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Finally the pattern of false accusations comes to a halt in the failed sentencing of Cranmer. In each preceding act (except Act IV), a character has met his or her demise and is ejected from the court. Cranmer escapes this seeming predestined fate, so it is important to explore the differences in his case.
With each previous fallen character, we see that they may actually have done something wrong (Buckingham may have had designs on the throne, Wolsey seemed to be plotting with Rome about the fate of Henry's marriage and was stealing property) or they may merely have been unlucky (Katharine did not give birth to male children or to Elizabeth). But Cranmer seems to be without possible blame. During all the previous acts, he was offstage traveling from college to college to ask scholars about the legality of Henry's divorce, so he had no role in any schemes. And more importantly, he is in no way positioned to block the birth and eventual coronation of Elizabeth, which has been the background reason for the downfall of all the other characters in this play.
Charity and forgiveness, too, are themes evoked in Cranmer's trial. The king chooses to be charitable to Cranmer and to disbelieve the vicious rumors against him, while Cranmer forgives Gardiner for having desired to bring him down.
Most importantly, we see the king take a genuinely active role in changing the turn of events. When Buckingham fell, the king barely seemed to have been involved; when Katharine was ousted, the king seemed sad but convinced that his advisors were right. With Wolsey, the king reacted against Wolsey's betrayal but was absent for his actual sentencing. But in this scene, the king not only watches from above as events unfold, he has already engineered their conclusion by giving Cranmer his ring to show to the Councilors when they try to take him to the Tower. Thus, the king is brought into the trial and tells the lords to be friends and stop trying to take each other down.
It would seem, then, that the terrible circle of rises and falls in the community of the court has been brought to a close, and now that Elizabeth has been born, the nation can return to calm. Yet Shakespeare's audience would have known that both Cranmer and Cromwell, as well as Sir Thomas More (Wolsey's historical replacement, only mentioned in the play), were executed not long after the events portrayed in Henry VIII.
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:
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