Scene by Scene Synopsis
Prologue: The Prologue disclaims any attempt at humour. The play, he says, will be serious, full of important issues and unhappiness. Its noble scenes will inspire pity and also present the truth. For those who simply like a splendid show, it will prove satisfying. But it will not be a frivolous play, with foolery and fighting. The audience should prepare to be sad, for they will see great and noble people fall upon misery.
Act I, Scene 1: The Duke of Norfolk tells the Duke of Buckingham about the recent meeting in France between King Henry VIII and the French ruler. The two courts competed in displaying their wealth, and elaborate jousts were held. Norfolk notes that Cardinal Wolsey arranged the meeting. Lord Abergavenny joins the conversation, and the three men criticize Wolsey, especially for having seized too much power over England's affairs. They declare that the peace he negotiated with France is no good, for France is still seizing English trade goods. Norfolk, who has heard that Buckingham is feuding with Wolsey, warns him that his foe is dangerous. Wolsey himself arrives and exchanges glares with Buckingham. He speaks with his Secretary about a pending interview with Buckingham's Surveyor, or overseer, and declares that its results will cut the duke down to size. When he leaves, Buckingham rages against him, accusing him of treason. He asserts that the cardinal deliberately negotiated a weak treaty with France after being bribed by the Holy Roman Emperor, who feared a genuine peace between France and England. Brandon appears and arrests Buckingham and Abergavenny for treason; Buckingham says that his Surveyor has doubtless been bribed.
Act I, Scene 2: At a meeting of his council, the king thanks Wolsey for having suppressed Buckingham's conspiracy. The queen, Katherine of Aragon, arrives and speaks on behalf of the people against the unjust taxes introduced by Wolsey. Norfolk adds that uprisings are occurring as a result. The king, who knows nothing of these taxes, orders Wolsey to invalidate them and pardon the rebels. In an aside the cardinal instructs his Secretary to issue these orders but to make it seem asthough the relief came from him. Queen Katherine regrets the arrest of Buckingham, and King Henry suggests she hear the evidence. Buckingham's Surveyor is brought in and testifies that Buckingham had planned to become king if Henry died. Katherine doubts his testimony, but he goes on, reporting that the duke spoke of killing Wolsey and the king. Convinced, Henry rages against Buckingham.
Act I, Scene 3: The Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sands, and Sir Thomas Lovell jest about the recent, deplorable rise of the French influence in manners and clothes. They then leave for a dinner being given by Wolsey, praising the cardinal's bountiful table.
Act I, Scene 4: The guests gather at Wolsey's banquet and jest bawdily with the young women there. On his arrival Wolsey encourages his guests to drink and enjoy one another. The Lord Chamberlain introduces a group of masquers (see MASQUE) who, dressed as shepherds, dance with the women. One of them is King Henry, who is clearly attracted to his partner. After the dance, the Lord Chamberlain introduces her to him as Anne Bullen, one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting.
Act II, Scene 1: On a street in London, a Gentleman meets a friend, who tells him of Buckingham's trial and conviction. Presuming that Wolsey was behind the duke's fall, the Gentlemen discuss the cardinal's political manoeuvrings. They remark that Wolsey is as hated by the common people as Buckingham is beloved. Buckingham then appears, under guard, and makes a speech, forgiving his enemies and asking for his friends' prayers. He compares himself to his father, who was also betrayed by a servant and unjustly killed as a traitor. After he leaves for his execution, the Gentlemen rue his fate. They go on to talk of a rumour that Wolsey's next victim will be Queen Katherine. The king, they say, has been incited to divorce her by Wolsey, who seeks to embarrass the Holy Roman Emperor—Katherine's nephew—who refused Wolsey an archbishopric he wanted. Another cardinal, Campeius, has come from Rome, allegedly to oversee the divorce.
Act II Scene 2: The Lord Chamberlain discusses the king's possible divorce with Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk. They, too, see the influence of Wolsey. They hope the king will come to his senses, remember the virtues of his 20-year marriage, and recognise the cardinal for the schemer he is. After the Lord Chamberlain leaves, the dukes approach the king, who is reading. He is angry at their interruption but welcomes the arrival of Wolsey and Campeius. Norfolk and Suffolk leave, muttering curses at Wolsey. Henry then confers briefly with his secretary, Gardiner, and Wolsey informs Campeius that Gardiner will do whatever he, Wolsey, tells him to. Henry sends Gardiner with a message to the queen and announces that a hearing will be convened on the divorce question.
Act II, Scene 3: Anne Bullen, talking with an Old Lady, pities the queen and says it would be better to be born poor than to be queen and subject to injustice and rejection. The Old Lady accuses her of hypocrisy and asserts, with bawdy quibbles, that she herself would gladly give up virginity for a crown. Anne declares that she would not. The Lord Chamberlain appears and announces the king's gift to Anne of a rich estate and title; she receives the news with great modesty, and the Chamberlain praises her in an aside. After he leaves, the Old Lady chortles over the gift, predicting that Anne will soon be a duchess. Anne, however, is offended and thinks again of the unfortunate queen.
Act II, Scene 4: After a grand procession and formal proclamations by a Crier, the divorce proceedings begin. Addressing Henry, Katherine argues that she has always been a good and faithful wife. When Wolsey and Campeius object to her personal remarks, she replies that she refuses to be judged by an enemy. She demands a hearing from the pope and leaves. Henry, while praising her, also declares Wolsey innocent of any enmity towards her or any influence on himself. He asserts that he fears that his marriage is sinful because Katherine was once married to his elder brother. Though the church approved his marriage to Katherine at the time, he wants another ruling, to clear his conscience. Campeius declares an adjournment until the queen can be made to attend. In an aside Henry deplores these formalities and wishes his adviser Cranmer were present to expedite matters.
Act III, Scene 1: Wolsey and Campeius visit Katherine and suggest that she abandon her defence and accept the king's decision to avoid the scandal of a divorce trial. Raging at them, she decries her helplessness but finally subsides into acceptance.
Act III, Scene 2: Norfolk, Suffolk, Lord Surrey, and the Lord Chamberlain discuss Wolsey's downfall: Henry has learned that the cardinal secretly opposed the divorce (now completed) and did not wish the king to marry the virtuous Anne Bullen. But Henry has secretly done so and plans to make her queen; moreover, Wolsey's enemy, Cranmer, has been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Wolsey appears, seeming troubled, and muses in an aside that he intends to Bullen. The king arrives and tells the noblemen that Wolsey has mistakenly included personal financial records among state papers sent to the king. Henry is shocked at the cardinal's wealth. He approaches Wolsey and sardonically praises him for putting his duty above personal gain. After giving him a folder of papers. Henry leaves angrily with the noblemen. When Wolsey sees that the papers include his records and his letters opposing the divorce, he realizes that all is lost. The noblemen return and recite a long series of formal charges against him, adding that the king has ordered all his possessions confiscated. They leave and the cardinal soliloquises on his loss of greatness, comparing it to humanity's common end in death. He now recognises the futility of his pride and riches. When his follower Cromwell approaches him, Wolsey declares that his downfall has led him to a fresh, healthier view of life. His conscience is finally free, and he has the fortitude to withstand whatever earthly miseries may be in store. Cromwell grieves for his master's downfall, but Wolsey encourages him to serve as an adviser to the king. For himself, he regrets not having given as much energy to religion as to the state.
Act IV, Scene 1: The two Gentlemen meet again, at the coronation parade of Queen Anne. A grand procession passes by, including Suffolk, Norfolk, and Surrey—all now high officers of the realm—as well as the new queen. A Third Gentleman, who has seen the actual coronation, describes the ceremony in great detail. The discussion turns to political gossip: Gardiner, who is now Bishop of Winchester, is an enemy of Archbishop Cranmer, but the latter has a new and powerful ally in Cromwell, who is a close adviser of the king.
Act IV, Scene 2: At Kimbolton, Katherine learns of Wolsey's death from her attendant, Griffith. According to Griffith, the cardinal repented before his death and died at peace with God. When Katherine speaks bitterly of Wolsey, Griffith offers a charitable view of him, describing him as an excellent public servant who, though greedy for wealth, was also generous with his ill-gotten gains—founding two colleges, for instance. Katherine, who is near death, thanks Griffith for pointing to the Christian viewpoint. She falls asleep and sees a vision, which appears on-stage: six dancing figures ceremoniously present her with garlands of bay leaves. When she awakes, her waiting-woman Patience observes that she is near death. She then receives a visitor. Lord Capuchius, the ambassador to England from her nephew the emperor. She asks him to take King Henry a letter, in which she asks to be remembered to their daughter and requests that he treat her followers and servants well. She then retires to bed, prepared to die.
Act V, Scene 1: Bishop Gardiner meets Lovell in the middle of the night and learns that Queen Anne is in labour and may die. Gardiner hopes she does and insists, over Lovell's objection, that for them and their allies, it would be best if Anne, Cranmer, and Cromwell were all dead. He adds that he believes he has brought the king's council to move against Archbishop Cranmer's Protestant opinions. The council will interrogate the archbishop in the morning. After Gardiner leaves, the king arrives and meets Cranmer, whom he has sent for. Though Lovell tries to eavesdrop, the king orders him away. Henry tells Cranmer that he will have enemies at the council meeting in the morning. Cranmer declares that he has nothing to fear, but Henry warns him against false witnesses. Observing that the council may try to gaol him, he gives him a ring to signify the king's protection. Cranmer leaves, and Anne's companion the Old Lady arrives to inform the king that he has a daughter. She first comically identifies the infant as a boy and then complains about the size of the tip the king gives her.
Act V, Scene 2: Cranmer arrives for the council meeting but, insultingly, is kept waiting outside. Doctor BUTTS brings the king to an upper room, where he can watch the proceedings. After Cranmer is admitted, the Chancellor accuses him of spreading heresies; Gardiner adds that severe treatment is called for, lest civil disorders arise from the heresy, like the religious wars then raging in Germany. Although Cranmer asserts his opposition to civil disorder, Gardiner insists that he must be imprisoned. Cromwell says Gardiner is too harsh, and Gardiner accuses him of involvement in heresy himself.The Chancellor then orders Cranmer to prison, but the archbishop produces the king's ring. His enemies are dumbfounded, realising that the king has stymied them. The king then emerges from his vantage point and castigates them mercilessly. He confirms his support for Cranmer by asking him to baptise his daughter.
Act V, Scene 3: On the day of the christening the Porter and his Man are unable to prevent a crowd of celebrating commoners from invading the palace courtyard. They make comical remarks about the riotous celebrants.
Act V, Scene 4: A grand procession escorts the infant Elizabeth. It is led by the Garter, who recites a prayer for her. Cranmer addresses the assembled court, predicting a great future for the child and happiness for the country. The king thanks him and declares the day a holiday for all.
Epilogue: An actor asserts that people may criticise the play for various reasons, but that all must concede that it has glorified good women, and so he supposes it will get applause, for no men will withhold it when their ladies prompt them.
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