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Henry VIII

William Shakespeare


Act III, Scene ii

page 2 of 3

Act III, Scene ii

Act III, Scene ii

Act III, Scene ii

Act III, Scene ii

The lords begin to read the articles against Wolsey, accusing him first of scheming to become a papal representative without the king's assent or knowledge. Then, he accuses Wolsey of writing to the Pope himself without the king's knowledge or permission. Wolsey is declared guilty of other, smaller political schemes, not the least of which was bribes he sent to the Pope. Lord Chamberlain stops the proceedings, saying that they should not push Wolsey too much when he is already down. Surrey says he forgives Wolsey, and Suffolk finishes the king's articles with the announcement that all Wolsey's goods shall be forfeited and he shall be cast out of the king's protection. The lords depart to tell the king of Wolsey's refusal to give up the seal.

Alone, Wolsey considers the fate of men. First, one sprouts like a tender plant, then blooms, then a frost comes and brings about one's demise just when one was on the verge of ripening into greatness. "I have ventured," he says, "far beyond my depth" (III.ii.359, 362). His pride was not enough to support him, and now he must fall prey to the mercy of currents of opinion. He curses the pomp and glory of the world and his own efforts to win the favors of the king. Between the smile of favor and the destructive punishment of a king is a great fall, Wolsey thinks.

Cromwell enters and weeps at Wolsey's misfortunes. Wolsey tells him not to weep; Wolsey knows himself now and is at peace. He has been cured by the king, and he says he is glad to be unburdened. Now, he says, he can bear more misfortunes than his enemies could bear.

Cromwell relates the news, that the king has appointed Sir Thomas More to Wolsey's position, Cranmer has returned, and Anne has been announced as the new queen. Wolsey comments that his sun has set and sends Cromwell to the king, whose sun he prays will never go down. He assures Cromwell that the king will promote him. Cromwell is saddened and says that while the king may have his service, Cromwell's prayers will stay with Wolsey. Wolsey weeps and tells Cromwell, after Wolsey has been forgotten, to remind the world that Wolsey had taught Cromwell how to avoid the pitfalls of honor and dishonor. He advises Cromwell to forget his ambition, to love himself last, and to cherish those who hate him. "Corruption wins not more than honesty" (III.ii.445), he says, and urges Cromwell to be just. Above all, Wolsey exhorts Cromwell to serve the king.

This act marks the fall of Wolsey, who until now had successfully influenced the king to do what he wanted without being suspected. Throughout the play thus far we have only heard characters speak badly of Wolsey, particularly Buckingham, Katharine, and Norfolk, but in this scene we finally hear Wolsey speak for himself. As the trial in Act 1 put Buckingham's innocence in doubt, so Wolsey's trial makes Wolsey seem less unambiguously evil.

Speaking alone on the stage after the nobles announce the king's punishment, we see a changed man. Wolsey is guilty of ambition and pride, of scheming toward his own ends and plotting against other nobles. Yet, in the manner of many of Shakespeare's heroes, he learns something from his downfall. He knows himself now, he says. Self-knowledge is the hardest-won but most worthy achievement in Shakespeare's world.

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