Study Guide

Henry VIII Compassion and Forgiveness

By William Shakespeare

Compassion and Forgiveness

KING
To every county
Where this is questioned send our letters with
Free pardon to each man that has denied
The force of this commission. Pray look to 't;
I put it to your care. (1.2.113-117)

The first act of forgiveness we see in the play is a political one. Henry pardons those who were imprisoned for not paying Wolsey's random new tax. It's all very well and good, but then we get to thinking about Wolsey in all this. Why are the people paying for his mistake in the first place? We can't really call it forgiveness when the people didn't really do anything wrong.

KING
Call him to present trial. If he may
Find mercy in the law, 'tis his; if none,
Let him not seek 't of us. By day and night,
He's traitor to th' height! (1.2.244-247)

Henry's just put out one fire (tax pardon) when another one starts up. It's about Buckingham, of course, and Wolsey brings in evidence for him to be tried for treason. Henry's response is interesting because he wants to be merciful to Buckingham, but there may be no mercy in the law.

BUCKINGHAM
The law I bear no malice for my death;
'T has done, upon the premises, but justice.
But those that sought it I could wish more Christians.
Be what they will, I heartily forgive 'em.
Yet let 'em look they glory not in mischief,
Nor build their evils on the graves of great men... (2.1.79-84)

As he is being taken to die, Buckingham proclaims that he forgives anyone and everyone involved in his sentence. It's a pretty bold statement—and a moving one, too. Shakespeare leaves the reason behind this speech a mystery. Is Buckingham feeling guilty over his (treasonous) actions, or is he just a really forgiving guy who wants to die with no regrets? You decide.

BUCKINGHAM
Sir Thomas Lovell, I as free forgive you
As I would be forgiven. I forgive all.
There cannot be those numberless offenses
'Gainst me, that I cannot take peace with. No black
   envy
Shall mark my grave. (2.1.99-104)

Lovell specifically asks for forgiveness before taking Buckingham to the Tower, and Buckingham's response is top notch. He doesn't throw it back in Lovell's face or act snarkily toward the guy taking him off to his death. Instead, he openly forgives Lovell. We're left thinking that if the executioner is repentant, Buckingham must be innocent.

NORFOLK
A gracious king that pardons all offenses
Malice ne'er meant. Our breach of duty this way
Is business of estate, in which we come
To know your royal pleasure. (2.2.80-83)

When Norfolk tries to butter the king up to ask him about Wolsey, it backfires. Henry has already pardoned the people for the tax; he doesn't want to keep going. Yet forgiveness is valued in this society: Norfolk praises someone who pardons the people, and he wants Henry to be gracious with him as well.

SURREY
Plague of your policy!
You sent me deputy for Ireland,
Far from his succor, from the King, from all
That might have mercy on the fault thou gav'st him,
Whilst your great goodness, out of holy pity,
Absolved him with an axe. (3.2.317-322)

Burn. Surrey lays out how Wolsey "forgives" people: it's not through words or kindness, but with an axe. Wolsey hasn't shown anyone else any compassion whatsoever. In fact, he's gone out of his way to make trouble for people, whether they deserved it or not.

KATHERINE
So may he rest. His faults lie gently on him!
Yet thus far, Griffith, give me leave to speak him,
And yet with charity. He was a man
Of an unbounded stomach, ever ranking
Himself with princes; one that by suggestion
Tied all the kingdom. (4.2.35-40)

When Katherine hears of Wolsey's death, she wants to speak well of him but somehow cannot. Can you blame her? The guy orchestrated her divorce. It turns out not everything can be forgiven easily.

CRANMER
God turn their hearts! I never sought their malice—
To quench mine honor. They would shame to make me
Wait else at door, a fellow councillor,
'Mong boys, grooms, and lackeys. But their pleasures
Must be fulfilled, and I attend with patience. (5.2.20-24)

Cranmer isn't after the judgment of men. Instead, he looks to a higher power. He introduces the idea of religious forgiveness when men will not offer it, and his search for absolution reminds us that not everyone is after something from the nobles and the court. Perhaps he can sleep soundly knowing he's got an in with the man upstairs.

KING
Once more, my Lord of Winchester, I charge you,
Embrace and love this man. (5.3.245-246)

At the council meeting, Henry forces the members to forgive Cranmer because he's a good guy. Some of them accept this right away, while Gardiner has a tough time swallowing this pill. It's great that Henry wants everyone to kiss and make up, but we wonder whether forced forgiveness is really going to last.

EPILOGUE
'Tis ten to one this play can never please
All that are here. Some come to take their ease
And sleep an act or two—but those, we fear,
We have frighted with our trumpets; so, 'tis clear,
They'll say 'tis naught—others, to hear the city
Abused extremely and to cry 'That's witty!'—
Which we have not done neither—that, I fear... (Epilogue.1-7)

Aside from the forgiveness in the play itself, we're asked for a different type of understanding when the Epilogue steps out on stage and asks us to forgive. It's one way of telling the audience, "Hey, if you didn't like it, that's too bad."

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