Study Guide

Henry VIII Fate and Free Will

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Fate and Free Will

My surveyor is false. The o'ergreat cardinal
Hath showed him gold. My life is spanned already.
I am the shadow of poor Buckingham,
Whose figure even this instant cloud puts on
By dark'ning my clear sun.  [To Norfolk.]  My lord,
farewell. (1.1.264-269)

When he is accused of treason, Buckingham doesn't fight. Why? He claims there's no use in protesting, because it's already decided, and his life has already been measured out (spun). That sure does sound like fate to us—the characters seem to think they are just playing a part in a cosmic play.

If I am
Traduced by ignorant tongues, which neither know
My faculties nor person, yet will be
The chronicles of my doing, let me say
'Tis but the fate of place, and the rough brake
That virtue must go through. (1.2.85-90)

Wolsey tells Henry that charging Buckingham with treason was fated, and it's out of his hands. Okay, maybe. But then why does he need to go out of his way to tell everyone he had nothing to do with it? It sounds more like Wolsey is covering his tracks than actually unfolding Buckingham's fate.

A little happier than my wretched father.
Yet thus far we are one in fortunes: both
Fell by our servants, by those men we loved most—
A most unnatural and faithless service. (2.1.140-143)

There's just something about death that makes people spill all their secrets. Buckingham tells us at his execution that his father suffered a similar fate; it looks like their fortunes are intertwined with one another. (Check out Richard III if you want to see what happened with his dad.)

I think you have hit the mark. But is 't not cruel
That she should feel the smart of this? The Cardinal
Will have his will, and she must fall. (2.1.192-194)

The gents think that Katherine's fate will be up to Wolsey and Wolsey alone. They aren't interested in the fate part, really: they go out of their way to tell us that it's Wolsey himself who is bad news for Katherine.

This is the Cardinal's doing. The king-cardinal,
That blind priest, like the eldest son of Fortune,
Turns what he list. The King will know him one day. (2.2.23-25)

Here, Norfolk characterizes Wolsey as the son of "fortune" because of everything he successfully orchestrates. It's a very convoluted way of saying that Wolsey is the one behind everything that's happening. Okay, maybe, but that just leaves us with one question: why does Norfolk use the word "fortune" when describing Wolsey, then? If everything is decided by free will, why should we care about fortune (fate) at all?

I have been begging sixteen years in court,
Am yet a courtier beggarly, nor could
Come pat betwixt too early and too late
For any suit of pounds; and you—O, fate!—
A very fresh fish here—fie, fie, fie upon
This compelled fortune!—have your mouth filled up
Before you open it. (2.3.100-106)

The Old Lady tells Anne flat out that she's lucky, and the Old Lady is not. Anne's just received a fancy new title and a wad of moolah from the king, so the Old Lady thinks that fate favors Anne—nothing else would make sense.

I am the most unhappy woman living.
To her Women.  Alas, poor wenches, where are now
   your fortunes?
Shipwracked upon a kingdom where no pity,
No friend, no hope; no kindred weep for me,
Almost no grave allowed me, like the lily
That once was mistress of the field and flourished,
I'll hang my head and perish. (3.1.164-170)

Katherine's upset over being booted off the throne. She lets loose on Wolsey and Campeius about her bad luck, but then she goes on to blame them for her situation. It looks like even Katherine is confused as to whether fate or free will rules her life.

I know 'twill stir him strongly; yet I know
A way, if it take right, in spite of fortune
Will bring me off again.         He looks at another paper.
                                        What's this? 'To the Pope!'
The letter, as I live, with all the business
I writ to 's Holiness. Nay then, farewell! (3.2.269-274)

Oops. Wolsey misplaced some incriminating letters and was caught red-handed. There's nothing he can do at this point but admit it and move on with his life. It's telling that he doesn't blame himself for making the mistake, but his fortune. He was meant to do this, he figures. Do we believe him, or is he just trying to convince himself he's not to blame?

My noble partners and myself thus pray
All comfort, joy, in this most gracious lady
Heaven ever laid up to make parents happy
May hourly fall upon you! (5.4.5-8)

Is good fortune something you can wish or pray for? Looks like the answer is yes, according to Cranmer. Here, he wishes good luck for Anne and the baby. It might just be an expression, but it's important for us to think about why he says this: he's hinting that the baby's life has a design. It's not all down to what Henry and Anne want; it's already planned out. So how could he wish for comfort and joy then? Yep, that's a bit of a head-scratcher.

This royal infant—heaven still move about her!—
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness. She shall be—
But few now living can behold that goodness—
A pattern to all princes living with her
And all that shall succeed. (5.5.24-30)

Everything Cranmer says about baby Elizabeth comes true. Shakespeare's audience knows it, too. So, Cranmer's prophecy is long-winded, but it also serves a larger purpose: it helps the audience understand that what is happening is all part of a larger cosmic design. It also helps them relate the events on stage to events from the near past in their own lives.

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