All Is True (Henry VIII)

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Shakespeare, William. All Is True (Henry VIII). (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 847-929).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry VIII” | Tudor Society Sources | H. B. Tree’s Court of Henry VIII | Historical Figures


Prologue and Act 1, Scene 1 (858-65, prologue emphasizes the fall of the great; Buckingham starts off the pattern: to Norfolk, he criticizes Wolsey bitterly, and they discuss the cardinal’s shortcomings, perhaps with some envy; Wolsey looks askance at Buckingham, is investigating his finances; Buckingham arrested on a charge of treason)

The prologue-speaker tells us that this play offers something for everyone: pathos, truth, and a medieval morality tale of illustrious men and women falling from a great height, sometimes when they least expect it: “think you see them great, / … / … then, in a moment, see / How soon this mightiness meets misery” (859, 27-30).  There’s plenty of history and pageantry in Henry VIII, subject to the usual telescoping and rearrangement of events we find in Shakespeare’s history plays, but the greatest emphasis will be placed upon the interplay of subtle and strong characters.  In general, I would say the play conforms, as the Norton editors say about the history play Sir Thomas More that Shakespeare seems to have had a hand in revising, to the Boccaccio-inspired tradition known as de casibus virorum illustrium: “[plays or stories] about the fall of illustrious men.”  This tradition in some form or another goes all the way back to classical times—what else is Plutarch, for example, doing in Parallel Lives, his side-by-side biographical sketches of famous politicians, rulers and generals?  Often, the emphasis is upon the mistakes made by the great that led to their downfall, the better to warn others not to make similar mistakes.  But sometimes, especially in a medieval context, the mistake just consists in being a post-lapsarian human being: first you’re at the top of Lady Fortune’s wheel, and then you’re at the bottom.

Edward Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham is the first to speak, and will be the first to fall.  This Duke (son of Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham—the man who unsuccessfully rebelled against King Richard III in 1483 after having supported him in usurping the throne) explains that he did not attend the meeting of more than two weeks’ length between Henry VIII and the French King Francis I, a 1520 meeting known as Field of Cloth of Gold, which was meant to solidify the friendship between the two nations following the Anglo-French peace treaty of 1514.  Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk describes the scene as the very “view of earthly glory” (859, 1.1.14).  Buckingham is not impressed, and he seems to resent Cardinal Wolsey’s role in arranging this meeting: “No man’s pie is freed / From his ambitious finger” (860, 1.1.52-53) says the aristocrat, and as for the ceremonies, he describes them as “fierce vanities” (860, 1.1.54).  Norfolk also offers some interesting analysis of their opponent: “There’s in him stuff that puts him to these ends” (860, 1.1.58), and this lord describes him as a spider spinning a web from his own merit (860-61, 1.1.62-64).  What is at the base of this great advancement?  Lord Abergavenny has a ready answer: it is the cardinal’s pride (861, 1.1.68).  One must realize that some of these great noblemen could themselves stake a claim to the English throne—Buckingham’s father, for example, had a claim through the Beaufort line.  So their resentment of the commoner Wolsey is palpable and understandable—the man’s father seems to have been a wealthy merchant, but not an aristocrat.  Yet, he has risen to a place closer to the king than any of them. 

The aristocrats don’t think much of the treaties made with France recently, in which the cardinal had a hand, just as he had a hand in urging King Henry to war.  The most recent wars against the French had lasted from 1512-14, and saw an English alliance with Pope Julius II’s Holy League to free Italy from France.

The bad blood between Buckingham and Wolsey evidently goes both ways: when the two pass each other, Wolsey eyes him suspiciously, and his words make it plain that he is plotting mischief for Buckingham: he wants to meet with the duke’s overseer or surveyor, and says, “we shall then know more, and Buckingham / Shall lessen this big look” (862, 1.1.118-19).  Norfolk tries to advise Buckingham with wise Baconian advice: “To climb steep hills / Requires slow pace at first” (862, 1.1.131-32).  Some readers may remember that Sir Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I’s counselor, writes in his essay “Of Great Place” that, “All rising to great place is by a winding stair.”  But it all goes for nothing with Buckingham, who considers Wolsey nothing short of “corrupt and treasonous” (863, 1.1.156).  What is the justification for such an extreme claim?  Buckingham explains that he believes Holy Roman Emperor Charles V is in league with Cardinal Wolsey to break the peace with France (863-64, 1.1.174-90) since the emperor feels threatened by that amity.  No sooner does Buckingham broach this issue with Norfolk then he is, as if on cue, arrested for high treason (864, 1.1.199-202).  Buckingham realizes that the king has enlisted key subordinates against him, and realizes his day is over: “My life is spanned already. / I am the shadow of poor Buckingham” (864, 1.1.224-25).  Although Buckingham has been venting his resentment against Cardinal Wolsey throughout this scene, it seems fairly certain that his real enemy is none other than King Henry VIII, who surely does not trust this high-ranking nobleman.

Act 1, Scene 2 (865-70, Katherine and Norfolk complain to Henry about Wolsey’s 16% tax on commerce; Henry sides with them against Wolsey; Katherine questions Henry about the fall of Buckingham, and Henry explains his reasons for condemning him)

King Henry seems grateful to Cardinal Wolsey for stopping what he believes is a full-on conspiracy on the part of Buckingham, but matters are more complex than that.  Queen Katherine (that is, Catalina de Aragón, daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragón and Qeen Isabella of Castile) has it in for Cardinal Wolsey.  She informs Henry that the cardinal’s tax scheme has incensed his subjects, and Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk backs her with a detailed account of economic and social unrest: he explains that the clothiers have had to lay off “The spinsters, carders, fullers, weavers, who, / … / … are all in uproar …” (866, 1.2.34-37).  Apparently, Cardinal Wolsey has levied a 16% tax that the commercial class has found unbearable, allegedly for the wars in France.  King Henry is not amused, saying “This is against our pleasure” (866, 1.2.69), and he overrules Cardinal Wolsey’s attempt at sage advice regarding how to take criticism: after listening to Wolsey, the king says only, “Things done well, / And with a care, exempt themselves from fear …” (867, 1.2.89-90) and issues a pardon to those who have failed to pay the tax.

Queen Katherine next focuses on Buckingham’s travails, and it seems that King Henry is disturbed at this man’s fall as well: “The gentleman is learnèd, and the most rare speaker …” (867, 1.2.112), he says, and can only point out that when corruption sets in the mind of such a man, the results are worse than they would be for an ordinary person (867, 1.2.117-20).  Buckingham’s surveyor confirms Henry’s suspicions with the claim that his master’s confessor Nicholas Hopkins has put it into his head that he should be king (868, 1.2.145-48).  Queen Katherine isn’t buying it, and she points out that this surveyor lost his job when the tenants complained about him (869, 1.2.172-74), but the surveyor drives home his point by insinuating that Buckingham referred to his father’s intention to assassinate King Richard III (869, 1.2.194-97), and that is quite enough for King Henry: “There’s his period— / To sheathe his knife in us” (870, 1.2.210-11).  Perhaps Henry, a monarch as close to wielding absolute power as any in England’s history, has a touch of paranoia.

Act 1, Scene 3 (870-72, Sands, Lovell, and the Lord Chamberlain mock French fashions and discuss Wolsey’s generosity in distributing favors)

This scene written by John Fletcher consists partly in mockery of French fashions, but there’s also ambivalent praise of Cardinal Wolsey.  Talking with Thomas Lovell (Henry VIII’s chancellor of the exchequer, perhaps retired from public life by now) and the Lord Chamberlain (Charles Somerset, titled Lord Herbert and first Earl of Worcester), Sands (William Sandys, who would become Lord Chamberlain in 1530) says of him, “Men of his way should be most liberal” (871, 1.3.61), implying that a great man of the church has much the same responsibility for spreading largess as secular lords.

Act 1, Scene 4 (872-75, Wolsey presides as monarch during a courtly masque, and correctly espies King Henry amongst the masquers; King Henry meets Anne Boleyn)

In this additional John Fletcher contribution, a courtly masque unfolds with Cardinal Wolsey playing the role of monarch and King Henry one of the masquers.  The most interesting moment occurs when the cardinal is tasked with choosing which disguised person is King Henry himself.  He chooses correctly, and turns over to him the place of honor, which action elicits from Henry the statement, “You are a churchman, or I’ll tell you, Cardinal, / I should judge now unhappily” (874, 1.4.91-92).  I suppose the statement is lighthearted, but there is menace in it: this commoner is as close as can be to King Henry, and that is a dangerous place to be.  It may be that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (the phrase is spoken by King Henry IV, in II Henry IV, Norton Histories 718, 3.1.31), but the head that would seem to wear one is in still more peril.  At the end of the courtly performance, the year of which ought to be 1525 (but not in the play since Buckingham was executed in 1521, and that’s the subject of the next scene) King Henry asks a fateful question: “What fair lady’s that?”  (875, 2.1.93), and he receives the answer that the pretty lady is Anne Boleyn, who waits upon Queen Katherine.  (Mary Boleyn was one of the king’s mistresses even before this, so Henry has some familiarity with the Boleyns.)  He is instantly drawn to her.

Act 2, Scene 1 (875-79, Buckingham’s trial related by gentlemen; Buckingham reflects as he goes to the executioner’s block; rumors fly about King Henry’s “scruples” about his marriage to Katherine)

A first and second gentleman compare what they know about Buckingham’s trial.  The emphasis is on the manner in which the great lord has conducted himself throughout and on the malice and envy evinced by Cardinal Wolsey: says the first gentleman, “whoever the King favours, / The Card’nal instantly will find employment — / And far enough from court, too” (876, 2.1.48-50). 

On his way to the block, Buckingham recounts in a dignified way his tale of being restored to the honor of his house by Henry VII only to see that honor stripped away by that king’s son, Henry VIII.  His final advice has to do with liberality of counsel: even your friends, he says, “when they once perceive / The least rub in your fortunes, fall away / Like water …” (878, 2.1.129-31). 

The first scene closes with the information that King Henry is rumored to be expressing “a scruple” (879, 2.1.158) about his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.  That scruple, as the Norton editors point out, regards the fact that Henry’s brother Arthur was initially married to Katherine, but he died young and Henry wound up marrying her.  In effect, Henry married his sister-in-law.  But the real reason, thinks the first gentleman, is that Cardinal Wolsey is preparing “to revenge him on the [Holy Roman] Emperor / For not bestowing on him at his asking / The Archbishopric of Toledo …” (879, 2.1.162-64).  This Emperor, Charles V, was Katherine’s nephew.

Act 2, Scene 2 (879-83, Wolsey and King Henry plan to move on the divorce proceedings against Katherine; Wolsey’s conversation with Campeius shows the man’s unhealthy pride, arrogant concern for status; Henry reveals to Gardiner his continued admiration for Katherine)

King Henry looks to Cardinal Wolsey for comfort amidst his gossiping and sniping lords (881, 2.2.72-74), and both men are set to go forwards with the divorce proceedings against Queen Katherine.  Just how dangerously misplaced Henry’s trust is, we can catch by listening in on the conversation between Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius from Rome: when the Roman cardinal asks him to verify his reason for transferring a certain Richard Pace away from his position as secretary to King Henry, Wolsey is not shy about his reason: “He was a fool, / For he would needs be virtuous” (83, 2.2.131-32).  This is followed by the prideful declaration spoken in proffered fellowship with Cardinal Campeius, “We live not to be griped by meaner persons” (883, 2.2.135), which sounds like something appropriate only for a prince to say, if at all.  At least for Henry, there’s probably some genuine emotion involved in his decision to abandon a virtuous queen, even if the king stage-manages his feelings for maximum political effect, as when he says to Stephen Gardiner (future Bishop of Winchester and, under Queen Mary I, Lord Chancellor), “Would it not grieve an able man to leave / So sweet a bedfellow?”  (883, 2.2.141-42)

Act 2, Scene 3 (883-85, Anne Boleyn gets sage, saucy advice from a worldly old woman about what she would willingly do to become Henry’s queen)

In the third scene, we hear a partly comic discussion between an elderly lady of the court and Anne Boleyn.  “I would not be queen” (883, 2.3.24), says Anne, to which the old woman offers nothing but scorn: “I would — / And adventure maidenhead for’t; and so would you, / For all this spice of your hypocrisy” (883, 2.3.24-26).  So the conversation continues, both before and after the Lord Chamberlain enters and informs the young lady that King Henry has decided to honor her with the title Marchioness of Pembroke and 1000 pounds per year, which was quite a lot of money (884, 2.3.60-65).  Anne seems both fearful and excited at the same time—an understandable response to the attentions of so great a figure as Henry VIII.

Act 2, Scene 4 (886-91, Katherine defends herself sharply against Wolsey, but leaves divorce proceedings; Henry absolves Wolsey of undue influence in urging the divorce; the proceedings are left unsettled because of Katherine’s absence; Henry feels “played” by Rome and longs for the return of the sympathetic Cranmer)

The divorce proceedings begin, and in spite of the old saw that those who defend themselves in court have a fool for a client, Queen Katherine proves herself an able rhetorician.  What Katherine wants is time to get some advice from her native Spain, but Cardinal Wolsey has a vested interest in keeping her from any such counsel.  About the cardinal’s intentions, Queen Katherine has no illusions: “You are mine enemy, and [I] make my challenge / You shall not be my judge” (888, 2.4.75-76).  The queen’s appeal is to Pope Clement VII (1523-34), not to anyone in this English court.  She accuses Cardinal Wolsey of having a heart “crammed with arrogancy, spleen, and pride” (888, 2.4.108), and makes an imperious, unstoppable exit from the court, declaring that she will never again appear there (889, 2.4.126-29).  Henry’s wistful response to this action is remarkable: “Go thy ways, Kate” (889, 2.4.130). 

What follows is a bit of court theater between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, in which Wolsey earnestly asks the king “whether ever I / Did broach this business to your highness …” (889, 2.4.145-46).  Henry duly lets him off the hook, and proceeds to offer a public explanation for his actions, calling upon the Bishop of Lincoln to testify to his deep anxiety over the matter in question—namely, the fact that Henry has married his widowed sister-in-law and regards it as a sin: “Thus hulling in / The wild sea of my conscience” (890, 2.4.196-97), insists Henry, he made his way towards the idea of divorcing Katherine.  When the court is adjourned due to Katherine’s absence, King Henry believes he is being played by the assembled cardinals in the interest of Rome, and this leads him to wish for the return of his trusted supporter Thomas Cranmer, soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury (891, 2.4.232-38).  This same man, we might note, would have a distinguished career during Henry’s reign, but would be burnt at the stake in 1556 by Henry’s daughter Queen Mary for his adherence to the Protestant cause.

Act 3, Scene 1 (891-95, Katherine at first resists the counsel of Wolsey and Campeius, but ultimately, she submits: a strong woman crushed by larger forces)

In this John Fletcher contribution, Cardinal Wolsey is at his height and Queen Katherine recognizes how far she has fallen.  The opening of the scene presents to us a queen still in strong command of her own image and bearing.  When Cardinal Wolsey tries to flatter her with fine Latin, her response is, “The willing’st sin I ever yet committed / May be absolved in English” (92, 3.1.48-49), and continues to resist Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius with wit and dignity.  What they offer in return is false good will and veiled threats.  Queen Katherine at first declares boldly, “I dare not make myself so guilty / To give up willingly that noble title / Your master wed me to” (894, 3.1.138-40).  But in the end, she recognizes she has no further recourse, surrounded as she is by pontifical jackals and threatened with the utter loss of King Henry’s affection: “The King loves you. / Beware you lose it not” (895, 3.1.170-71), says Cardinal Campeius to her, and it is impossible to miss the implication.  There is nothing left for Katherine to do but submit: “Do what ye will, my lords, and pray forgive me” (895, 3.1.174).

Act 3, Scene 2 (895-906, Wolsey’s enemies close in; Wolsey tries to steer the king away from Anne Boleyn and Cranmer; Wolsey mistakenly sends Henry letters detailing his personal wealth and his conniving with Rome to delay the divorce; Henry confronts Wolsey, who realizes his career is over and reflects on spiritual “end things”)

Now Cardinal Wolsey’s enemies appear to be encircling him—Norfolk, Surrey, Suffolk and the Lord Chamberlain open the scene by assessing the cardinal’s current position and their own prospects for unseating him.  Norfolk seems certain that presenting a unified front will sweep the cardinal away, but the Lord Chamberlain is more circumspect: the key thing is to “Bar his access to th’ King,” since this man of the cloth has, says the Lord Chamberlain, “a witchcraft / Over the King in’s tongue” (896, 3.2.17-19).  But it is known, as Suffolk points out, that some letters Cardinal Wolsey intended only for the Pope have been misdelivered and Henry has seen them.  In those materials, Wolsey has been found out trying to get the Pope to delay Katherine’s divorce and thereby keep Henry from furthering his affair with Anne Boleyn (896, 3.2.30-36).  We also find out that Cardinal Campeius has departed back to Rome without settling the matter of Henry’s divorce from Queen Katherine, and that soon-to-be Archbishop Cranmer has returned from Europe with affirmations that what Henry is doing is legitimate (897, 3.2.56-58, 63-65).  The upshot is that Katherine is now to be demoted to the titles “Princess Dowager” and “widow to Prince Arthur” (897, 3.2.70-71).

At the height of his power, Cardinal Wolsey presumes to himself to be the arbiter of Henry’s romantic affairs.  Thomas Cromwell (1st Earl of Essex) leaves his presence, Wolsey muses, “It shall be to the Duchess of Alençon, / The French King’s sister—he shall marry her. / Anne Boleyn?  No, I’ll no Anne Boleyns for him” (897, 3.2.86-87).  Cardinal Wolsey simply cannot stand this woman who has caught Henry’s eye; she is, in Wolsey’s view, “A spleeny Lutheran” and her ally Thomas Cranmer is “An heretic, an arch-one” (898, 3.2.100, 104).  He considers them enemies of the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, King Henry is thinking unpleasant thoughts about the cardinal’s accumulation of personal wealth.  Those letters misdelivered into his hands contained, among other things, an inventory of the precious-metal plate owned by Wolsey (898-99, 3.2.121-29).  The exchange that follows is initially decorous, with Henry reminding Wolsey that his own predecessor, King Henry VII, honored him and that he himself has made the cardinal “The prime man of the state” (899, 3.2.163), but the civility soon gives way to threatening bluntness: giving him in quick succession a few of the incriminating papers, Henry offers his parting shot: “Read o’er this, / And after this, and then to breakfast with / What appetite you have” (900, 3.2.202-04).

Left alone, Cardinal Wolsey can do no other than reflect on King Henry’s anger: “What should this mean?”  (900, 3.2.204) When he sees the contents, Wolsey immediately realizes his best days are through: “‘Tis th’ account / Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together / For mine own ends …” (901, 3.2.211-13), and with it, he admits to himself, he had intended to make himself pope and pay off his allies in Rome.  But the worst of it is the fact that the king has searched into his conspiracy to delay the divorce with Katherine.  This is damning, and he responds politically, “… I shall fall / Like a bright exhalation in the evening, / And no man see me more” (901, 3.2.226-28).

There ensues a bitter argument between the cardinal and his enemies Norfolk, Suffolk and Surrey, with them demanding that he surrender the great seal that goes with his office and he peremptorily refusing to do so: “That seal / You ask with such a violence, the King, / … with his own hand gave me …” (901, 3.2.246-48). Calling him a traitor and murderer, the lords press their case and recount Cardinal Wolsey’s numerous offenses, all of them implying either subterfuge for personal ends or abuse of King Henry’s authority (903, 3.2.304-33). 

What follows is a classic after the manner of de casibus rhetoric.  Cardinal Wolsey sums up his career to himself, “I have ventured, / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / This many summers in a sea of glory, / But far beyond my depth …” (904, 3.2.359-62).  He learns that Sir Thomas More has replaced him as Lord Chancellor (as of October 1529), and that Cranmer has been made Archbishop of Canterbury (late in 1532).  In addition, Henry has married Anne Boleyn (January 1533).  Wolsey’s response is in part, “All my glories / In that one woman I have lost for ever” (905, 3.2.49-10), and his main concern seems to be to protect his ally Cromwell and shield him from King Henry’s displeasure (905, 3.2.415-18).  Wolsey seems resolved to concentrate on the next world now that he’s been stripped of everything in this one: at the outset of his conversation with Cromwell, he had already said, “I know myself now, and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities …” (904-05, 3.2.379-81).  The peace that he is talking about is that great curative, a newly clear conscience.  But there is also bitterness and self-reproach in his concluding words to Cromwell: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal / I served my King, He would not in mine age / Have left me naked to mine enemies” (906, 3.2.456-58).  With these words, the once great Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from grace is complete. 

Why did Cardinal Wolsey fall?  Perhaps it would make sense here to quote accurately from the 19th-century Liberal Party politician Lord Acton, who writes,

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.  (John E. E. Dalberg, Lord Acton,Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887.”

The above quotation seems more precise than the old medieval saw, “pride goes before a fall.”  Acton’s Law flows from the older saying, of course, but it is easier to draw out the political implications from what Lord Acton says: holders of great offices tend to conflate their own desires and ambitions with the powers of the office they hold and even with the good of those subject to those powers.  Cardinal Wolsey, we may surmise, came to suppose that his own ambition to rise in the Catholic Church was consonant with the good of the church and that the authority he wielded in King Henry VIII’s name was one with his own interest to rise in English society and politics as well as with the best interests of Henry himself.  He put himself in an impossible position, trying to square the circle of these two “goods.”  Manifestly, King Henry did not consider his own interests as compatible with the imperatives of the Catholic Church, and he eventually ran out of patience with a servant, however exalted, who not only enriched himself by means of his office but also presumed to settle his sovereign’s romantic affairs for him.  Acton’s Law aside, the Shakespearean portrait we get of Cardinal Wolsey is not that of a thoroughly bad man and certainly not a monster: there is some dignity in Wolsey’s willingness and even eagerness to put his earthly authorities behind him and seek the absolution of heaven.  He died of an illness late in 1530, which spared him the ordeal of being put on trial for treason, a capital offense.

Act 4, Scene 1 (906-10, strange forsakings, changes: gentlemen say Katherine is banished to Kimbolton; Anne Boleyn is crowned queen; York Place renamed Whitehall)

This scene evokes the “strange fashion of forsaking” that Henry VIII’s machinations set in Tudor England: one of his courtiers, Sir Thomas Wyatt, was the author of the phrase I just quoted in his poem, “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek“ and it would be difficult to find a better phrase to describe the changes wrought by Henry’s desire for a male successor, among other things.  The various gentlemen whose voices traverse this scene tell us that Queen Katherine “was divorced, / And the late marriage made of none effect …” (907, 4.1.32-33); Katherine is ill and for her failure to appear during the divorce proceedings, she has been shunted off to Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire.  As for Anne Boleyn, the gentlemen have gathered to behold her coronation procession, for which the text offers fairly detailed instructions.  Says the third gentleman, the new queen consort is “The goodliest woman / That ever lay by man …” (909, 4.1.71-72), and this same observer goes on to describe the giddiness of the commonfolk at her crowning.  I’m not certain this is historically accurate since I recall having read that Anne Boleyn’s installment was by no means received with universal joy.  In any event, she returns as a queen to York Place, which the first gentleman, serving as unofficial censor for King Henry, points out must now be called Whitehall, now that the former Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, Cardinal Wolsey, is no longer its resident (909, 4.1.97-99).

Act 4, Scene 2 (910-14, Griffith informs the ailing Katherine of Wolsey’s death; the sleeping Katherine is treated to a vision of joyful spirits crowning her with a garland; her dying request to Ambassador Caputius is to take good care of her servants)

Griffith recounts for Katherine the death of the disgraced Wolsey, and her reaction at first is highly critical: “He was a man / Of an unbounded stomach, ever ranking / Himself with princes …” (911, 4.2.33-35), but she accepts Griffith’s offer to speak fairly of the man in turn: Griffith reminds her that whatever his faults, Wolsey was a true scholar, generous in giving, and magnificent in his acceptance of a newly humbled condition towards the end of his life (911-12, 4.2.48-68).  Katherine now responds generously, saying, “Peace be with him” (912, 4.2.75).  With that thought, we are on to the real significance of this scene, which is the manner of Katherine’s departure from the world.  She is granted in her sleep a visionary invitation to a banquet, the entirety of which seems to signify purity and joy, and, presumably, her salvation to come.  The stage directions describe this vision in some detail, with white-clad spirits holding a garland over her head which they pass one to another (912, 4.2.83ff). 

When Katherine awakens, she receives a visit at King Henry’s instance from her nephew Caputius, ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  Katherine’s requests are simple: bring up her daughter Mary well, and take care of the female and male servants who have so long attended to her.  Finally, to her woman Patience, she says, “Strew me over / With maiden flowers, that all the world may know / I was a chaste wife to my grave” (914, 4.2.169-71).  Shakespeare’s Catalina de Aragón dies as she had lived: a paragon of Franciscan Catholic virtue.  It would be hard to ignore the hit King Henry’s image takes from the pious passing of this woman he has betrayed, and whose virtue he well knew.

Act 5, Scene 1 (915-19, Archbishop Cranmer is fearful at being surrounded by his enemies, but King Henry promises to help him while still observing propriety of appearances; the birth of a female child is announced to Henry)

The scene begins with Lovell and Gardiner discussing their dislike for the new queen.  They’re glad that she is about to give birth, but would just as well that she not long outlive this duty.  Their feelings are similarly uncharitable towards Thomas Cranmer: says Gardiner, “it will ne’er be well — / … / Till Cranmer, Cromwell—her two hands—and she, / Sleep in their graves” (915, 5.1.29-32).  We may remember that the Catholic Cardinal Wolsey had called Cranmer a heretic in Act 3, Scene 2, and now Gardiner calls in the same: “A most arch heretic” (916, 5.1.45) who must be dealt with, and quickly.  The man is beset by his deadly enemies, and it looks as if the pattern with which we are familiar is beginning to reassert itself: leaving aside historical fact for a moment and just dealing with dramatic representation, we might ask, “will Cranmer go the way of all flesh according to the de casibus tradition?” 

Cranmer is fearful when King Henry takes him aside to inform him that various complaints have determined him to call his new archbishop before the Council and that he must in the meantime reside in the Tower of London (917, 5.1.98-109).  But we soon begin to realize that King Henry’s intentions towards Cranmer are friendly and even that there is a budding romance plot in the way the king deals with the challenge to Cranmer’s authority as archbishop.  Eventually, beyond the confines of this play and during the reign of Henry’s daughter Queen Mary (reigned 1553-58), Thomas Cranmer will die a horribly painful death, burnt at the stake for insisting on his Protestant beliefs.  But not in this play—King Henry promises Cranmer that he is keeping his enemies on a very short leash: “They shall no more prevail than we give way to” (918, 5.1.144).  King Henry will play the role of a savior, giving the beleaguered man a ring by which the king’s favor may be known and thereby get him out of the meeting at which his enemies are certain they have him cornered.  It seems almost as if Cranmer is an Arthurian knight on his way to an ordeal at the Chapel Perilous, where a magic artifact will come to his rescue just in time.  This is probably in part a nod to the Protestant sensibilities of Shakespeare’s audience, which 1had come to see Thomas Cranmer as a martyr for the cause against Catholic oppression.

At the end of the scene, the old lady who attends the queen informs King Henry that a child has been born, and introduces the matter of gender in comic fashion.  Henry is of course desperate to hear that he has at last been given a legitimate son to inherit his throne (in 1519 he had a son out of wedlock with one of his mistresses, Elizabeth Blount; the boy was named Henry Fitzroy and the king might have eventually succeeded in legitimizing him had a legitimate son not been born to him by Jane Seymour in 1537, but Henry Fitzroy died in 1536), and the old lady dangerously fans his hopes: she declares the new child to be “a lovely boy” (919, 5.2.165), but immediately has to confess that “’Tis a girl / Promises boys hereafter” (919, 5.2.166-67).  This old woman is quite a colorful character because after a performance like that, one would think she would be happy to have escaped the king’s wrath, but the scene ends with her pursuing Henry to complain about his measly reward of “an hundred marks” (919, 5.2.171).  The date of the future Queen Elizabeth I’s birth was September 7, 1533.  Her elder sister by Katherine of Aragon, Mary, had been born on February 18, 1516.  Mary, a woman of profoundly Catholic convictions, would become queen in 1553 upon the death of her little brother King Edward VI (leaving aside nine fractious days of rule by Jane Gray in July 1553 before Mary succeeded to the throne), who reigned only from 1547-53, and would be succeeded by Elizabeth upon her passing in 1558.

Act 5, Scene 2 (919-24, Archbishop Cranmer is first humiliated by his enemies in Council and then exalted with the aid of King Henry)

In this John Fletcher contribution, Archbishop Cranmer is forced to wait outside the Council chamber with common fellows.  This detail alone incenses King Henry, as I suppose it should.  The Lord Chancellor begins to make his case against Cranmer, who is rebuked for his teachings tending towards Reformation theology (921, 5.2.47-53).  He is informed that since otherwise nobody will feel free to offer evidence against him, he must reside in the Tower of London (921, 5.2.86-91).  

This exchange goes on for a while, but in the end, Cranmer simply produces the ring his royal supporter had given him, saying, “By virtue of that ring I take my cause / Out of the grips of cruel men …” (923, 5.2.133-34).  King Henry rounds off this piece of theater by taking his seat and sorely rebuking the members of the Council: when Surrey tries to calm him with a courtly “May it please your grace,” Henry cuts him short with “No, sir, it does not please me! / I had thought I had had men of some understanding / And wisdom of my Council, but I find none” (923, 5.2.168-70).  Henry proceeds to insist that all Council members embrace Archbishop Cranmer and put aside their grievances.  Which, of course, they do, knowing with whom it is they deal.  The scene ends with Henry longing to go see the christening of his new daughter, Elizabeth (924, 5.2.211-14).

Act 5, Scene 3 (924-27, the Porter and Lord Chamberlain complain about the many people crowding in to see the christening of the infant Elizabeth)

In this John Fletcher contribution, common people annoy the porter to no end, but they come nonetheless to enjoy the ceremony and the hospitality, such as it is.  Says the Lord Chamberlain, “from all parts they are coming, / As if we kept a fair here!”  (926, 5.3.62-63) And the porter characterizes them as, “the youths that thunder at a playhouse, and / fight for bitten apples …” (926, 5.3.55-56).

Act 5, Scene 4 and Epilogue (927-29, Archbishop Cranmer delivers a prophecy about England’s future under Elizabeth I and James I; King Henry declares her christening a holiday)

John Fletcher moves briskly to the christening itself in this final contribution.  The scene is not historically accurate in that as a Tudor-era parent, King Henry almost certainly would not have attended, but the prophecy uttered by Archbishop Cranmer in the play is worth attending to since it makes sense to suppose that it is Fletcher and Shakespeare’s own appreciation of their late sovereign: “She shall be loved and feared.  Her own shall bless her; / Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn …” (928, 5.4.30-31).  In Elizabeth’s realm, says Cranmer, “God shall be truly known …” and she will leave her kingdom to a successor who “Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was, / And so stand fixed” (928, 5.4.36, 46-47).  That, of course, would be King James I, formerly James VI of Scotland and the son of Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had long imprisoned and would execute in 1587 for conspiring against her in the Anthony Babington-led plot of 1586.  (A much earlier conspiracy was the Ridolfi plot, which aimed to place Mary on the throne in 1570-71; another such attempt is called the Throckmorton conspiracy, dating to 1583.)  But all that is far into the future, and King Henry concludes the action by declaring a holiday (929, 5.4.74-76). 

It is Cranmer’s prophecy about a rosy future that lends this 1613 play an air of romance that makes it kindred to other dramas that Shakespeare composed around this time to wrap up his career: The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.  The happy conclusion mellows our recollection of the misfortune and sorrow that have marked the downfall of the play’s great characters, mingling the whole into a bittersweet quality.

The epilogue reminds female viewers to appreciate the play mainly because of its fine representation of the virtuous Queen Katherine of Aragon, and male viewers to applaud by way of following their ladies’ example.  Indeed, we may well come to the conclusion that this splendid woman, and the guileful Cardinal Wolsey with whom she engages in a bitter contest, are really the focal point of the play rather than King Henry VIII himself.  The latter is an important figure, but perhaps not the emotional center of this historical drama.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

All Is True, or Henry VIII

Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. Henry VIII. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 847-929).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is the main conflict between Cardinal Wolsey and Buckingham? With what faults does Buckingham reproach the cardinal? What errors does he charge him with, especially with regard to foreign policy? What is Buckingham’s response to his arrest at the end of this scene?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, characterize the relationship between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey. What is Henry’s difficulty with the Cardinal, and how does Wolsey try to bring him around? What is Henry’s final judgment regarding the matter of the heavy taxation that Wolsey has laid upon the people?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, what is queen Katherine’s function and relative strength? How does her influence with King Henry compare to the influence Cardinal Wolsey enjoys? What assessment can we offer of King Henry’s decision-making process and judgment in this scene?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, what perspective do the Lord Chamberlain and Lovell and Sands offer on the cardinal’s recent conduct? What criticisms do they make of the way the English regard the French and their fashions?

5. In Scene 4, the setting is at the Cardinal’s quarters, York Place. What is going on? Describe the courtly masque that takes place and explain what its unfolding may reveal about the relationship between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey. In addition, what momentous meeting also takes place towards the end of this courtly ceremony?


6. In Act 2, Scene 1, how do the first and second gentleman characterize current opinion about Buckingham? How does Buckingham bear up and meet his fate: what account does he give of himself, his past and his thoughts? In addition, how do the first and second gentlemen explain the matter between Queen Katherine and King Henry: what’s the source of their marital problems?

7. In Act 2, Scene 2, the Lord Chamberlain, Norfolk and Suffolk have much to criticize about Cardinal Wolsey. What complaints do they make? How much do they seem to understand of what is going on in Henry’s court at this point? What indeed are King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey up to regarding Katherine?

8. In Act 2, Scene 3, what is the subject of Anne Boleyn’s conversation with the old lady, her companion? What picture of Anne’s character emerges during this scene? Is she virtuous, ambitious, both? Explain your rationale based on textual cues.

9. In Act 2, Scene 4, Queen Katherine defends herself against Henry’s divorce proceedings. What is her main argument against this husband of many years who is intent upon abandoning her? How skillful a rhetorician is she, in her own right and in comparison with Cardinal Wolsey? What role does King Henry play during these proceedings? What does he really seem to think of his wife, and how does he explain his rationale for divorcing her?

10. In Act 2, Scene 4, what role does King Henry play during the divorce proceedings in which the queen and Cardinal Wolsey have so much to say? What does Henry apparently think of his wife, and how does he explain his rationale for divorcing her?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, Griffith and Cardinal Wolsey come to confer with Queen Katherine. What is their aim, and how does she receive them? What counter-arguments do they make against her protests? Why do you think she more or less gives in to them towards the end of the scene?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, what is the immediate cause of Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall? Describe his attitude just before he begins to get bad news, and then the evolution of his attitude towards the rapidly developing personal catastrophe that overtakes him: where does he start, so to speak, and where does he end in terms of his power position and spiritual state?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, describe King Henry’s rhetorical method of interrogating and exposing Cardinal Wolsey: how does the king approach this conversation, and why does he draw things out in this manner? Why doesn’t he just accuse the cardinal directly and at the outset?

14. In Act 3, Scene 2, does the way Cardinal Wolsey is treated by Lords Surrey, Suffolk and Norfolk generate any sympathy for him? Why or why not?

15. In Act 3, Scene 2, once Cardinal Wolsey is certain of his downfall, how does he describe what it means for him? How does he explain its significance to Cromwell and what advice does he give that man? What moral lesson does Shakespeare apparently want us to take from the fall of a great man in a play that has borne witness already to the falls of Buckingham and Queen Katherine?


16. In Act 4, Scene 1, how does Shakespeare represent Anne Boleyn’s coronation as Queen of England? Does the investiture go well? Try to find out something online about her coronation — does what you find match the Shakespearean account, or does it differ substantially? Explain.

17. In Act 4, Scene 2, we find that Queen Katherine is on her deathbed. In what spirit does she receive the news of the former Cardinal Wolsey’s passing? How does she face her own death: what last requests does she make of Henry and others? What are her final thoughts about the husband who left her behind for Anne Boleyn?


18. In Act 5, Scene 1, the discussion revolves around Archbishop Cranmer, who assumed that title in 1533, with the support of Queen Anne Boleyn’s faction. Where do Gardiner and Lovell stand with regard to the queen and the archbishop? What is King Henry’s plan to see Archbishop Cranmer through his time of difficulties?

19. In Act 5, Scene 2, Archbishop Cranmer finds himself waiting like a common man just to be let in to the gathering where he will be accused by a council of great lords . Explore the importance of decorum and ceremony, of “staging” events in this scene: how does it illustrate King Henry’s skill as an actor in what we might call “the theater of power”? Finally, what is the outcome of this meeting?

20. In Act 5, Scene 3, the future Queen Elizabeth I is about to be christened. How do the porter and the lord chamberlain describe the commonfolk who are jostling for position in the palace yard to see the great event? What is the dramatic function of this representation of events just before the christening?

21. In Act 5, Scene 4, what are the essentials of Archbishop Cranmer’s prophecy concerning the royal infant Elizabeth, daughter of Queen Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII? In your response, consider what Cranmer implies about Elizabeth’s significance both for England’s theological welfare and its political disposition.

22. General question, but especially relevant to Act 5, Scene 4. It has sometimes been said by critics that the history play Henry VIII, or, All Is True follows the pattern of Shakespeare’s late romance plays such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. What evidence supports that claim, especially with regard to the final act’s way of rounding off events?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake