Study Guide

Queen Katherine in Henry VIII

By William Shakespeare

Queen Katherine

Poor Katherine. It's not her fault that Henry wants to marry some hot young thing, or that Wolsey is out to get her. It hardly matters, though: where there's a will, there's a way. Wolsey concocts a plan to bump Katherine off the throne on the grounds that she was married to Henry VIII's bro before he died. Now before you go turning your nose up at that, you should know that marrying your brother's wife after your brother died was pretty common in Shakespeare's day, even for kings. So why would Henry or Katherine do any different?

Trying Times

Wolsey comes down hard on Katherine, but she's no shrinking violet. We love the way she stands up for herself at trial: she decides she's not going to sit there and listen to Wolsey drag her name through the mud; instead, she just gets up and leaves. She's all, "I do refuse you for my judge" (2.4.131), and then she curtsies and leaves. That's one way to put Wolsey in his place.

She doesn't stop there. When Wolsey and Campeius pay her a visit to talk some sense into her, she rallies: "You have angels' faces, but heaven knows your hearts" (3.1.161). Burn. She calls it like she sees it, even to Wolsey's face. We'd like to point out even the council members can't do that: once they suspect Wolsey of double-dealing, they want him gone, but they're too afraid to confront him like that.

What sets Katherine apart from the other characters is her refusal to participate in all the shady manipulation going on in the court. She knows that everyone is lying and pretending all the time, and her way of dealing with it is just to (very publicly) opt out. She knows that even if she speaks the truth, it'll just get lost in all the lies everyone else is telling. Her only other method of defense, probably, would be to lie and cheat and manipulate her way out of the mess she finds herself in—but this lady decides she's gonna be better than that.

Man, She's Good

Too bad none of this does Katherine any good: she's shipped off to Kimbolton faster than she can say "divorce." As if that weren't enough, she gets sick there and dies. One thing's for sure, though: Katherine dies with her dignity and good name intact. Even when Henry is divorcing her, he sings her praises:

If thy rare qualities, sweet gentleness,
Thy meekness saintlike, wifelike government,
Obeying in commanding, and thy parts
Sovereign and pious else, could speak thee out—
The queen of earthly queens. She's noble born,
(2.4.153-157)

Have you ever heard a king speak about his ex like that? Neither have we. In a way, Katherine represents the innocence Henry loses in this play: her kind of honesty and loyalty can't really survive at the royal court, where everyone is all about intrigue, lies, and manipulation. Henry seems to recognize Katherine's worth, but he chooses to consolidate his power as king instead of keeping his faithful wife around.

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