The figure of the Prologue comes on stage and explains that what follows is a serious play. The events to come will draw the audience's pity, bringing some to tears, but there will be much truth told, as well. Those hoping for a bawdy humorous play will be disappointed. The Prologue asks the audience to imagine that the noble characters of the play are alive, and he urges them to watch as their mightiness nevertheless brings them misery.
The Duke of Norfolk, the Duke of Buckingham, and the Lord Abergavenny enter the scene. Buckingham greets Norfolk and asks him how he has been since they met in France. Buckingham was sick and confined to his tent while Norfolk was witness to grandiose displays by the king of France and the king of England at a field in France, where the two forces met to show off their respective glories. Norfolk relates the glamorous scene and how well it went off. Buckingham asks who had planned it, and Norfolk says it was all organized by Cardinal Wolsey.
When he hears this, Buckingham rails against Wolsey's ambitious nature. Norfolk weakly defends him, but Abergavenny agrees that Wolsey displays undue pride. Buckingham insists that nobles paid for the trip to France, and Wolsey gave the least honor to those who spent the most. Abergavenny speaks of nobles forced to sell off their property to afford to keep up with the court. Norfolk agrees that the peace between England and France may be more costly than is reasonable. But he warns Buckingham that the Cardinal is a powerful man, prone to revenging himself on those who speak badly of him.
Just then Wolsey enters the scene with his aides. Glaring at Buckingham, he asks if one of Buckingham's estate overseers has arrived to give testimony against Buckingham. His aides say the man has arrived, and Wolsey and his train depart.
Buckingham declares that he thinks Wolsey is plotting against him. He thinks Wolsey is on his way to gossip to the king, so he determines to rush to the king's quarters first. Norfolk strongly urges Buckingham to calm down, to not let his anger become so enflamed that he injures his own case. Buckingham agrees to calm down but repeats that he thinks Wolsey is corrupt and treasonous. Buckingham goes through the charges he would make against Wolsey to the king: he is prone to mischief; he engineered the entire arrangement with France to benefit himself; he deals with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and king of Spain behind the king's back; and he buys and sells his honor to his own advantage. Norfolk is sorry to hear these charges and wonders if there could be mistake, but Buckingham insists there is no mistake.
Brandon, the sergeant-at-arms, enters, and announces he has arrived to arrest Buckingham in the name of the king and to take him to the Tower. Buckingham says goodbye to Abergavenny, but Brandon intends to arrest Abergavenny, too, along with several of their comrades. Both swear to obey the decrees of the king and submit to arrest. Buckingham sees he is done for and bids farewell to Norfolk.
The Prologue starts the play by emphasizing several key themes of this play, namely feeling pity for those who have fallen, no matter what their past, and the revelation of truth. Explaining that this play concerns the rise and fall of important people close to the king, the Prologue sets the tone of the play. It is not comedy, he says, but more a political thriller. The emphasis on pity indicates that none who will fall are really evil but that they were perhaps misguided or unlucky, and they don't deserve for us to think badly of them.
Freshly back from demonstrations of wealth and power in France, Buckingham is barely able to contain his rage at Wolsey, who he believes is a sinister figure who is attempting to commandeer the power of the king for his own ends. Norfolk's urging barely calms Buckminster, and Buckminster openly accuses Wolsey of treason. Wolsey certainly has his own bad opinions about Buckingham, briefly sounding his plan to get Buckingham's (former) estate manager to testify against him. Buckingham may accuse Wolsey of treason, but Wolsey has the power and means to prove that Buckingham is guilty of that same crime.
Buckingham is the first character we meet, so we tend to believe his accusations, though he gives no clear explanation of what he thinks Wolsey has done wrong. Being arrested helps his case, as it proves that Wolsey was plotting against him offstage. Though the audience has no real proof whether Wolsey is treasonous or Buckingham is to blame, we believe Buckingham as our first witness to the evil of Wolsey. Buckingham is also the first to fall.
In reading all of Shakespeare by his 450th birthday, I just finished Henry VIII. It was my least favorite of the Bard's plays, seeming to be more a platform to praise Elizabeth I than entertain audiences. In case you're interested in my take, I've blogged about it at: