What happens in Henry VIII

We don’t know for sure if William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a bubonic plague lockdown, but we may be closer to his state of mind than ever, still being deep in the plagues that hang in this pendulous air today. I hope you and your loved ones are well and safe, with all the TP and sourdough starter and job security one needs to get a decent night’s sleep.

This month, to celebrate Shakespeare’s 456th birthday, let’s examine the terrible life choices and morally reprehensible leadership strategies of Henry VIII.

If you go in king order, Henry VIII is the last of Shakespeare’s history plays. They’re all about the family that brought us Queen Elizabeth I, who was the Queen of England during Shakespeare’s life. Henry VIII was her father. Oddly, Henry VIII the play isn’t about Henry VIII the man quite so much as it is about the ghouls behind the throne and their devious power grabs.

Even though the baby future queen actually makes an appearance in the play, rumor has it a prince would have been more welcome. The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Henry wants a son and will stop at nothing to get one. MORAL: Divorce is a pain in the neck.”

What happens in Henry VIII
(King of England from 1509-1547)

We’re in the London of King Henry VIII. The Duke of Buckingham has the gall to question Cardinal Wolsey’s seemingly unlimited political power. Buckingham gets mysteriously arrested and locked up for treason, which basically proves his point.

At court, Queen Katherine speaks out for Buckingham. Henry, who is scared of Wolsey, doesn’t like his wife defending Buckingham and orders Buckingham’s trial to start.

Wolsey throws a party. Among the guests is the maximally alluring Lady Anne Boleyn. Henry and his friends arrive disguised as shepherds, but not very well, because Wolsey recognizes the king when he dances with Anne.

Back in London, witnesses lie about Buckingham during his trial. He makes a stirring speech about how the court he was loyal to betrayed him (true). He gets executed.

The court gossip says Wolsey is driving a wedge between Henry and Katherine (true). Henry and Wolsey look for excuses for Henry to divorce Katherine. Divorce is completely unheard of, especially when you’re the king of England.

Anne hears the rumors and feels sorry for Katherine. Henry gives Anne a title to hush her up.

The divorce trial starts. Katherine accuses Wolsey of pushing Henry to divorce her (true). Then she leaves the trial, which effectively brings the proceedings to an end.

Wolsey visits her and tries to convince her to go along with the divorce. She refuses. The divorce is finalized anyway. Katherine might be the queen, but she’s got zero power.

The court gossip turns to Henry’s secret marriage to Anne (true).

Henry discovers that Wolsey has been secretly writing to the Pope to oppose the divorce until Henry’s affair with Anne dies down. Henry confronts Wolsey. Wolsey promptly quits his job and leaves town.

Anne is crowned as queen. The court gossip machine has nothing plot-based to offer this time, but does make it clear how staggeringly fancy the coronation is.

Katherine (she’s still among us, poor dear) hears that Wolsey has died of natural causes.

The court gossip is now all about the new archbishop. There are some political machinations which lead to him briefly getting arrested, held in the Tower of London, and then pardoned.

Henry makes the archbishop the godfather of his and Anne’s new baby, Princess Elizabeth. The archbishop baptizes the lil queen-to-be and predicts great things for her future (true).


Gentle reader, if you’ve read this far, a pack of blessings light upon thy back. Henry VIII was the last of the history plays, and I did the histories last. So this is the end of my What Happens in Shakespeare posts. I may one day tackle Venus and Adonis or the Rape of Lucrece, but we’ve come to the end of the plays.

No way could I ever list all the things reading and summarizing every play taught me about writing. Plotting. Stealing plots from other stories. Making up words. The sheer numinosity of words. Morally ambiguous characters. Misplaced infatuation. Convenient pirates. Regret. Revenge. Grief. The timeless irresistibility of girls dressed as boys. It would be foolish even to begin.

So, goodnight unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends.


2 thoughts on “What happens in Henry VIII

  1. Hi Skye,

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your Shakespeare posts! Sorry I haven’t been in touch in (checks notes) … years?! My fault obviously. Maybe we can grab coffee sometime when people are able to be together in public again. 😊

    Are you still in the Bay Area? I remember you mentioning you might move eventually.

    Take care, sincerely. I hope all’s well with you and Nadja!


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