Study Guide

Henry VIII Fate and Free Will

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Fate and Free Will

When the nobles fight for Henry's affection, or when Henry decides to get a quickie divorce, are these characters acting of their own free will? Or are they merely pawns getting played by fate?

Literary scholars and historians are divided on this issue, because Shakespeare presents two competing views of history in Henry VIII. On the one hand, the drama suggests that everything is prophesized and part of a divine plan. After all, Shakespeare's audiences knew what was gonna happen—since it was historical—and they might have felt that these events were somehow predestined.

On the other hand, the play also presents the idea that the characters choose their own paths out of their own free will. This view of history doesn't see any kind of divine plan at work. Instead, it attributes the events of history to human actions. There's plenty of evidence in the play to argue either position, and it seems more fruitful to simply acknowledge the ambiguity and tension between them.

Questions About Fate and Free Will

  1. Henry VIII is a play based on historical events. How does the play's historical foreknowledge influence the way we read the play? How does it shape our understanding of how and why events unfold?
  2. How should we interpret Cranmer's oracle about baby Elizabeth? How does he know about the future if it is not all part of a divine plan?
  3. Why do certain characters make a point of telling us what they choose to do? In what ways do we see them act of their own free will throughout the play? Is it true that they are making their own choices?

Chew on This

Henry VIII's historical foreknowledge suggests that all the events that unfold throughout the course of the play are inevitable and were therefore fated to happen.

Even though the play is based on historical events, we see the characters use their own free will throughout the play.

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