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In the streets of London, a first gentleman meets a second gentleman. One asks the other where he is rushing; the second is on his way to the trial of the Duke of Buckingham. But the first gentleman has seen it, and the trial is already over. Buckingham has been found guilty and sentenced to death. The first gentleman tells how Buckingham pleaded not guilty to the charges against him and spoke eloquently in his own defense, but the court pronounced him guilty all the same.
The gentlemen agree that Cardinal Wolsey is behind the fall of Buckingham and has been busy sending any Lords favored by the king to distant parts or to jail. Apparently, "All the commons/ Hate [Wolsey] perniciously and, o' my conscience, /Wish him ten fathom deep" (II.1.50-1).
Buckingham enters, guarded by soldiers and accompanied by Lovell, Sands, Vaux, and a crowd of commoners. The two gentlemen stand aside to hear what he says. Buckingham addresses the people, saying he has been condemned by a traitor's judgment, but he bears the law no ill will. He forgives those who have done him wrong and asks those who have loved him to weep for his death, then forget him. Lovell asks Buckingham to forgive him, which he does.
Vaux must accompany Buckingham to the river, where a barge awaits to take him to his end. He offers to have the barge fit for a duke, but Buckingham stops him. Buckingham came to the court with a high position and now leaves it as a poor man stripped of titles, but he has seen the truth. Buckingham speaks of his father, who was loyal to Richard III and then killed by that same king. King Henry VIII's father, who came to the throne after deposing Richard III, pitied Buckingham and restored his title and nobility, but now that king's son has taken it all back. Buckingham repeats the fall of his father, both brought down by men they served and to whom they were loyal--though at least Buckingham the younger had a trial.
Buckingham counsels the audience to be careful with their loyalty and love: "those you make friends/ And give your hearts to, when they perceive/ The least rub in your fortunes, fall away/ Like water from ye, never found again/ But where they mean to sink ye" (II.ii.128-32). Then, he is led away.
The gentlemen agree that the turn of events for Buckingham is very sad. But they have heard talk of another person tumbling from the king's grace, brought about by more pernicious scheming. They have heard that the king wishes to separate from Queen Katharine. They suspect Wolsey has urged the king to this path, perhaps wanting the king to marry someone else. Cardinal Campeius has arrived from Rome to discuss the matter, proving the rumor true. The gentlemen speculate that Wolsey has engineering this in order to get back at Katharine's father, the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, for having not given him a post in the past.
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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