Henry VIII: Novel Summary: Act 2 Scene 4
At Blackfriars, various bishops and officials have convened to decide the question of the king's marriage to Katherine. Wolsey asks for the decision from Rome to be read out, but the king says there is no need as it has already been read, and there is no need to do it again.
Katherine goes directly to the king and kneels at his feet. She asks for justice and pity, as she is a woman and a foreigner and therefore fears that there is no impartial judge in England. She asks the king how she has offended him, as she has been a true and obedient wife to him. She has been married to him for twenty years, and they have had many children together. If anyone can prove that she has been unfaithful or has failed in her love and duty to the king, then she accepts that she should be turned away. She adds that Henry's father and her father were wise men and judged their marriage to be lawful. She asks that any decision be delayed until she can seek advice from friends in Spain.
The king does not answer her, but Wolsey tells her that many learned men have come to plead her cause and that delay would be pointless and unsettling to her and the king. Campeius agrees that the proceedings should go ahead immediately.
Then Katherine addresses Wolsey, telling him that she believes him to be her enemy and so she does not want him to be her judge. She says that he is responsible for stirring up trouble between her and the king. Wolsey says that her comments are out of character for her, as she is known for her gentleness and charity. He denies that he is her enemy and claims that he only acted under the authority of Rome. He also denies that he is responsible for the king's doubts about his marriage, and he hopes that the king will back him up in this.
Katherine says she is a simple woman and unfitted to oppose Wolsey's cunning. She says that though Wolsey pretends to be humble, he is full of pride and has risen so far above his office (as Cardinal) that many who used to be powerful now act as his servants. She tells him that he cares more about his own status than his spiritual calling. She repeats that she refuses to let him judge her, curtsies to the king, and tries to leave. The king orders that she be brought back into court, but she insists that she will never again appear in court to discuss this matter, and leaves.
The king allows her to go, and reflects that no man had a better wife. He praises her nobility and obedience. Wolsey asks the king whether he had, as Katherine alleged, induced the king to doubt his marriage. The king excuses Wolsey from Katherine's accusations and goes on to explain how he came to doubt the legality of his marriage. The French ambassador, the Bishop of Bayonne, had come to negotiate a marriage between Mary, the daughter of King Henry and Katherine, and the Duke of Orleans. The ambassador had asked whether Mary were legitimate, given that Katherine had previously been married to Henry's brother (the Bible forbids a man to marry his dead brother's wife). The question had awakened doubts in the king. He had reflected that Katherine had given birth to sons, but they had been born dead or died shortly afterwards. He felt that this was a judgment on him for contracting a marriage that was unlawful in God's eyes. He then thought about the danger to his kingdom if it were left without an heir. After a great struggle, his conscience had driven him to the solution of divorcing Katherine.
The king had then consulted with the Bishop of Lincoln, whom he now asks to speak. The Bishop of Lincoln confirms that he advised the king to divorce Katherine. The king says he had asked the Archbishop of Canterbury for permission to decide the case in court, which the Archbishop had granted. The king insists that it is not out of dislike for Katherine that he has come to this, but out of conscience. If his marriage were proven lawful, he would be happy to remain married to her.
Campeius says that the court must adjourn until Katherine can be persuaded to return. He also says that Katherine must not appeal to the Pope. The king suspects that the cardinals are just using delaying tactics. He looks forward to the return of Bishop Cranmer, his trusted advisor. The court breaks up.
The trial to decide the legality of the marriage between Katherine and the king is as dubious as that convened to convict Buckingham. It is a mere formality. The king has already decided to divorce Katherine, as is revealed by his dismissal of Wolsey's request to have read out the papal decision that Campeius has brought from Rome.
The fact that the king has already made his decision is reinforced by his failure to speak even a single word in reply to Katherine's impassioned plea. The cardinals Wolsey and Campeius speak for him. This also reveals the extent to which the king has ceded his authority to Wolsey.
Katherine once again reveals herself to be the most clear-sighted person at court. She sees Wolsey's essence as the king cannot; he ignores her words about Wolsey. It is also worthy of note that Katherine's speech is as direct and clear as Wolsey's is convoluted and obscure. Wolsey is at his most mealy-mouthed when it comes to taking responsibility for his actions. While earlier, we saw Wolsey falsely claiming credit for the king's repeal of the tax, here we see him attempting to avoid censure for breaking up Katherine's marriage to the king. He shifts the responsibility onto all the cardinals of Christendom, right up to the Pope. Katherine knows that she is no match for Wolsey's cunning, and she can only withdraw from a court she knows to be partial and corrupt.
In spite of Wolsey's appeal to the authority of the learned cardinals and the Pope, we never learn what the Pope says. This is because it is irrelevant. The divorce is a foregone conclusion, engineered by Wolsey and embraced by the king, who is impatient to replace Katherine. The king tries to convince himself and everybody else that he is pursuing the divorce because of the dictates of conscience and concern for the good of the kingdom. But this claim has already been brought into doubt by Suffolk in Act 2, scene 2, when he says that the king's attraction to Anne is the more pressing reason. Of course, both reasons may apply, but Shakespeare leaves it to the audience to decide which is paramount.
Buckingham was the first to fall; Katherine is the second. Wolsey is behind both these events.
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