Norfolk, Suffolk, Lord Chamberlain, and Surrey enter. Norfolk urges for them to combine their complaints against Cardinal Wolsey, for Wolsey wouldn't be able to resist a united front. Lord Chamberlain says the only way to get at Wolsey is to bar his access to the king, but Norfolk says that the king has already become displeased with Wolsey. Norfolk tells that Wolsey's double-dealing in the divorce proceedings has come to light, and Suffolk explains: Wolsey's letters to the Pope were intercepted by the king, who discovered that Wolsey urged the Pope to deny Henry the right to divorce until Henry had gotten over his infatuation with Anne Bullen. In fact, the king has already married Anne, reveals Lord Chamberlain. Suffolk compliments Anne, who he thinks will bring blessings to the land. According to Suffolk, Cranmer returns soon from his trip to the famous colleges of Christendom, and thereafter the new marriage will be published, and Katharine will be renamed "Princess Dowager."
Wolsey and Cromwell enter, and the other lords stand aside to observe them. Wolsey asks about the delivery of his letters, and when Cromwell leaves, Wolsey comments to himself that the king shall marry the French king's sister, not Anne Bullen. Wolsey suggests that he objects to Anne on religious grounds, since she is a Lutheran. And he speaks against Cranmer, who is now in favor with the king. The lords cannot hear him speak, but they observe that Wolsey seems ill at ease.
The king enters with Lovell, muttering to himself about the wealth Wolsey has accumulated. He asks the lords if they have seen Wolsey, and they reply that he is nearby but strangely upset. The king says it may be because of misdelivered papers the king just encountered, including a surprisingly large inventory of Wolsey's holdings. Lovell summons Wolsey, who confronts the king.
Henry comments to Wolsey that he must be too busy contemplating spiritual matters to consider the earthly world, but Wolsey says he has time for both. Henry reminds Wolsey that Henry's father gave him his post, and Wolsey has been a right-hand man throughout Henry's own reign. Drawing him out, the king asks Wolsey to admit that he had been made the principal aide to Henry. Wolsey says that the praises showered on him by the king have been more than enough reward for his efforts and that all his work has been aimed at the good of the king and the profit of the country. Wolsey declares his loyalty, and the king observes that his speech makes him sound like a loyal servant–though he clearly doubts it. He comments that the reward for loyalty and obedience is honor, as the reward for disloyalty and corruption are their own punishment, bringing dishonor. Wolsey repeats that he has always worked for good and honorable ends.
Then, the king gives Wolsey the papers he has intercepted and exits with the nobles. Wolsey wonders how he has caused such annoyance in the king, then examines the paper. Immediately he sees that his career is over. The first paper is the inventory of the wealth Wolsey has gained for his own ends. He opens the second paper, which is his letter to the Pope. Wolsey knows there is nothing he can do; he has reached the highest point in his career and now must fall. Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey, and Lord Chamberlain re-enter and announce the king's order for Wolsey to give over the seal of his office, which Wolsey carries, and confine himself to his house. Wolsey is unwilling to step down before these lesser lords, and he accuses them of envy. He charges the lords with being too eager to view Wolsey's disgrace and his fall, and he says he prefers to give the seal directly to the king.
Surrey accuses Wolsey of being ambitious and heartless in bringing about the death of Surrey's father-in-law, Buckingham, and sending Surrey away to Ireland from where he could not protest the death. Wolsey says he was innocent of holding any private malice toward Buckingham, and he reminds Surrey that a jury sent Buckingham to his death. Surrey, angered at Wolsey's arrogant speech, reminds Wolsey of his efforts to take the lands and holdings of other nobles and the scheme he had been cooking up with the Pope against the king. Norfolk tells Wolsey that he holds a set of articles enumerating the faults of Wolsey, written in the king's hand, but Wolsey says his innocence will be found when the king knows of his loyalty.
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.
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.