About the Book

Book Protagonist: Henry VIII
Publication Date: 1623
Genre: Drama, Historical Fiction

Themes and Analysis

Henry VIII

By William Shakespeare

With poetic dialogues, interesting symbols, and meaningful themes, 'Henry VIII' by Shakespeare would make a poetic feast for lovers of Literature.

Henry VIII‘ by William Shakespeare has meaningful themes and interesting figurative devices that any lover of Literature would enjoy. A historical play with rich themes that are relevant even after four hundred years is no small feat. Let’s explore some qualities of ‘Henry VIII‘ by Shakespeare in the following articles.


The themes of ‘Henry VIII‘ show in various forms the extent to which certain humans can go to satisfy their selfish desires and what often becomes of such ruthless quests in the end.

Enmity and Hatred

The play teaches one to be careful how they harbour and express hatred for their enemies because hatred sometimes backfires and hurts its bearer. In the play, the Duke of Buckingham passionately expresses hatred for Cardinal Wolsey. Because of his hatred and open display of enmity towards Cardinal Wolsey, the cardinal, who controls so much wealth and state power, orchestrates the duke’s downfall by bribing people to testify against the cardinal on charges of high treason.


One message from the play is that sooner or later, fate gives us retribution for our evil deeds. Cardinal Wolsey abused his power and masterminded the fall of many from the King’s favour, including the Duke of Buckingham and Doctor Pace.

But later, he also loses favour with the king under the machinations of other people and is disgraced by the King. What goes around comes around, eh?

Trust and Caution

Perhaps the most important theme of the play is to be careful in our dealings with people no matter how much we love or trust them. The first instance of blind trust was Henry VIII’s trust of Cardinal Wolsey, the king trusted the cardinal so much that he paid no attention to how the cardinal was running the affairs of the kingdom, and this gave room for the cardinal to abuse his office.

Then a more tragic instance is the Duke of Buckingham who gets betrayed by people he trusts. As he walks to his death, he speaks words of advice to those that care to listen:

Where you are liberal of your loves and counsels

Be sure you not be loose; for those you make friends

And give your hearts to, when they once perceive

The least rub in your fortunes, fall away

Like water from ye, never found again

But where they mean to sink ye.

Duke of Buckingham on his way to be executed (Act II, Scene I)


The play teaches the virtue of forgiveness. This is exemplified in the Duke of Buckingham who forgives all that betrayed him. We see Cardinal Wolsey who feels penitent and unburdened when he forgives the king who disgraced him.

Gardiner and Cranmer also easily forgive each other despite being in rival factions in court politics.


A major theme in the play is to not be ruthless and inhumane in the pursuit of one’s ambitions. Cardinal Wolsey was depicted as an overly ambitious man who goes to any length to secure power and accumulate wealth for himself. His pursuit of ambition was at the expense of morality, ethics and good conscience. And he had his eventual downfall to show for it.

Submission to Authority

One striking thing about the characters in ‘Henry VIII is that they never speak grudgingly against the king even when the king acts unjustly.

The Duke of Buckingham remained a loyal subject to the king despite his pitiable end, he promised to pray for the king till his last breath. Cardinal Wolsey held no grudge against the king despite how the king mercilessly disgraced him after so many years of service to the king.

They may not have gotten fair treatment from the king but they still revered the crown and continued to solicit in the king’s favour.

Conscience and Personal Desires

In ‘Henry VIII,’ we see that despite how noble and moral we may think we are, it is in our human nature to stretch our conscience and adjust our so-called morality when we want to indulge our selfish whims.

After so many years of marriage, King Henry VIII developed a ”conscience” that saw his marriage to Queen Katherine as a sin just when he became infatuated with the young and beautiful Anne Bullen.

Also, Anne Bullen who swore she would never be queen suddenly lost all her objections when presented with wealth and the prospect of power.

Analysis of Key Moments

  1. The Duke of Norfolk narrates to the Duke of Buckingham and Lord Abergavenny the events that took place in the Field of the Cloth of Gold where the King of France and the King of England met in goodwill and friendship
  2. Duke of Buckingham expresses hatred for Cardinal Wolsey when told that the cardinal was the brain behind the meeting of the two kings and talks of his intention to report to the king how Cardinal Wolsey abuses his office
  3. Duke of Buckingham is arrested and charged with treason and Lord Abergavenny is arrested along with him
  4. Duke of Norfolk is found guilty of high treason, based on the testimonies of his Surveyor and some others against him, and is executed
  5. Cardinal Wolsey hosts a party where King Henry meets Anne Bullen and becomes enamoured with her
  6. King Henry begins to be troubled about his marriage and asks Cardinal Wolsey to petition for a divorce
  7. Queen Katherine refuses to partake in the divorce proceedings and declares Cardinal Wolsey her enemy
  8. King Henry VIII intercepts some letters written by Cardinal Wolsey asking the Pope to delay the divorce between King Henry and Queen Katherine
  9. The King is unhappy with Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is stripped of his power and disgraced. He dies shortly after his disgrace.
  10. Queen Katherine is divorced and sent away from the palace to live in Kimbolton with some servants where she remains sick
  11. The kingdom witnessed the coronation of Anne Bullen, whom the king had already married in secret, as Queen.
  12. Anne Bullen gives birth to a baby girl
  13. Gardiner and some other members of the king’s council put Cranmer on trial and try to imprison him but the King intervenes and rescues him
  14. Anne Bullen’s daughter is baptised by Cranmer and the ceremony is celebrated by the entire kingdom.

Style, Tone, and Figurative Language


The play’s style is a combination of poetry and prose. Some of the characters speak in verses with rhymes and rhythms, like the royals and the nobles. For instance, the Duke of Buckingham who is of noble birth and described as a learned man speaks in rhyming verses:

An untimely ague

Stay’d me a prisoner in my chamber, when

Those suns of glory, those two lights of men

Met in the vale of Andren

Duke of Buckingham (Act I, Scene I)

In some other dialogues, the characters speak in free prose.


Shakespeare takes a rather controversial stance about some of the characters in the play. From the tone, we can tell that Cardinal Wolsey is not seen in a good light, and characters like Queen Katherine is almost outrightly canonized as a saint.

Given that the characters are true-life people who lived not only a few decades prior to the performance of the play, his opinionated depiction of the characters was daring. But then he made good use of the prologue and epilogue as a form of poetic licence that absolves him from the responsibility of those who may be offended by the play.

Figurative Language

Just like other renowned Shakespearean plays, ‘Henry VIII‘ is generously embellished with literary devices from metaphors to similes, irony, alliteration, and a host of others.

For instance, in addition to the rhymes in the prologue, we have alliterations such as: ”As fool and fight is without forfeiting” (Prologue, Line 19)

In Act II, Scene I, Shakespeare utilises euphemism when the Duke of Buckingham refers to beheading with an axe as ”a divorce of steel”.

Shakespeare deploys in Act V, Scene II: ”The high promotion of his Grace of Canterbury, who holds his state at door ‘mongst pursuivants, pages and footboys”.

Analysis of Symbols

The Garlands in Katherine’s Vision

A sick and frail Queen Katherine sees a vision of people clad in white and dancing around her with garlands of bay which they almost place over her head but fade away without actually placing it on her.

The vision can be interpreted as the mere delirium of a sick person. But it can also symbolize a spiritual affirmation of her Christian faith, given her devout Catholicism. The garlands symbolize a coronation, Katherine who lost her crown in her earthly life is promised another crown in the afterlife.

The King’s Ring

This is a symbol of the King’s protection and favour. Cranmer was given the ring by King Henry VIII to show that he finds favour in him. And when Cranmer almost falls into a plot that posed a danger to his life and freedom, he uses the ring in his defence.

The Sun

The sun symbolizes a king. The way all the planets revolve around the sun is the way all the key players in the political games of the play revolve around the king. Although much of the events focus on other characters in the play, besides the king, the king is still the central power that often dictates the outcome of events.

Also, the sun is a symbol of warmth and light that shines for all, which also are characteristics of a king. The sun is used to represent a king in many parts of the play, in Act I, Scene I, the Duke of Buckingham refers to King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France as ”Those suns of glory, those two lights of men ”.

Also in Act I, Scene I, the duke of Buckingham referring to how Cardinal Wolsey takes advantage of the king’s favour, says ”I wonder that such a keech can with his very bulk, take up rays o’ the beneficial sun and keep it from the earth”

Wolsey after his disgrace charges Cromwell to ”seek the King;— that sun, I pray, may never set” (Act III, Scene II)


What is a key theme of Henry VIII?

A key theme in ‘Henry VIII‘ by Shakespeare is to be wise and careful in our dealings even with people we trust. This theme can be drawn from the Duke of Buckingham who is betrayed by his trusted beneficiaries.

Which literary devices are in Henry VIII by Shakespeare?

There are various literary devices in ‘Henry VIII‘ including irony, metaphors, similes, euphemisms and many others.

Who is the main character in Henry VIII?

The main character in ‘Henry VIII‘ by Shakespeare is plausibly Cardinal Wolsey. However, given the character whose name is used as the title and the continuance of the plotline of the play even after Wolsey’s death, one can say that the main character of ‘Henry VIII‘ by Shakespeare is King Henry VIII.

Onyekachi Osuji
About Onyekachi Osuji
Onyekachi is a lecturer of Public Administration and a Literature enthusiast. After gaining accreditation in English Literature, Onyeka analyzes novels on Book Analysis, whilst working as an academic and writing short stories.
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