Henry VIII: Theme Analysis
Falls of great men
Henry VIII is written following a medieval tradition known in Latin as de casibus illustrorum, "concerning the falls of great men." The typical de casibus story shows a man rising to greatness and falling as a result of a reversal of fortune. The moral message of such stories was that worldly power and wealth are transient and cannot triumph over the final stroke of fortune - death. People should therefore focus on amassing spiritual wealth, which lies beyond the ever-turning wheel of fortune.
The falls of Buckingham, Katherine and Wolsey are typical of the de casibus tradition. Each of the characters expresses forgiveness of others and a readiness for death after their fall. The most dramatic example is Wolsey, who undergoes a complete reversal of focus, from extreme worldliness to penitence and a serene happiness in his newly humbled state.
Shakespeare balances the stories of the falls with life-affirming stories: the new love that the king feels for his young wife-to-be, Anne; her coronation; and the birth of the baby Elizabeth, who will go on to become one of England's greatest rulers, as predicted by Cranmer. It must be remembered, however, that Shakespeare's audience will have known that Anne was only married to the king for three years before he had her beheaded, and that Elizabeth shared the common fate of all mortals when she died in 1603. So life contains the seeds of death, but the reverse is also true: out of death comes new life.
The idea of renouncing material things can still be found in the major religions, in the tradition of giving up luxuries for the Christian Lent or the Islamic Ramadan, and the Jewish concept of Tzedakah, or charitable giving.
Accusations and recriminations versus love and forgiveness
Throughout the play, a series of accusations (often false or suspect) is set in motion, resulting in the downfall of the accused. It is made clear that the only way out of this destructive cycle is forgiveness and reconciliation. Buckingham accuses Wolsey of many faults and crimes, including treason. Presumably in response, Wolsey has Buckingham arrested, also on charges of treason, and he is executed. Though Buckingham forgives his accusers, the two Gentlemen remark that if he is innocent, then his accusers will suffer "curses on their heads" - suggesting that the cycle has not completed itself. Sure enough, Wolsey himself will subsequently fall.
It is difficult for anyone to accuse Katherine of anything, since has been a blameless wife to Henry. But the king has asked Wolsey to procure a divorce, and so she is accused of never having been legally married to the king - a technicality that never bothered the king before. She is, of course, outraged, and accuses Wolsey of malice, pride, ambition, and stirring up trouble between herself and the king. She holds onto her hatred of Wolsey until just before her death, when Griffith speaks kindly of him. In the spirit of love and forgiveness that Griffith introduces, she is moved to forgive Wolsey (who is already dead) and wishes him peace. It is no coincidence that Katherine's vision of spirits offering her a garland and eternal happiness in heaven occurs immediately after she has forgiven Wolsey. The act of forgiving has made her ready to die 'well,' in a state of love and acceptance.
Wolsey's case is rather different from Buckingham's and Katherine's. Though throughout the play, he is accused of many faults, sins and crimes by everyone from the ordinary people (Gentlemen) to the nobility (Buckingham, Surrey, Lord Chamberlain, etc.) and royalty (Katherine), he escapes with impunity, sheltering under the protection of a naive king. Finally, it is his own papers revealing his illicit accumulation of wealth and his double-dealing with the Pope that incriminate him. This fact suggests that unlike Buckingham and Katherine, Wolsey was genuinely guilty. The king merely hands him the papers, acting more as messenger than accuser. Subsequently, charges are drawn up and the lords read them out to Wolsey, but his fate is already sealed by the king's discovery of his papers. The lords tell him that all his goods are forfeit and that he is cast out from the king's protection.
As often in Shakespeare, a character who is stripped of all worldly crutches is ripe for self-realization. Wolsey undergoes a profound spiritual transformation, renouncing ambition and advising Cromwell to do likewise. He tells him "I know myself now" and "the king has cur'd me" (Act 3, scene 2, lines 378-80). As in Katherine's case, the timing of this moving speech is significant. It comes immediately after a moment of silence in which Cromwell is standing amazed at the sight of his fallen master, followed by Cromwell's weeping in sympathy. It is a moment of love and acceptance, which is reflected in Wolsey's speech.
The final case, Cranmer's, ends the cycle of accusations in the play. Gardiner, out of loyalty to the old, unredeemed Wolsey, persecutes the innocent Cranmer with false accusations of heresy. But the king, who has thus far been a relatively passive onlooker in the series of accusations and recriminations, now takes an active part in freeing Cranmer from his persecutors. Perhaps the king finally acts because he knows Cranmer to be completely innocent, but the fact that he has thrown off the domination of Wolsey also plays a part. The king gives Cranmer a ring that can invoke the royal protection, and then watches the council examine him, while we in turn watch the king. The extra eyes and ears following the events seem to open up the council's dark machinations to the bright light of day and end the pattern of false accusations. Notably, Cromwell also plays a part: he takes the redeemed Wolsey's advice and defends the truth in the form of the innocent Cranmer. Then the king enters the chamber and makes all the council members, including Gardiner, embrace Cranmer in friendship. Cranmer in turn forgives his accusers.
Fostering the new spirit of love and forgiveness in the celebration of new life, the king asks Cranmer to baptize the child Elizabeth. Cranmer makes a speech to the gathered crowd, prophesying the great future that Elizabeth will bring to England.
All the characters who fall - Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey - believe that they are loyal to the king. Buckingham wants to go to the king with evidence of Wolsey's disloyalty - but is arrested before he can do so, on the charge of the ultimate disloyalty, treason. We do not know just how loyal Buckingham is: we only have his word that he is loyal against his accusers' claims that he is not. However, the chief witnesses against Buckingham are a disloyal former employee (the Surveyor), a disloyal confessor, and a friar who was disloyal to both the king and Buckingham in feeding Buckingham with treasonous ideas that he could be king.
It could be argued that Wolsey is a disloyal servant of the king because he accumulates wealth for himself and engages in double-dealing with the Pope over the divorce. But after his fall, he protests that if anything, he was too loyal to the king: "Had I but serv'd my God with half the zeal / I serv'd my king, he would not in mine age / Have left me naked to mine enemies" (Act 3, scene 2, lines 455-7). Wolsey had seen no conflict between his own interests and those of the king: ". mine own ends / Have been mine so, that evermore they pointed / To th'good of your most sacred person and / The profit of the state" (Act 3, scene 2, lines 171-4). He engineers the king's divorce from Katherine, but he does so at the king's request. And he sincerely feels that the French king's sister would be a better match for the king than the lower-born Anne Bullen, which is why he tries to delay the Pope's decision on the divorce until the king has forgotten about Anne. But the king cannot forgive Wolsey for his scheme, because he is determined to marry Anne and sees everyone who opposes the marriage as disloyal. In terms of the play's grand purpose, the arrival in the world of Elizabeth, Wolsey is disloyal - to England's destiny, because he stands in the way. This charge can also be leveled at Katherine, who in all other respects is a completely loyal wife to the king. Katherine is particularly loyal in that she does not shrink from telling the king the truth as she sees it, even when it may be uncomfortable for him, as when she tells him about the tax causing unrest.
After his fall and penitence, Wolsey's idea of loyalty shifts more into line with Katherine's, in that he sees that he owes loyalty to a truth higher than his interpretation of the king's immediate interests. He counsels Cromwell to be loyal to his country, God, and the truth. This may not protect him from falling, but if he does fall, he will fall "a blessed martyr." This the kind of loyalty exemplified by Cranmer.
National and religious identity
At the start of the play, England is under the influence of foreign interests. Wolsey has engineered an alliance between France and England, while doing deals with the King of Spain behind King Henry's back. He plans to marry off the king to the French king's sister. As a result of the new relationship with France, bizarre French fashions are creeping into the English court. Meanwhile, the king is married to the Spanish Queen Katherine, who comes with her own package of foreign interests: her nephew is King Charles V of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles' role as Holy Roman Emperor allies him to the Roman Catholic Church, based in Rome.
This picture reflects the ever-shifting power-balance during Tudor times between the three great powers of France, Spain and (the newcomer) England. England made and broke alliances with first Spain, then France in an attempt to gain and maintain power. Henry VIII began the process of forging an independent national and religious identity for England. In order to obtain his divorce from Katherine and marry Anne, Henry had to sideline the Pope, whose sympathies were with the Catholic Katherine and certainly not with divorce. Henry set up and made himself head of the Church of England, independent of Rome and the Pope, and went ahead with his marriage plans. However, Henry's Church still followed the Catholic rites and traditions. It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I that England defeated the powerful Spanish armada (fleet of ships), leading to a new independence and national sensibility, and was officially declared a Protestant nation. Elizabeth prided herself on being thoroughly English-bred, unlike the Spanish Katherine and her half-Spanish half-sister, Mary.
In the play Henry VIII, we see the progress towards religious independence from Rome symbolized in the fall of Wolsey and Katherine and the ignominious departure of Cardinal Campeius. The last remnant of Wolsey's influence, Gardiner, is brought into line and ordered to cease his plotting against the (Protestant) Cranmer. Since the rise of Protestantism in England, Catholics had been associated with divisive plots against the monarch and state. So the king's foiling of Gardiner's plot against Cranmer, his reconciling the council members, and Cranmer's subsequent baptism of the Protestant Elizabeth attended by a jubilant and unified crowd, were emblematic of England's journey towards peace, prosperity and independent nationhood. That independent nationhood, as Cranmer prophesies, would reach its apotheosis in the reign of Elizabeth. Cranmer also says that Elizabeth's virtues and success would be inherited by her successor, James I, under whom the colonization of America burgeoned.
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