Study Guide

Henry VIII Summary

By William Shakespeare

Henry VIII Summary

Read the full text of Henry VIII with a side-by-side translation HERE.


Let's get one thing straight. This isn't going to be one of those plays that's laugh a minute. This play features a lot of real events, and some pretty grim stuff is gonna take place.

At least that's what the Prologue tells us right from the get-go. Yep, some dude walks out on the stage to tell us not to be that fool laughing at serious events.

We see what the Prologue was talking about when Buckingham gets taken away to jail after telling his pals that Cardinal Wolsey (the King's right hand man) is ambitious and disloyal to the king. Buckingham's trial is over as fast as it began. Wolsey's in charge of the trial (because that's not a conflict of interest at all) and brings Buckingham's Surveyor to testify against him.

Queen Katherine thinks the whole thing is a little too neat and contrived, but King Henry believes Wolsey and sentences Buckingham to death. When the charge is treason, there's no messing around.

Wolsey has a party, and everyone is invited, including Henry, who randomly shows up in disguise as a shepherd. It looks like his skills don't rest in costume design, though, because Wolsey sees right through it and uses it as another ego-boosting op. He flatters Henry, and Henry laps it up. He also meets a pretty girl named Anne Bullen. Never mind that he's married: Henry dances with Anne and kisses her, too.

Word on the street is that Henry and Katherine are on the outs. He thinks she's awesome and everything, but she was married to his brother before he died, so Henry's not sure if their marriage is really above board. Well, that's convenient. There's even a rumor that Henry has brought in Cardinal Campeius from Rome to see if he can get a quickie divorce from Katherine and still be cool with the Pope. Meanwhile, Henry gives Anne a fancy-pants new title and gifts. Looks like the rumors are true.

But Henry isn't the only one behind this divorce: Wolsey wants it to happen, too, so that he can get Katherine out of the way (she disagrees with him too much). He doesn't like Anne all that much, but he'll deal with that later. Katherine sees right through Wolsey's schemes to leave her high and dry, so she refuses to participate in the divorce trial. She calls Wolsey and his buddy Cardinal Campeius out on their lies. Nevertheless, the divorce is finalized, and Katherine's shipped off to Kimbolton.

By this point, other nobles suspect Wolsey of wheeling and dealing, as well. They gather to come up with a plan to expose his trickery, but he takes care of that himself: it turns out that Henry has some letters that Wolsey wrote to the Pope encouraging him to denounce Anne (so that Henry would have to ditch her). Whoops. Henry confronts Wolsey, and the guy's got nothing to say. He's out, and Henry's other fave, Cranmer, is in.

Henry marries Anne and demotes Katherine to Princess Dowager. Anne is crowned, and everyone thinks she's the best-looking girl they've ever seen. We hear that Wolsey has died. Katherine wants to speak well of a dead guy, but she remembers all the mean stuff he did. She has a wacky dream, and then she herself dies.

Anne gives birth to a baby girl. Henry wishes the baby were a boy, but he rushes to be by his wife's side. Meanwhile, citizens are complaining about Cranmer left and right—word on the street is that Gardiner has actually been spreading a lot of rumors about him. Even so, the council holds a meeting to figure out what to do with him. The general consensus is that he should just go to the Tower and rot, but at the last minute, Henry saves the day by defending the guy.

Everyone kisses and makes up. Then Henry and Anne's new baby girl, Elizabeth, is christened. We're told that she'll bring great things for England and will be a fabulous queen. Then the Epilogue comes out on stage and says, "Sorry if that's not as good as you were hoping for, crowd." But hey, the women were virtuous, so what more could we ask for?