Henry VIII: Metaphor Analysis
Caroline Spurgeon (Shakespeare's Imagery, 1935) draws attention to the imagery of bodily movement in the play. It is often violent, as if to give dynamism to a play with little physical action. The editor of the Arden edition (1957) of Henry VIII, R A Foakes, notes in his introduction, "The interaction of the characters, the machinations of Wolsey, the trials and falls are all presented in terms of movement, or more particularly of carrying and release from a burden, or of the motion of falling."
For example, Buckingham asks Norfolk (Act 1, scene 1, lines 46-7) about the event in France, ". who set the body and the limbs / Of this great sport together.?" He also says that the nobles "broke their backs with laying manors on 'em / For this great journey," conveying that it is a burden too great for them to bear. Katherine refers to Wolsey's unpopular taxes as back-breaking for the people: "to bear 'em / The back is sacrifice to th' load" (Act 1, scene 2, lines 49-50). Wolsey, after his fall, says he is grateful to the king, who has "from these shoulders, / These ruin'd pillars, out of pity taken / A load would sink a navy, too much honor. / O 'tis a burden Cromwell, 'tis a burden / Too heavy for a man that hopes for heaven" (Act 3, scene 2, lines 381-5). He says of Anne Bullen, "There was the weight that pull'd me down" (Act 3, scene 2, line 407).
There is a strikingly graphic use of an image of bodily movement in Suffolk's joke against the king: when the Lord Chamberlain says that the king's marriage with his brother's wife, Katherine, "Has crept too near his conscience," Suffolk replies, "No, his conscience / Has crept too near another lady" (Act 2, scene 2, lines 17-8).
Sickness and medicine
Abergavenny notes that Wolsey's event in France, for which Wolsey forced the nobles to pay, terminally "sicken'd their estates" (Act 1, scene 1, line 82). Wolsey is seen as responsible for a disease that is afflicting the nation. Katherine takes up the theme in Act 1, scene 2, accusing Wolsey of engineering unwise policies such as the tax, which are "not wholesome" (healthy); she calls the tax "Most pestilent to th'hearing" (lines 45-9), likening it to an infectious disease or pestilence.
The king claims that he wants a divorce from Katherine because "I meant to rectify my conscience, which / I then did feel full sick." (Act 2, scene 4, lines 201-2).
After his fall, Wolsey says he is grateful to the king, who "has cur'd me, / I humbly thank his grace" (Act 2, scene 2, lines 381-2), placing the king in the role of a physician who rids the sick Wolsey of the sin of pride. While the physician here is metaphorical, the metaphor is made concrete in the form of the king's physician, Dr Butts, who alerts the king to the danger Cranmer faces from the council, and brings him to observe the proceedings. This enables the king to intervene, save Cranmer, and reconcile him with the council. This is the only action that Butts performs in the play, and he shown as helping the king to cure the disease of infighting that has afflicted the kingdom for so long and brought down so many.
The sea and water
Wolsey is associated with images of the sea and water throughout. At Act 2, scene 1, line 51, the Second Gentleman says that the people's representatives in Parliament ("the commons") hate Wolsey, and "wish him ten faddom deep," that is, at the bottom of the sea. Norfolk speaks of him as a dangerous "rock" that should be shunned by seafarers who wish to avoid shipwreck (Act 1, scene 1, line 113). After the king discovers Wolsey's incriminating papers, the Lord Chamberlain says that the king at last sees how Wolsey "coasts / And hedges his own way" (Act 3, scene 2, lines 38-9). He means that, like a boat that zigzags in the required direction, Wolsey goes indirectly and secretly towards his own ends, not in a straightforward way.
Talking after his fall of his rise to power, Wolsey says, "I have ventur'd / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / This many summers in a sea of glory, / But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride / At length broke under me, and now has left me, / Weary and old with service, to the mercy / Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me" (Act 3, scene 2, lines 358-363). This image of Wolsey as a small boy who swims out of his depth due to the false sense of security lent by swim bladders (his pride), only to find that the bladders have burst, is poignant and gains our sympathy. Wolsey continues the imagery of sea and water at lines 436-7, where he describes himself as shipwrecked, an image also used by Katherine after her fall (Act 3, scene 1, line 149).
Cranmer's prophesy at the end of the play (Act 5, scene 4, line 15 ff.) makes use of Biblical imagery to predict the great future that lies in store for England under Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth I, and her successor, James I. Elizabeth is likened to the Queen of Sheba (Saba) for her wisdom and virtue. The lines beginning, "In her days every man shall eat in safety / Under his own vine what he plants." refer to Old Testament visions of a golden age (e.g. 1 Kings iv. 25; 2 Kings xviii. 31; Isaiah xxxvi. 16-17).
The prediction about James I, that he shall "make new nations," a reference to the colonization of America during his reign, is based on the prophecy in Genesis, xvii. 4-6, ". a father of many nations have I made thee. I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and will make nations come of thee: yea, kings shall proceed of thee." This may also refer to the marriage of James I's daughter Princess Elizabeth in 1613 to Frederick, the Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, an event for which some critics believe this play was written, rewritten, or performed.
The effect of the Biblical imagery is to convey that England's great destiny is ordained and overseen by God. In this context, its rulers become God's agents on earth.
Henry VIII Study GuideChoose to Continue
- Henry VIII
- The Prologue
- The Prologue
- Act 1 Scene 1
- Act 1 Scene 2
- Act 1 Scene 3 & 4
- Act 2 Scene 1
- Act 2 Scene 2
- Act 2 Scene 3
- Act 2 Scene 4
- Act 3 Scene 1
- Act 3 Scene 2
- Act 4 Scenes 1 & 2
- Act 5 Scene 1
- Act 5 Scene 2
- Act 5 Scenes 3 & 4, and Epilogue
- Character Profiles
- Metaphor Analysis
- Theme Analysis
- Top Ten Quotes
- William Shakespeare
- Essay Q&A