Study Guide

Henry VIII Society and Class

By William Shakespeare

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Society and Class

This butcher's cur is venom-mouthed, and I
Have not the power to muzzle him; therefore best
Not wake him in his slumber. A beggar's book
Outworths a noble's blood. (1.1.143-146)

Right away we can see that Buckingham and Wolsey won't be friending each other on Facebook anytime soon. It's clear that Buckingham thinks very little of Wolsey. What's also intriguing is the way he expresses that: by drawing attention to class. He calls Wolsey lower than a beggar as an insult, yes, but it's also a way of cluing us in to the social order in the play.

VAUX, calling as to Officers offstage
Prepare there!
The duke is coming. See the barge be ready,
And fit it with such furniture as suits
The greatness of his person. (2.1.116-119)

Even in death, the class system should be preserved: Vaux thinks there should be a sense of duty about the way they take Buckingham to be executed. This shows just how ingrained the social order is. Yet, Buckingham does still die, even if he is a noble.

Let it alone. My state now will but mock me.
When I came hither, I was Lord High Constable
And Duke of Buckingham; now, poor Edward Bohun.
Yet I am richer than my base accusers... (2.1.121-124)

When Vaux suggests preparing a barge fit for his high-class status, Buckingham rejects the idea flat out. He doesn't care about his social class anymore, because he is about to die. Makes sense, right? We'd like to point out the way he thinks that he has been stripped of his title, as if it he's now a totally different person without it.

I swear, 'tis better to be lowly born
And range with humble livers in content
Than to be perked up in a glistering grief
And wear a golden sorrow. (2.3.22-26)

Sure, you don't want to be queen, Anne. Well, maybe she doesn't—once Henry chooses her, she certainly doesn't have much say in the matter. At any rate, what she says to the Old Lady is worth a look: Anne argues that it's better to be low, because if you are born high, you could fall and miss what you had. Everyone in the audience would know that this was exactly what happened to Anne—Henry eventually had her beheaded.

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,
And like her true nobility she has
Carried herself towards me. (2.4.154-159)

Isn't Henry supposed to be divorcing Katherine? The way he talks about her would make you think he cares about her still. He speaks really highly about his wife, complimenting her attitude and personality. The fact that he relates these qualities to her "noble" blood tells us a lot about what Henry thinks about class. Unsurprisingly, everything honest and good is high class, just like him.

I am a most poor woman, and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions, having here
No judge indifferent nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. (2.4.18-21)

Here, Katherine creates a funny contrast between her actual status as queen and her new status as being the king's ex. A queen cannot be poor, but Wolsey has crippled her in terms of class, she claims. She was born with a kingdom (Spain) and yet dies with nothing. It looks like class isn't the most important thing, after all.

I have touched the highest point of all my greatness,
And, from that full meridian of my glory
I haste now to my setting. I shall fall... (3.2.275-277)

Right after he's been found out, Wolsey imagines himself falling in terms of social class. He goes from the highest point all the way down to the lowest point. That's a bummer, but we can't help but point out that Wolsey brought a lot of it on himself. So, is social class something you inherit, or is it something you can change yourself?

Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate you.
I feel my heart new opened. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes' favors!
There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have... (3.2.434-439)

Earlier, Wolsey pretended to be a poor guy in front of the king as a way of flattering in the guy. He was all, "Oh, I'm so poor compared to your richness." Well, now it's true: he no longer has his title or any power within the kingdom. His fall from grace is so dramatic because it's sudden… but also because he falls so far. Guess you got to be careful who you knock off on your way to the top.

When by the Archbishop of Canterbury
She had all the royal makings of a queen—
As, holy oil, Edward Confessor's crown,
The rod, and bird of peace, and all such emblems—
Laid nobly on her; which performed, the choir... (4.1.103-107)

At Anne's coronation, the gents look on and describe her to us. She's beautiful, to be sure, but what really caught our attention is the way these guys say she's already got royalty in her blood. What does that actually look like? It's funny to think that the gents view her as royalty just because she's gone through this one ceremony, whereas at the beginning of the play, she was just plain old Anne Bullen.

Belong to th' gallows, and be hanged, you rogue!
Is this a place to roar in?—Fetch me a dozen crab-tree
staves, and strong ones. These are but switches
to 'em.—I'll scratch your heads: you must be seeing
christenings? Do you look for ale and cakes here,
you rude rascals? (5.4.6-11)

Trying to keep the commoners out of the christening, the Porter rants and raves about the low-class people he calls rascals. Here we see high and low class together, mingling but not actually associating with one another. The commoners are interested in what's happening with the nobles because ultimately, it will affect them.

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