Shakespeare's Henry VIII: Play Synopsis, Overview

Instructor: Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

'Henry VIII' is a play written by William Shakespeare. It is described as a 'serious play' and is based on the life of the real King Henry VIII. Learn more about the play Henry VIII and test your knowledge with a quiz.


Henry VIII is thought to be the last play written by William Shakespeare. In the prologue of Henry VIII, readers are told the play is serious. The story opens with several lords talking amongst themselves. One of the lords, Buckingham, is upset because he believes Cardinal Wolsey serves a critical role in peace negotiations with France and influences the king. Buckingham believes Wolsey is ambitious and disloyal. The other lords do not want contention in their ranks and urge Buckingham to keep his feelings quiet. Abergavenny (Buckingham's son-in-law), agrees with Buckingham and they are both arrested for treason and taken to the Tower of London to be killed.

Wolsey questions Buckingham's former employee, the Surveyor, about Buckingham; he states that Buckingham wants to be king and plans to become king if King Henry is killed. When he heard about Buckingham's feelings, King Henry VIII became angry and sentenced Buckingham to death. The Queen Katherine questions the surveyor's accusation and believes he is not being honest about Buckingham. Queen Katherine is also suspicious of Wolsey and informs King Henry VIII that a 1/6th tax has been placed on the people of England with Cardinal Wolsey's approval. King Henry has the tax revoked.

When Wolsey has a dinner party at his house, King Henry comes in disguise, but Wolsey recognizes him. The King meets and dances with a woman named Anne Bullen and is very attracted to her. The people of the town discuss Buckingham's trial and most do not like Wolsey. Buckingham speaks to the people, offering forgiveness for those who are against him and notes how similar his own death is to the death of his father who was also killed by a king to whom he was loyal.

Several lords discuss Wolsey's plan to have the king divorce his wife because he believes their marriage is unlawful and she has not given him a male child. When Anne hears about it, she is sad for the queen and says she would never want to be queen. Eventually she receives a new title and money from the king as a show of affection. A cardinal determines whether King Henry can divorce Katherine. Katherine is upset because she has been loyal to King Henry for two decades and calls Wolsey a traitor. Wolsey and the cardinal try to convince Katherine to divorce the king and remain cared for, but she instead curses them for suggesting she divorce King Henry.

Meanwhile, the lords of the court suspect Wolsey is disloyal to the king and try to develop a plan to destroy him. King Henry finds several possessions from fallen lords and a letter Wolsey wrote to the Pope trying to convince him to deny King Henry's divorce request until he falls out of love with Anne. Wolsey wants Henry VIII to marry Mary, the French King's sister. The king confronts Wolsey and takes away his title and belongings. He is sentenced to death. After his death, Katherine decides to forgive Wolsey after hearing positive things about him. King Henry divorces Katherine and she is demoted to 'Princess Dowager'. He then marries Anne and they have a daughter.

When the king learns of a plot against his friend Cranmer, he gives Cranmer a ring as a sign of his support for him. Cranmer is spared execution because of King Henry's support for him. When it is time for his daughter to be presented, Cranmer presents her and correctly prophesies she will be a great Queen and die a virgin.


Throughout the play Henry VIII, a series of accusations (often false) are made resulting in the downfall of the person who was accused. The only way out of punishment is through forgiveness. After the fall of Buckingham, Katherine and Wolsey, they all express forgiveness and a readiness for death. In the beginning of the play, Buckingham accuses Wolsey of many crimes, including treason. Wolsey, in retaliation, has Buckingham arrested on charges of treason and he is executed. Before his execution, he expresses forgiveness to those who have wronged him.

After King Henry meets Anne, he desires to divorce his wife and has Wolsey accuse Katherine of never legally being married to him. Katherine hates Wolsey and accuses him of trying to destroy her marriage. It was not until Katherine was on her death bed that she forgave Wolsey, even though he was already deceased. Right after Katherine forgives Wolsey, she sees spirits that offer her happiness in Heaven.

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