Before the action even begins, we meet the Prologue, and once the play is up, we get a similar figure—creatively named Epilogue—who comes out on stage for a little chat with the audience. These short speeches bookend the play. What we're interested in is the way the Prologue and Epilogue talk directly to the audience. Their speeches aren't really about the drama or characters we're watching; these speeches are aimed at us.
So, what gives? Well, it seems like Shakespeare wants us to know exactly what we're in for. You probably noticed that the Prologue tells us what to expect: this won't be a funny play, but one that has a bunch of serious stuff in it. If the Prologue were in the 21st century, it might be a trailer for a movie: it's responsible for telling us the genre and letting us know what we're going to watch.
When we get to the Epilogue, things get a little weirder: it's almost as if the Epilogue is apologizing to anybody who didn't like the play. Check it out: "'tis ten to one this play can never please all that are here." Um, okay. It seems like that's just telling us: if you didn't love the play, sorry about that. But, then the Epilogue goes on to point out how great the women were in the play, so it must be all right.
Aren't the Prologue and the Epilogue just sort of stating the obvious? Why bother with them at all?
We can't tell you for sure, but consider this: Henry VIII was written around 1612 or 1613, and that's not so long after the events in this play actually happened. Queen Elizabeth I, Henry's daughter, had only been dead for about twenty years. Shakespeare isn't writing about ancient history here; even if all the characters in the play are dead, they haven't been dead that long, and a lot of the issues in the play are still pretty current.
That makes this play kind of dangerous, don't you think? As you can see in the rest of our analysis, Henry VIII is pretty subversive in a lot of ways, if always in a disguised or subtle way. You could see the Prologue and Epilogue as disclaimers, as if Shakespeare is saying that hey, he's just putting down some serious historical facts, so if you see anything you don't like, blame history, not him.
Shakespeare knows full well that he's doing some tricky things in this play, but by shoving in the Prologue and Epilogue, he can be all like, "Hey, even the characters in my play say there's nothing fishy going on."