Study Guide

Henry VIII Spirituality

By William Shakespeare

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Go with me like good angels to my end,
And as the long divorce of steel falls on me,
Make of your prayers one sweet sacrifice,
And lift my soul to heaven. (2.1.92-95)

When he's about to be executed, Buckingham focuses on the spiritual. We don't get to see much of him before his trial and execution, so it's difficult to tell whether he's this devout all the time—or just when he's about to die. Either way, he seems to find some comfort in praying before his death. In fact, he seems more sincere in his beliefs than Wolsey does.

Good angels keep it from us!
What may it be? You do not doubt my faith, sir?
This secret is so weighty 'twill require
A strong faith to conceal it (2.1.164-167)

We couldn't have said it better ourselves. The gents openly question one another's faith when shooting the breeze. But there's no bad blood there: the issue is as quickly resolved as it began. The gents show us that anyone can discuss spiritual matters, not just nobles or church priests.

How holily he works in all his business,
And with what zeal! For, now he has cracked the
Between us and the Emperor, the Queen's
He dives into the King's soul and there scatters
Dangers, doubts, wringing of the conscience,
Fears, and despairs—and all these for his marriage. (2.2.27-34)

Norfolk disses Wolsey (who else?) by talking about his sacrilegious ways. Wolsey is supposed to be offering Henry religious guidance and support, but instead he leverages his position to turn Henry against his nobles. What's worrying is that Norfolk suggests that someone can tamper with someone else's spirituality (that seems serious). If anyone can and would do it, it would be Wolsey.

I will, when you are humble; nay, before,
Or God will punish me. I do believe,
Induced by potent circumstances, that
You are mine enemy, and make my challenge
You shall not be my judge; for it is you
Have blown this coal betwixt my lord and me—
Which God's dew quench! Therefore I say again,
I utterly abhor, yea, from my soul
Refuse you for my judge... (2.4.83-91)

She's bold, forthcoming, and above all, spiritual. Katherine doesn't just smack-talk Wolsey to Henry; instead, she calls him out on his un-saintly ways. She tells everyone that she will pray for forgiveness if she's wrong about Wolsey, so even though she's calling Wolsey out, she still remains more or less above reproach when it comes to being holy and religious.

The more shame for you. Holy men I thought you,
Upon my soul, two reverend cardinal virtues;
But cardinal sins and hollow hearts I fear you.
Mend 'em, for shame, my lords. Is this your comfort? (3.1.116-119)

The clearest statement about why Wolsey's behavior is unfair comes straight from Katherine's mouth. After she refuses to participate in her trial, Katherine tells the cardinals that their treatment of her is awful. But wait, there're more: then she says it's all that much worse because they are of the church and should be godly men. Oh, snap.

But to stubborn spirits
They swell and grow as terrible as storms.
I know you have a gentle, noble temper,
A soul as even as a calm. Pray think us
Those we profess: peacemakers, friends, and servants. (3.1.181-185)

Wolsey is not one to take accusations lightly. He tells Katherine what she can do with her comments about him not being spiritual enough. She can… pray. Wait, what? Wolsey strikes back by saying Katherine should be more religious and less hotheaded. We're not so convinced.

If we did think
His contemplation were above the Earth
And fixed on spiritual object, he should still
Dwell in his musings, but I am afraid
His thinkings are below the moon, not worth
His serious considering. (3.2.168-173)

Henry calls Wolsey out for not thinking about spiritual matters enough. Instead, Wolsey is concerned with stuff that's going down on earth, which Henry thinks is a bad thing. Wolsey shouldn't waste so much time trying to get in good with the king; given his job description, he should be more spiritual, and that eventually leads to his downfall.

At length her Grace rose, and with modest paces
Came to the altar, where she kneeled and saintlike
Cast her fair eyes to heaven and prayed devoutly,
Then rose again and bowed her to the people. (4.1.99-102)

Of course Anne is saintly during her coronation: the gents describe their new queen as beautiful, noble, and devout. She's not a faker like Wolsey, and she knows what's important (at least according to these gents). Shakespeare seems to give us this nugget to cement her as queen material. It's safe to say spirituality is something that all queens should have in this kingdom.

That Christendom shall ever speak his virtue.
His overthrow heaped happiness upon him,
For then, and not till then, he felt himself,
And found the blessedness of being little.
And, to add greater honors to his age
Than man could give him, he died fearing God. (4.2.70-75)

Griffith says it's important that everyone knows Wolsey died in a spiritual way, even if he didn't live a spiritual life. Griffith goes out of his way to tell Katherine this, even though she's just rehashed all of his faults. Wolsey's conversion from ambitious schemer to devout humble pie suggests that everyone might get a second chance when it comes to spiritual matters—or it just shows us how manipulating and scheming Wolsey is. Which is it?

Prithee, to bed, and in thy prayers remember
The estate of my poor queen. Leave me alone,
For I must think of that which company
Would not be friendly to. (5.1.87-90)

Anne has just sent word to pray for her because she's in a lot of pain. Well, childbirth will do that to you. Henry wants everyone to get in touch with their spiritual sides here, now that his wife and potential heir are in trouble. His sudden attention to prayer tells us that everyone in this play seems to turn spiritual when the tough times come knocking.

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