Study Guide

King Henry VIII in Henry VIII

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King Henry VIII

The play is named for him, so you know he's important. In fact, King Henry VIII  is one of those English kings that most of us have already heard of even before we come across Shakespeare's play. He's famous for his gaggle of wives—and for his break from the Catholic Church.

But we don't get to see much of that in the play; the Henry we meet here is mainly kind and subdued—a big contrast to his macho rep.

Pulling the Wolsey Over His Eyes

In the first half of the play, Henry even seems a little naive. We've been warned about Cardinal Wolsey's out-of-control power, and sure enough, when we meet Henry, he's under Wolsey's spell, going right along with whatever Wolsey says. The Lord Chamberlain even says: "Heaven will one day open / The king's eyes, that so long have slept upon / This bold bad man" (2.2.47-49). Yikes.

In fairness to Henry, others are fooled by Wolsey, too. Henry does eventually see the light, of course, and when he does, he lets loose on the cardinal: "I have kept you next my heart, have not alone / employed you where high profits might come home, / but pared my present havings, to bestow / my bounties upon you" (3.2.200-203). Holy cow, Batman. We don't want to be on the receiving end of a lecture from Henry.

Henry's mad that Wolsey abused his power, and that he went behind the king's back. That's not just personal disloyalty: Wolsey hasn't just betrayed his friend—he's also committed something frighteningly close to treason.

We can't help but high-five Henry for the way he lowers the bomb on Wolsey, too. He doesn't just confront him; he slyly delivers the letters and then says, "By the way, if you still want to hang out after you read those, come on over, and we'll do brunch." Henry finally shows himself to be bold, cunning, and snarky. It takes Wolsey's betrayal to turn this naive king into the Henry VIII we all know.


After Wolsey is out, Cranmer is in, and it's not long before he lands in hot water, too. This time, Henry doesn't buy the lords' hype about how bad Cranmer is, and he even gives the guy his ring to safeguard him. He warns his buddy about the trouble brewing.

As if that weren't enough, Henry stands up for Cranmer to all the council members. He's sick of them bagging on his friend, and he tells them so. His speech goes a little something like this: "if a prince / may be beholding to a subject, I / am, for his love and service, so to him" (5.2.129-131).

It's clear that Henry is a man who is not afraid to fight for what he wants. He defends Cranmer, but just as easily tosses Wolsey to the curb when things go wrong. He's a pretty straightforward guy when it comes to politics.

Things are a little less straightforward when it comes to friendship. Henry himself seems to have some trouble sorting out when people are being nice to him out of friendship and when people are being nice to him because they're, you know, sucking up to the king. Henry seems to want real friendship, and this is one of the reasons why it's so easy for Wolsey to manipulate him early in the play. Henry's status is secure, so he doesn't necessarily understand it when those around him try to manipulate him into favoring them.

It's Wolsey's actions that make Henry understand the truth about his position. When he gets mad at Wolsey, it's not just because Wolsey has betrayed him: we get the sense that he has lost some of his own innocence in the process as well. Maybe that's why Henry becomes so protective of Cranmer: when he thinks he's found a real friend, he's going to back that guy pretty much unconditionally.

(Notice that we said "pretty much": if Henry wants to change his mind at any time about anything, he's got the power to totally do whatever he wants.)

Love Lost

Henry's love life is even more complicated. He woos Anne unashamedly while he's married to Katherine, which is maybe not that unusual for a lusty king—but then he also treats Katherine with respect and kindness at their divorce proceedings. Henry himself may not totally know what he wants.

We're of two minds about the guy when it comes to love. On the one hand, Wolsey is the one pulling the strings: he claims that Henry's divorce with Katherine is illegal, and Henry just seems to go along with it. On the other hand, Henry is the king and can do whatever he pleases. Who's behind it all? Wolsey? Henry? Both?

Henry doesn't try to stop Wolsey from splitting him up from Katherine, like he tries to stop the councilmen they go after Cranmer. He claims that his guilty conscience won't let him stay married to Katherine—though his conscience doesn't give him any trouble when he executes Buckingham or kisses Anne while he's still married.

Perhaps he does feel his marriage was not right, just as he tells the court, but in the end, we're not given clear answers about whether it was right or wrong for him to divorce Katherine or marry Anne.

It's as if Shakespeare is deliberately leaving the question open: he's not going to judge Henry or give us easy answers about him. Did you notice how pretty much all the big decisions in the play happen off stage? That's because Shakespeare doesn't want to give us the final word on the subject. He wants to show us these characters and events in all their complexity and then let us judge for ourselves what we think went down.

So, what do you think? Is Henry a good guy or a bad guy (or something in between)? Why does he do what he does?

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