Introduction & Overview of King Henry VIII

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King Henry VIII Summary & Study Guide Description

King Henry VIII Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Further Reading on King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare.

Upon first reading, Henry VIII seems obscure and inaccessible to modern readers. Its episodic plot leaps from one group of characters to the next, relying on the audience's background understanding of Tudor history to fill in the gaps. Despite its difficulties, however, the basic format of Henry VIII looks more familiar. It can be seen as an Elizabethan version of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," a glimpse, although fictionalized, into the lives of the most famous public figures of the era. It examines the private and the public lives of England's rulers, and looks at what happens when personal likes and dislikes get tangled up with politics. Henry's desire to find a new wife is not just the story of a man having an affair; he is the king, and the woman he chooses will influence a nation and mother the heir to the throne. The squabble between Buckingham and Wolsey is not just the jealousy of two men competing for their boss's attention; the outcome is a matter of life and death and will determine whether nobles and commoners have equal right to rule. The popularity of stories about the personal lives of the powerful is borne out by the large collection of history plays written and performed during Shakespeare's time. Audiences wanted to know about the lives of their public figures, just as modern audiences are fascinated with the personal lives of the Kennedy family, or the British royal family. For all its familiarity as a peek into the lives of the famous, Henry VIII contains qualities that are peculiarly Elizabethan. As much as a modern author or director might fictionalize the lives of modern leaders, for example in Oliver Stone's version of the life of John F. Kennedy, modern stories sometimes lack the moral tone prevalent in Henry VIII. Shakespeare's play belongs to a medieval tradition known in Latin as de casibus illustrorum, "concerning the falls of great men." The typical de casibus story depicts a man rising to greatness and then falling at the whims of fortune. The story moralizes the fall, teaching that no amount of worldly power or wealth can survive the final stroke of fortune which is death, and that wise princes will amass spiritual wealth rather than scrambling after fleeting worldly goods. The falls of Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey all occur in the de casibus tradition; Wolsey especially seems to undergo a spiritual transformation after being stripped of his earthly power. In this sense, the play is meant to be a meditation for members of the audience to contemplate their own existence in the material world. The idea of renouncing material things can still be found in the major religions, in the Catholic Lent or the Islamic Ramadan, for instance.

But Henry VIII is not all serious moralization. It is also a celebration and a spectacle. Just as modern movies are often released in conjunction with holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving, it is believed that Henry VIII was first performed during the wedding festivities of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King James I. In keeping with the tone of celebration surrounding the wedding, the play is full of pomp and spectacle as it celebrates the glory of Henry's reign and his line of heirs that led to James I. Scenes such as Katherine's trial or Elizabeth's christening, in which troops of actors parade across the stage wearing the gorgeous robes of a noble or the gowns of a bishop, would have been equivalent to modern special effects: something visually exciting and very much out of the ordinary. The long list of characters includes many whose sole function is to add to the visual splendor of the play.

The play is not just about politics, it is itself a political act. Throughout the play, but especially in the final scene, Shakespeare celebrates the monarchy, the Tudor line, and the ascension of James I to the throne. Against the backdrop of others' falls, Henry remains steadfast, regal, and above the effects of fortune; he maintains the dignity of the monarchy. Cranmer praises Elizabeth in the final scene and describes her as a phoenix—a mythical bird that rises again out of its own ashes. He predicts that her virtues will be reborn in her heir, the very King James before whom the play was first performed. Flattering to the monarch, to his Protestant religion and to his triumph over the Catholics, the play is like a modern day campaign speech that extols the virtues of the leader and paints an unflattering portrait of his opponent.

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This section contains 762 words
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Shakespeare for Students
King Henry VIII from Shakespeare for Students. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.