Henry VII recounts the fall of three main figures of King Henry VIII's court and the near fall of a fourth character. The traditional Elizabethan cyclical image of the "wheel of fortune" is at work here: that which rises must inevitably fall. Unlike Shakespeare's early history plays titled with a king's name, these ups and downs of fate do not concern the monarch and his rivals but instead concern the successive demise of the lesser court figures of Buckingham, Katharine, Cardinal Wolsey, and, nearly, Cranmer. Each character has a trial of sorts and a chance to speak, and each downfall is played out in a scene of pageantry and courtly drama.
The Prologue begins by evoking themes of pity and charity, and the play continues to emphasize acquiescence in defeat, forgiveness of foes, and understanding that the fall from power is a natural pattern of life: when Buckingham is arrested, he goes to the Tower without a fight; when he is unable to save himself, he tells the commoners that he forgives those who accused him and accepts that his fall was caused by those to whom he was loyal turning on him. When Wolsey is accused of his various wrongdoings, even the lords reading the charges against him forgive him, and Wolsey finally reaches higher understanding of himself and the world as he understands his faults. The king seems sorry about Katharine's fall from grace, but he accepts it as inevitable; while she is slower to forgive Wolsey's role in the matter, eventually she does. Cranmer embraces those who would have sent him to the Tower and forgives them immediately after the trial.
Providence plays a significant role in the fall of these various characters. Each character who is eliminated, except Cranmer, must go because their presence blocks the circumstances leading to the birth of the child, Elizabeth. Buckingham believes he has a claim to the throne; Katharine is not the mother of Elizabeth and has born no male heirs; and Wolsey opposes Henry's marriage to Anne, preferring another, political advantageous marriage. Each of these essentially political misfortunes leads to a personal tragedy for the characters. Elizabeth's birth is the most important event and the goal of the play, not least because, historically, that birth ensured the succession of the king who ruled in Shakespeare's time, James I.
Although the power of providence and fate seems to work against the efforts of individuals, we do see the king become increasingly active in working toward the conclusion. Henry has little to do with the trial of Buckingham, he weakly supports the divorce with Katharine and merely gives the order for the demise of Wolsey, but he takes an active part in the trial of Cranmer. First, he gives Cranmer his ring as a bargaining tool, then he watches the proceedings from above, intervening at the right moment to scold his lords and urge them to be friendly.
However, none of the characters who fall from the grace of the court seems entirely guilty, and their punishments cast Henry's reign in a less positive light. Buckingham may have had designs on the throne, but he was also betrayed by one of his former employees and disliked by Wolsey. Katharine was a loyal wife whose virtues were honored by Henry, and her strong personality led her to resist the court. Even Wolsey is movingly salvaged by his own speech before leaving the court and in Griffith's comments to Katharine. None of these characters are wholly malicious, and their downfall shows the dangerous arbitrariness of the court. Even partially good people can be cast out--and more will be in ensuing religious conflicts.
Henry's behavior must be examined with skepticism. Was he suffering under the negative influence of Wolsey when he ordered the death of Buckingham and the divorce from Katharine? Or was he perfectly aware of what was going on? If he didn't know what was going on, he can be blamed for neglecting his role as king, but if he did understand, then he willingly caused the demise of several people who were not clearly guilty. After the departure of Wolsey, Henry seems to regain an active role and intervenes in Cranmer's trial, but the fact that he had access to rumors and gossip about Cranmer suggests that he knew what was going on before and let people think Wolsey was influencing him. Further skepticism of Henry can be supported by the divorce proceedings, when his lengthy explanation of why he decided to divorce Katharine seems so much less plausible than the fact that he simply wanted to marry Anne.
That Cranmer is the only character to survive his trial is a puzzle. He doesn't seem to be significantly any worse or any better than the other characters who have met their demise, and he suffers from the same kind of negative rumor mill that succeeds in bringing down the other characters. Yet the king wants to save him. It is not clear what could be different about Cranmer, except that the cycle of lords blaming each other in the court had to stop at some point. But actual history reveals that it did not stop: Cranmer was saved during the span of this play, but the lord who disliked him eventually did manage to get him executed.
One of the most important parts of Henry's reign is his break with Rome. While the events that brought this about are alluded to (including the divorce from Katharine and the marriage to Anne), we see little, beyond minor references, of the kind of religious debates that must have been flourishing at the time and which led Henry to decide to break with Rome and name himself the head of the English Church.
Common people, as opposed to Lords, occupy an interesting role in the play. They are eager to follow the events of the court, from Buckingham's trial to Anne's coronation to the baptism of the baby. This, and the king and queen's enthusiasm to lower recent tax hikes, shows a kind of interclass unity unusual in Shakespeare's world. But more importantly, while the commoners on stage anxiously attend these royal events, the commoners in the audience of the play are also witness to these machinations of the courtly world on the theater's stage. Seeing the king in his court and council reduces the mystique of the monarchy and brings it to the people, making the audience into judges of the morality and actions of the royal court. Thus, a group that was largely politically disenfranchised gains some imaginary power of being able to judge the king.
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: