Henry VIII

by: William Shakespeare

Act III, Scene ii

That Wolsey has learned something is important, but what has he learned? On one hand, he learned that he was wrong to be ambitious and prideful. But on the other hand, the main lesson of his downfall seems to be that he was out of his depth in the court. It seems a strange and unclear lesson. Does it mean that he was insufficiently noble to move among the lords of the court? Does it mean that he should not have toyed with the fate of nations, as only kings can breathe in that thin air? Or does it mean that he just wasn't smart enough to be a clever schemer and get away with it?

Like the characters who have been punished before him in each act of this play, neither the dishonor, mistakes, or treason with which the characters are punished appear wholly comprehensible, nor do their expositions of their visions of the truth. Buckingham's and Katharine's punishments seemed to have been pulled out of thin air merely for convenience's sake, to get them out of the picture. We know Wolsey is not an honorable man, since it was at his behest that Buckingham and Katharine met their fate, yet in his downfall we do not see a wholly corrupt man. In his speeches Wolsey sounds regretful; he sounds like he has seen his actions were wrong, he counsels Cromwell to live without ambition and tells him that honorable behavior will get him just as far as corruption. And in the end, we feel sorry for Wolsey. He acted callously and arrogantly, he schemed against the king, but perhaps he thought he was doing the right thing. Even if he did not, he later admits his failures. Is that enough to exonerate him?

While we might feel sympathy for Wolsey, we do see him dealing out a number of lies in this scene. First, when the king asks him about his service, Wolsey declares that being honorable and serving the king has always been its own reward--a false statement, coupled with the proof of the holdings he has seized from other nobles. Later, he assures the nobles that the king will forgive him when his loyalty is known, a strange statement considering he had just proclaimed his loyalty to the king, who then served him the accusatory articles. And when Surrey charges him with the death of Buckingham, Wolsey insists the jury was at fault more than himself, which is the same line he took when discussing the unfair taxes in Act 1. Wolsey seems hard-wired to deflect blame whenever he can, and he continues to make boastful and false comments to the nobles when he has already acknowledged that his own demise is imminent.

As with Buckingham and Katharine, whether Wolsey did bad things or was falsely accused seems not to matter so much as the fact that he must be removed from the scene for the inexorable flow of history to take place. Wolsey does not support the king's marriage with Anne, who will be the mother of Queen Elizabeth--and that may be his greatest crime, in this play.

Interestingly, we learn that Wolsey had urged the Pope to deny the king's request for divorce: he wanted Henry to get a divorce later, when Henry was no longer interested in Anne and would thereby marry a royal heir of France. Thus, the break with Rome that followed Henry's decision to go ahead with the divorce and marriage to Anne is explained as a bad side effect of Wolsey's political schemes. Perhaps the Pope would have been happy to grant a divorce, but Wolsey's intervention changed things. The play lays the blame for Henry's break with Rome at Wolsey's feet.