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Henry VIII /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Henry VIII

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. (For our use of the name “Shakespeare” in this play, see our Appendix on Authorship.) Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the early scenes of Henry VIII, for example, one finds the words keech (i.e., a lump of congealed fat), otherwhere (i.e., elsewhere), outworths (i.e., is more valuable than), and unpartial (i.e., impartial). Words of this kind will become familiar the more Shakespeare plays you read.

In Henry VIII, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of Henry VIII, for example, the word guarded is used where we would say “trimmed,” sad where we would say “serious,” morrow where we would say “morning,” and deceived where we would say “disappointed.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scene of Henry VIII, for example, the dramatist quickly constructs the court of this early-sixteenth-century English monarch in which courtiers of different backgrounds compete for places on the king’s “honorable board of council.” There are courtiers “propped” by ancestors, those who have done “high feats” for the crown, and those “allied to eminent assistants.” In their struggle for “honor,” they accuse their rivals of “fierce vanities,” “malice,” “insolence,” “device,” and “practice.” Such language quickly constructs Henry VIII’s court; the words and the world they create will become increasingly familiar as you get further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Often Shakespeare rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Henry VIII, Buckingham uses such a construction in explaining why Charles the Holy Roman Emperor fears the English-French treaty—“from this league / Peeped harms that menaced him” (1.1.213–14). So does Lovell when he later says “so run the conditions(1.3.31). The “normal” order would be “harms peeped” and “the conditions run.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). Buckingham provides an example of this inversion when he says “all this business / Our reverend cardinal carried(1.1.119–20), and the king another example when he says of Buckingham’s surveyor that “the treasons of his master / He shall again relate(1.2.7–8). The “normal” order would be “our cardinal carried this business” and “he shall relate the treasons.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is commonly done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word, or else to draw attention to a needed piece of information. Take, for example, Norfolk’s “Today the French, / All clinquant, all in gold, like heathen gods, / Shone down the English” (1.1.24–26). Here the subject (“the French”) is separated from its verb (“shone”) by the subject’s three modifiers: “All clinquant [glittering],” “all in gold,” and “like heathen gods.” As Norfolk’s purpose is to describe to Buckingham the splendor of the ceremonies at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, these modifiers have an importance that allows them briefly to shoulder aside the verb. Or take Buckingham’s accusation against Wolsey for prompting Henry unwisely to sign a treaty:

                            This holy fox,

Or wolf, or both—for he is equal rav’nous

As he is subtle, and as prone to mischief

As able to perform ’t, his mind and place

Infecting one another, yea reciprocally—

Only to show his pomp as well in France

As here at home, suggests the King our master

To this last costly treaty[.]


Here the subject and verb (“This holy fox . . . suggests”) are separated by a coordinate conjunction and a noun (“or wolf ”), another conjunction and an appositive (“or both”), then a balanced subordinate clause (“for he is equal rav’nous / As he is subtle, and as prone to mischief / As able to perform ’t”), then an absolute construction (“his mind and place / Infecting one another, yea reciprocally”), and finally an infinitive (“Only to show his pomp as well in France / As here at home”). This pileup of interruptions emphasizes Buckingham’s almost overmastering contempt for Wolsey’s pride and fear of his cunning malice. In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, one can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“This holy fox suggests the king to this treaty, for he is equal ravenous . . .”). The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or a shift in emphasis.

Often in Henry VIII, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. He puts this kind of construction in the mouth of Buckingham to stress how the character missed all that took place at the Field of the Cloth of Gold: “All the whole time / I was my chamber’s prisoner” (1.1.17–18). The basic sentence elements (“I was”) are here withheld for a moment as Buckingham indicates the length of the sickness that kept him from appearing in public; this indication provides the motivation for Norfolk’s account of all that Buckingham missed, an account that takes up much of the play’s first scene. When, as he feared, Buckingham is arrested at the end of this scene, again Shakespeare delays the crucial sentence elements of subject, verb, and object (“I arrest thee”) until a list of Buckingham’s titles has been presented and our awareness thereby directed to the great height from which he is now falling.

My lord the Duke of Buckingham and Earl

Of Hertford, Stafford, and Northampton, I

Arrest thee[.]


Finally, in Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because the dramatist omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Shakespeare captures the same conversational tone in the play’s initial exchange between Buckingham and Norfolk. When Buckingham asks Norfolk “How have you done / Since last we saw in France?” the dramatist omits “each other” after “saw” leaving his audience or readers to supply the words. From Norfolk’s response “I thank your Grace, / Healthful” Shakespeare leaves out the words “I have been” before “healthful” (1.1.1–4). In 1.2, when Henry VIII hears that such high taxes are being exacted in his name that some subjects are about to rebel, the urgency of his demands for detail is dramatically rendered through his radical ellipses, his questions stripped of most of the usual sentence elements: “Taxation? / Wherein? And what taxation?” (1.2.43–44) and “Still exaction! / The nature of it?” (61–62). Though Shakespeare follows each of these sets of stripped-down questions with a more fully formed question, even those questions are cryptic: “My Lord Cardinal, / You that are blamed for it alike with us, / Know you of this taxation?” and “In what kind, let’s know, / Is this exaction?” (44–46, 62–63). The effect obtained is of volatile, barely contained emotion.

Shakespeare’s Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, metaphors and puns. A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which the metaphor suggests it shares common features. For instance, when Buckingham, as he is arrested, declares “The net has fall’n upon me” (1.1.238), he uses a metaphor that presents his arrest as the trapping of an animal in a successfully laid snare. “Those suns of glory” (1.1.8) is another metaphor, this one glorifying Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France by describing them as the brightest of lights. This metaphor is repeated later in the scene, first by Norfolk, who refers to the kings as “these suns— / For so they phrase ’em” (39–40). Buckingham himself uses it again in the context of other metaphors in an attack on Wolsey:

                                 I wonder

That such a keech can with his very bulk

Take up the rays o’ th’ beneficial sun

And keep it from the Earth.


In this passage, Wolsey is metaphorically said to be a “keech,” or lump of fat, grown so vast in bulk that he shadows the Earth, depriving it of the sun’s rays. In the context of earlier references to the king as sun, it seems reasonable to interpret the lines as accusing Wolsey of absorbing so much of the king’s favor that no one else can experience it. A further extension of the metaphor may be found at the scene’s conclusion when Buckingham laments how he has fallen out of the king’s favor:

I am the shadow of poor Buckingham,

Whose figure even this instant cloud puts on

By dark’ning my clear sun.


This challenging metaphor may be interpreted to mean, among other things, that Buckingham views his disgrace as a passage out of the light of the sun-king and into the shade of a cloud.

A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). A number of puns in this play are bawdy. When Lord Sands is talking with his friends the Lord Chamberlain and Sir Thomas Lovell about wooing women, the Lord Chamberlain asks Sands “Your colt’s tooth [i.e., youthful desire] is not cast yet?” Sands answers “not while I have a stump” (1.3.58, 60), punning on “stump,” which can mean not only part of a broken tooth left in the gum but also a penis. Other puns are not bawdy but savagely ironic. Queen Katherine uses such a pun in addressing the Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius:

                     Holy men I thought you,

Upon my soul, two reverend cardinal virtues;

But cardinal sins and hollow hearts I fear you.


The word cardinal, as used in line 117, means “chief,” but puns on the ecclesiastical rank of cardinal and on the term cardinal virtues, which refers to justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. In line 118, once again “cardinal” alludes to the men’s ecclesiastic rank and puns on the term cardinal sins—that is, the Seven Deadly Sins, usually identified as pride, greed, envy, wrath, sloth, gluttony, and lechery.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Often the dialogue offers an immediate indication of the action that is to accompany it. For example, when Wolsey, in conversation with Cromwell, says “Let’s dry our eyes” (3.2.511), it is clear that both are shedding tears over Wolsey’s fall from greatness. Therefore we feel fairly confident about adding to their preceding speech prefixes the stage direction “weeping,” putting it in half-square brackets to signal that it is our interpolation rather than an instruction appearing in the earliest printed text. Again, when Henry VIII says of Cardinal Campeius “once more in mine arms I bid him welcome” (2.2.118), it is fairly clear that the king embraces the cardinal, and so we add the stage direction “He embraces Campeius,” in brackets, at the end of the king’s speech. However, the line “once more in mine arms I bid him welcome” might be interpreted to mean that Henry has already bid the cardinal welcome by embracing him. In Henry’s earlier speeches to the cardinal there is no allusion to an earlier embrace, and therefore we have added no stage direction to indicate one. While it is possible that they have embraced before, it is also possible that the king means only “once more . . . I bid him welcome.” We have left to the reader to decide whether king or cardinal embrace once or twice.

Occasionally, in Henry VIII, signals to the reader are not in the least clear. In 1.4, for example, Wolsey is sitting in a raised chair watching the masquers dance when he offers to give up his seat of honor for one among the masquers that he knows to be of a higher rank than himself. The response comes that Wolsey must determine which of the masquers holds that noble rank. Wolsey then says: “Let me see, then. By all your good leaves, gentlemen. Here I’ll make my royal choice.” To which the king responds “You have found him, cardinal” (112–16). The stage action accompanying this dialogue could range all the way from Wolsey’s staying in his seat and pointing to the masked king to Wolsey’s prostrating himself before this figure. After considering royal protocol and dramatic effectiveness, we decided to add stage directions, in brackets, that have Wolsey leave “his state” and then bow “before the king,” at which point the king unmasks. Actors and directors, and you as a reader, are free to decide on other actions and gestures.

Again, in 3.2, directions for stage action are most ambiguous. Wolsey meets Cromwell, who tells him he has delivered Wolsey’s packet to the king; Wolsey speaks in soliloquy of his determination that Henry not marry Anne Bullen; the king enters, unobserved by Wolsey, and is told that Wolsey has been acting very strange.

                           He bites his lip, and starts,

Stops on a sudden, looks upon the ground,

Then lays his finger on his temple, straight

Springs out into fast gait, then stops again,

Strikes his breast hard, and anon he casts

His eye against the moon. In most strange postures

We have seen him set himself.


It is quite possible that Norfolk, the speaker here, is describing exactly what Wolsey has been doing as he speaks in soliloquy. On the other hand, Wolsey might have stood perfectly still while speaking, with Norfolk simply using this opportunity to describe Wolsey as behaving in a highly suspicious manner. In this case, we added no directions for Wolsey’s actions, leaving the decision about them to the actor, director, or imaginative reader.

Practice in reading the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches scenes heavily dependent on stage business. Think, for example, of the scene (5.2) that begins with Cranmer refused admittance to the Privy Council, observed first by Doctor Butts, then by the king and Doctor Butts from a window above, followed by the setting up of the Privy Council meeting, the summoning of Cranmer before the Council, his impassioned defense of himself, his presentation of the king’s ring, the entrance of the king, and the final general embracing of Cranmer by the members of the Council. For a reader, such a scene requires a vivid stage-related imagination. With such an imagination, such an ability to read the language of stage action, scenes like this one—along with, for example, the coronation scene (4.1) and the baptism scene (5.4)—come to life in the mind much as they do on the stage.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage a Shakespeare play in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Jacobean poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.