Henry VIII condensed

Central to the play is the power and influence of Cardinal Wolsey during the reign of Henry VIII, and how his influence quickly ends as a result of his ill advised correspondence with the pope, “the moment this mightiness meets misery.” The cardinal’s lack of appreciation of the power of very personal human desire, played out through the king’s pursuit of the young Anne Bullen at the expense of the state and his Queen Katherine, is the play’s other central theme.  The king has told us he is looking for a male heir, letting us know that his kingdom is “well worthy to the best heir ‘o th’ world.”

Act 1. Cardinal Wolsey has initiated and directed a garish display of excess during a purposeless and extravagant event in France between England’s and France’s kings, enormously irritating two English noblemen, one of them being the duke of Buckingham, no love lost between Buckingham and Wolsey.  Buckingham is cautioned to be calm about the whole matter, to “ask God for temp’rance.” He isn’t calm. Wolsey has him arrested and sent “to th’ Tower.” We learn from
Queen Katherine that the public is upset with a tax increase, initiated by the cardinal, catching the king by surprise. The tax is revoked, Wolsey letting the public know the revocation was his doing. Wolsey throws an over-the-top dinner party, a noble commenting “He has money. In him, sparing would show a worse sin than ill doctrine.” Anne Bullen, the queen’s lady-in-waiting, enters the party with other young women, a noble noting “by my life, they are a sweet society of fair ones.” The king enters disguised as a shepherd and dances with Anne. As the party ends the love-struck king says to Anne “sweet partner, I must not yet forsake you.”

Act. 2. Buckingham is tried for treason, convicted and condemned to death. Henry VIII tells Campeius, a visiting aide to the pope, that “I must leave her,” referring to his wife Katherine. Following the king’s instructions, Wolsey and Campeius encourage Queen Katherine to try and accept the inevitable, rumored as it is that he plans to leave her. She puts up a good but fruitless fight. Anne soon learns that she is now the Marchioness of Pembroke and along with the title will receive “a thousand pounds a year annual support.”  An innocent Anne doesn’t know what to make of it.

Act 3. Henry VIII wants a divorce but needs the pope’s blessing. We learn that injudiciously Wolsey has written to the pope suggesting the king’s request for a divorce be delayed. His letter has been intercepted and turned over to the king. The politically astute Cardinal Cranmer “supports the king’s quick divorce.” The king hands Wolsey papers saying “read o’er this, and after, then to breakfast with what appetite you have.” Cardinal Wolsey is subject to taunting by some fellow nobles, one of them saying “press not a falling man too far.” Wolsey replays to himself his missteps. We learn that Cranmer has been “installed Lord Archbishop of Canterbury” and that the king and Lady Anne “in secret long married.” Wolsey comments “my hopes in heaven do dwell.”

Act 4. A coronation is held for Queen Anne, a noble who was there telling others that “believe me, she is the goodliest woman.”  We learn “she kneeled and saint-like cast her fair eyes to heaven and prayed devoutly.”  When the sick ex-queen Katherine is told of Wolsey’s death, she responds “He gave the clergy ill example.” The king of Spain is Katherine’s uncle.  She gives written instructions to an aide of her uncle’s; instructions to be given to Spain’s king that he is to take care of her daughter, Mary; to take care of her servants, and to “inter me like a queen.”

Act 5. We learn that Queen Anne is having a difficult labor. Certain clergy claim to the King’s Council that Archbishop Cranmer “is a most arch heretic.” The king lets Cranmer know that he is his man, even though he has “heard many grievous complaints of you.”  The king gives Cranmer a ring, suggesting he use it if needed.  Cranmer displays the king’s ring at the moment members of the King’s Council decide to send him to prison.  Seeing the ring, the tone and intent of the council members changes. The king enters the chambers telling Cranmer “There is a fair young maid that yet wants baptism.”  Shakespeare has Cranmer offer an eloquent tribute to the young monarch-to-be.  At the end of the service the king says simply to Cranmer “thou speakest wonders.” The baby is named Elizabeth, in time becoming Elizabeth I, a Shakespeare benefactor.