Compare the several trials throughout the play and their representation. Does the audience see each trial? How are they each different from each other?
Buckingham's trial takes place offstage, though we hear about it through the narration of one of the commoners. He tried to defend himself, yet the most important part of his trial is his speech after being sentenced to death, when he forgives those who condemned him. Katharine's trial practically never happens, since the king has already decided to divorce her without the papers brought from Rome. She is brought before the court, but she pleads with the king before anything can be said. Then, she storms out of the court, making her angry conversations with Wolsey the most important window into her feelings about her divorce. We do see Wolsey's trial when the lords read the charges against him, including his efforts to deny some of the charges. But again it is his speech afterward, when he understands the implications of his fall, that is most telling. Cranmer never quite gets to the stage of the trial, but merely a preliminary hearing, and we observe it while we watch the king observing it. The extra eyes watching this turn of events seem to help put a halt to the cycle of blame and accusation as the king descends to stop the trial. Each trial has a different dynamic with different sets of observers, in which the concluding speeches are most important. Considering the message of those speeches is an important focus.
What is the role of Elizabeth in this play?
She has practically no role at all--and yet the biggest role of all. She is not even born until most of the way through the play, but the effort to get her born is the most important force behind the events in Henry VIII. In order for her to be born, anything that might get in the way must be eliminated, including Buckingham, Katharine, and Wolsey. Her birth is the fate toward which everyone in the play moves, which is fitting, as she is the queen under whom Shakespeare came to prominence, a universally loved savior of England; it was Elizabeth who ushered in the age in which James I, England's king at the time of the first performance of Henry Eighth, came to the throne.
Compare the characters of Anne and Katharine.
Katharine is incredibly outspoken throughout this play. She begins by making a suit to Henry to reduce taxes, as the common people are upset and threaten to rebel. She seems to have a general awareness of events within the kingdom, and she is the only one to recognize that Buckingham has been framed by testimony of his former employee. Yet while she distrusts Wolsey, she is not able to foresee the downfall he plans for her. Still, throughout her divorce she will not acquiesce. She storms out of the court rather than submit to the corrupt Wolsey, and she holds her own against Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius, insisting on her loyalty and honor. Yet when she is finally divorced, she weakens, expecting death soon. Anne, on the other hand, barely speaks throughout the play and casts a much smaller shadow. She flirts with Sands at Wolsey's dinner party, and she tells her attendant that she thinks she would not want to be the queen. But somehow, offstage, she changes her mind, is married, crowned, and gives birth, all without speaking another word. Her role above all seems to be to deliver Elizabeth into the world and to look pretty at official events so the lords can compliment and approve her.
Discuss the idea of loyalty in this play as it relates to the downfall of Buckingham, Katharine, Wolsey, Cranmer. Are the characters punished for being loyal or for not being loyal enough? How does their loyalty contribute to their downfall?
Discuss the idea of forgiveness in this play, paying particular attention to speeches of Buckingham, Katharine, Wolsey, and Cranmer. Consider forgiveness in terms of the implied religious struggles of this play's era.
How does the idea of pity, first mentioned in the Prologue, appear throughout the play? Trace uses of the word and consider how it applies to the events in the play or the speeches of characters.
The play is named for the character of Henry VIII; yet is the king the main character? Why or why not?
Does anyone in this play truly deserve his or her punishment? Buckingham and Wolsey particularly may have had faults, but do their speeches after punishment make them seem more sympathetic? What about Katharine, who may not be at all to blame for the divorce. Is she a wholly sympathetic character or not?
Consider the fragile line between history and literature. The events portrayed in Henry VIII actually took place about 80 years before Shakespeare wrote the play, and his audience would have known the story. How do you think seeing this play would make an audience understand these events, still relatively close to their time, differently?
Consider the role of the common people in the play, especially in relation to the discussion of taxation in Act I and the scenes before the baptism in Act V, when Lord Chamberlain mocks them. Are the commoners wholly supportive of the royalty or do they pose a threat of any kind?
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: