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Free Study Guide-Henry VIII by William Shakespeare-Free Plot Synopsis Notes
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THEMES ANALYSIS

Major Theme

Henry VIII is a national history play and thus one of its major Themes is the evolution of England in the 16th century. The focus is on certain important events that occur during the reign of Henry VIII. These include two of Henry’s marriage, the execution of the Duke of Buckingham, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, birth of Princess Elizabeth and the English Reformation. The play also represents the Renaissance court as it is during the reign of Henry VIII. The second major theme is about the tragedy of ruined greatness. This is queen substance by the tragic fates of the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Katherine and Cardinal Wolsey.

Henry VIII is a play about England. It focuses on the theme of National greatness and evolution during the 16th century. It focuses on several aspects of the reign of King Henry VIII. One of these is the Renaissance court, which is found during Henry VIII’s time. It is the court of the monarchy that has broken the medieval values and imposed new values and rules of conduct. The ceremonialism of the play, its account of the competitive pomp of the "Field of the cloth of Gold", its careful recreation of the pageantry of Anne’s coronation are all features o the Renaissance court. As is the susceptibility of youth to fashion, which is much ridiculed by several English nobles in Act I, Scene III. The nobles at Henry’s court cover in the royal antechambers dreading the King’s anger. The institutions and conventions of the court are designed to keep truth at bay. Buckingham must acknowledge the fair conduct of his trial. Katherine must be judged in a corner, not openly, as she wants.


The early Tudors achieved a shift of power and consequently of values. This made the rise of Wolsey, born of a humble bloodline, possible in a power structure dominated by blue blood. The power of nobility is passing and success new depends on royal favor. The King has immense power. He overrules the council and protects Cranmer who is known to have Protestant leanings. This hints subtly the English reformation although most of the really explosive reformation Themes have been tactfully omitted in the play.

The execution of the Duke of Buckingham, on the mere suspicion of treachery also reveals the true state-of-affairs of the time. The King had the power of Cred over the lives of his subject. He could decide who lived and who did not deserve to do so. Another fact is the power that Wolsey held over state matters. The authority bestowed on him by the King is so potent that he virtually ruled the nation. This is seen in Act I, Scene II when it is revealed that Wolsey has introduced a new tax of which the King is entirely unaware. Wolsey is a great statesman and an essential part of English history.

The King’s divorce from Katherine also had significant national repercussions. It made way for Protestantism in England, led to the break of England from the papacy and officially established the English Reformation. Henry VIII, a catholic King, breaks away from Rome and established an Anglican Church with himself as its head, just to obtain a divorce from his first wife and legally marry his mistress. Katherine is concerned with the welfare of her subjects and with her England lost a good Queen. The marriage of Anne and Henry gave England Queen Elizabeth, one of the finest rulers England ever had.

With its theme of ruined greatness, the play concentrates upon the misery which mightiness meets. And also on the pageant ceremony which both sustain its human ambition that tempts it and finally subdues it. This is personified in the figures of Buckingham, Katherine, Wolsey and their tragic fates. The scheme of the tragedy is of three stages: prosperity, destruction and regeneration.

Each character is introduced at the height of their glory: Buckingham, a nobleman of with great talents and loved by all; Katherine, Queen of England and respected by the King, her to husband; Wolsey at the zenith of his material success and trusted by the King. Then comes the fall, where everything is lost by a chain of events out of the character’s control. He is helpless in the hands of Fate lent to ruin him just as it raised him. In the second phase of destruction, each of the characters meets with total ruin: of status, honor and wealth. Buckingham loses his life, Katherine her crown and her husband, Wolsey his titles and health and eventually his life. Even as it begins to appear that all is ended the third phase of regeneration is initiated. It occurs of the spiritual plane and bestows on each character, humility, the winning of self-knowledge, and inner peace. This phase brings with it the reward and compensation for suffering.

In all these cases, there is strength inherent in their persons and they carry it with them in their reverses. So, in seeming to lose it, they augment it. For it can now be seen, as it couldn’t be before, that the greatness, which was in their position served to obscure. Buckingham becomes something more and better than the gifted and accomplished nobleman, when he stands unpropped and simply as "poor Edward Bohun." Wolsey, shorn of all political power, towers far above the all performing and all powerful cardinal and chancellor who "bore his blushing honors thick upon him." Katherine, in her grief, nonetheless shows why she still deserves the title of the "Queen." Her last request to Henry concerns the welfare of people who come under her protection. Thus, their nobler and better qualities shine out afresh when they are brought low, so that their fall reveals the true causes of their rising. And because this real and true exhalation springs up naturally in consequence of their fall, it is from their ruins that the dramatist builds "such noble scenes as draw the eye to flow."

Minor Theme

The continuity of the Tudor succession forms one of the play’s minor Themes. The Tudor dynasty founded by Henry VIII. Henry is in need of a male heir to assure Tudor succession to the thereof England. It is partly in lieu of this that he executes the Duke of Buckingham, divorces Katherine and marries Anne Bullen. The play is a celebration of the Tudor dynasty and the peace and prosperity that characterize it. This theme also stresses the glory that the rule of Queen Elizabeth brings to the nation.

The mater of Tudor succession, to the throne of England, after Henry’s death, is one of the significant minor Themes that run subtly in the play. Henry VIII is the second Tudor King. His father Henry Tudor or Henry VII founded the dynasty in 1485. Henry VIII wants to assure the continuation of the Tudor dynasty, as the ruling dynasty, after his death. The fact that he has no male heir threatens this ambition. The Duke of Buckingham is next in line for the throne after Henry. Hence, he is executed and the danger he represents neutralized.

Henry’s first wife, Katherine, has been unsuccessful in providing him with a son he so desperately wants. When he falls in love with and marries Anne one of his concerns is that she maybe able to provide him with an heir. This is revealed clearly in Act V, Scene I when he impatiently asks the old woman if his newborn child is a boy.

His fears are finally laid to rest by Cranmer’s prophecy, which assures him that, his daughter Elizabeth will ascend to the throne of England after him and carry on and glorify the Tudor name as the Queen of England.

Henry VIII is a play about the Tudor dynasty written by an Elizabethan dramatist. In no uncertain terms it glorifies the Tudors and especially celebrates the reign of Queen Elizabeth the most popular of all the Tudor monarchs.

During the war of the Roses, for a generation and more the English monarchy had been tossed on the rough waters of a disputed succession. Peace came with Henry Tudor who ascended the throne of England in 1485. He combined in him the blood of both the warring houses of Lancaster and York. His rule initiated a new era of prosperity in the English History. He led England out of medieval disorder into greater strength and broader times. His son Henry VIII carried on this trend after his death. The national growth they began was augmented into national glory during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter.

The rule of these kings benefited their English subjects and won them unswerving loyalty and devotion. This feeling runs throughout the entire play and is dramatically underlined by Cranmer’s prophecy about the golden England that blooms under the guidance of the Tudor Queen Elizabeth.

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