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Shakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and EthicsShakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics


Henry VIII


Key characters

Henry VIII, king of England (pictured right below) .

Katherine of Aragon, his first wife, whom he divorcesShakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics

Cardinal Wolsey, his Lord Chancellor (chief minister) whom he fires for not getting the divorce.

Duke of Buckingham, English aristocrat.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who approves the divorce.


Fun facts

  • The Globe Theatre in London was burned to the ground during a performance of the play.


The story

The Duke of Buckingham is arrested and sent to the Tower of London for denouncing Cardinal Wolsey’s dictatorial power.

King Henry is unaware of a new tax which his wife, Queen Katherine, tells him is causing public unrest. Wolsey:

  • denies responsibility for it. Shakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics
  • takes credit for the tax's removal (after Henry orders him to do it).

After Buckingham’s trial and execution, Henry wants to divorce Katherine, because she is his brother’s widow (and so, according to the Bible, their marriage is unlawful).


  • tries to get the divorce.
  • is attacked by Katherine (who stoutly defends herself).


  • justifies the divorce by Katherine's inability to give him a male heir.
  • secretly marries Anne Bullen, one of his ladies-in-waiting.
  • dismisses Wolsey for failing to get a divorce.
  • confiscates all Wolsey's property and replaces him with Thomas More.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, has few friends because of his support for Henry’s divorce. The king:

  • encourages him to stand firm (giving him a ring as a sign of friendship).
  • intervenes to prove his innocence in a trial (instigated by Cranmer’s enemies).

Katherine forgives Wolsey after he had humbly admitted his wrongdoing in a speech just before his death.

She is still fond of Henry, despite his bad treatment of her.

Henry hears that Anne has given him a daughter (the future Elizabeth I, pictured right below). Cranmer baptizes her, saying she will:Shakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics

  • die a virgin
  • bring “thousand, thousand blessings” to England.


Lessons on leadership and ethics


1. Be sensitive to your people’s needs

Henry gives Wolsey total power and so loses touch with ordinary people.

It is Katherine who tells him about the injustice of Wolsey’s new tax.Shakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics

Henry also:

  • ignores the people’s support for Katherine during the divorce.
  • fails to listen to Wolsey’s critics (like the Duke of Buckingham).


2. Principles are paramount

The play’s heroes stand by their principles in the face of intense opposition.

  • Katherine (kind and forgiving) Shakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics
  • Cranmer (who supports the divorce and ,during his trial, forgives those plotting against him).

Wolsey (Ian McNeice, pictured right, in a 2010 production)  and Henry are less attractive characters, because of their:

  • cruelty.
  • capacity to compromise their principles.

Wolsey is a deceitful schemer who wants the divorce to create an alliance with France by marrying Henry to the French king’s sister.

But, after his dismissal, Wolsey redeems himself by humbly admitting his wrongdoings.

 Shakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics

3. Be loyal to your supporters

Henry supports Cranmer by:

  • encouraging him to stand up to his enemies (who are against the divorce).
  • giving him a ring.

Henry (Dominic Rowan, star of British TV's Law and Order) is pictured right in the 2010 production 


4. Family matters

At Elizabeth’s baptism, Henry says that bringing her into this world is the best thing he has done.

 Shakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics

5. Power corrupts

Wolsey’s downfall is caused by his arrogant belief that he is:

  • untouchable and invincible.
  • able to do anything he wants (like confiscate other people’s property and even manipulate the king).

 Shakespeare's Henry VIII - Leadership and Ethics

6. Humility is vital

Just before his death and after losing all his power and wealth, Wolsey realizes the importance of humility and honour, giving him

  • peace.
  • “a still and quiet conscience”.


Key quote on communication

Words are no deeds, Henry.


Key quote on careers

Fling away ambition: by that sin fell the angels, Wolsey.


Key quote on love

Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee, Wolsey.


Key quote on relationships

Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself, Duke of Norfolk.


Key quote on peace of mind

A peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience, Wolsey.


Key quote on success

To climb steep hills requires slow pace at first, Duke of Norfolk.

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