Among the bevy of female characters to grace the Shakespearean stage, Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII is perhaps the most enigmatic. Despite the range of possibilities in other female roles-such as Cordelia and Desdemona, in whom one certainly finds desirable traits-Katherine stands out as a tragic heroine: a secure, strong-willed woman who is articulate, passionate, charismatic, and altruistic. The unique qualities of Katherine are achieved through Shakespeare's careful accretion of rhetorical devices in her speeches. Interestingly, however, the paucity of critical attention given to Katherine's language suggests that many scholars have relegated this great lady to secondary importance in the grand scheme of the play.
With Act II, Scene 4-the hall at Blackfriars-- Shakespeare provides the most complete rendering of Katherine as a dynamic character. Specifically, what should be noted here are what may be called "semantic signals" -that is, those expressions of humility Katherine employs which lead to her impassioned arguments. Still, there are some lines in Katherine's court speech which, if considered alone, pose problems in viewing her as the protagonist of the play. Thus, in an attempt to point to the importance of this scene, it is necessary to explore the scenes immediately before and after II.4 which involve Katherine. What will result, one hopes, is evidence of how Shakespeare's recurrent use of rhetorical paradox makes Katherine such an important dramatic figure.
Maria Dowling has written of Katherine's educational background and her contributions to women's learning opportunities, quoting a statement made by Erasmus: "The queen is astonishingly...
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...on in King Henry VIII.
Dowling, Maria. "A Woman's Place? Learning and the Wives of Henry VIII." History Today (June 1991): 38-42.
Elze, Karl. Essays on Shakespeare (1874) trans. By L. Dora Schmitz. London: Kennikat Press, 1970.
Hutchinson, F.E. Cranmer and the English Reformation. London: English Universities Press, 1965.
Kamps, Ivo. "Possible Pasts: Historiography and Legitimation in Henry VIII." College English 58: 2 (February 1996): 192-216.
Magnusson, A. Lynne. "The Rhetoric of Politeness and Henry VIII." Shakespeare Quarterly 43: 4 (Winter 1992): 391-409.
Scarisbrick, J.J. Henry VIII. Los Angeles, CA: U of California P, 1969.
Shakespeare, William. King Henry VIII. Ed. John Margeson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.
The Standard Dictionary of Facts. Ed. Henry W. Ruoff. Buffalo, NY: The Frontier Press, 1913.
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