoln
Bishop of Winchester (Gardiner, afterwards Bishop of Winchester)
Several bishops are present to hear the case for Katherine's divorce in II.iv. Although their deliberation would have been important historically, their presence in this scene mostly serves to convey a sense of pomp and pageantry.
Brandon is a noble who arrives with a sergeant to arrest Buckingham and Aburgavenny in the name of the king. He seems to be only...
(The entire section is 4248 words.)