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.
The two gentlemen appear in this scene to give a sense of the popular opinion of the events at the court. First, we find that they are very aware of all of the passing events, and they hold strong opinions. These are not Shakespeare's charming commoners, too distant from the court to comment on it; rather, these characters believe the king has made mistakes and is held too much under the influence of Wolsey. Showing the greater link between the nobles and the people in this play, the gentlemen are very interested in and moved by the fall of Buckingham.
Like many of Shakespeare's characters, Buckingham has learned much from his unfortunate fate. Buckingham delivers a dying man's oration, urging the crowd to learn what he has, that even when you are loyal to your friends, sometimes they turn against you without provocation. He now understands the truth and yet can forgive his accusers. Buckingham steers clear of accusing Wolsey of being the traitor or influencing the king, unlike his earlier railing against Wolsey. Perhaps he understands that his previous criticism of Wolsey led to his present circumstances; yet on the way to his death, he refuses to name names.
Buckingham will not go to the grave in anger, yet he does recognize the terrible irony of his fate. Like his father's death, Buckingham's downfall comes not through disloyalty but rather through too much loyalty to men who turned on them. The gentlemen suspect that Wolsey is behind Buckingham's downfall, but Buckingham's stance of forgiveness means that Wolsey gets away with it.
Buckingham is the first to be brought down and to make his speech of forgiveness; Katharine follows. It appears that Buckingham had to fall because he imagined he had a claim to the throne. Whether this claim was really in Buckingham's mind or merely an accusation by Wolsey is unclear. Either way the result is the same; none who even imagine a future without Henry's issue on the throne are doomed to fall. Again, this play is directed inexorably to the birth of Elizabeth, and no character in the way can live.
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: