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Henry VIII | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VIII | Act 3, Scene 2 | Summary



In an antechamber of Henry's apartments, Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey, and Lord Chamberlain discuss how they can strike against Cardinal Wolsey. They complain about his arrogance and selfishness, but Chamberlain reminds them they cannot do anything against Wolsey as long as the cardinal has the king's ear. Norfolk, however, says the king has discovered something that has turned him against Wolsey—some of Wolsey's letters to the pope. In these letters Wolsey asks the pope to delay judgment about the divorce, because of Henry's interest in Anne Bullen. The king is now aware of Wolsey's lies, Norfolk says, and furthermore, Henry has secretly married Anne. Suffolk says her coronation has already been ordered. Further discussion reveals that Cardinal Campeius has gone back to Rome, leaving the king's desire to divorce Katherine unresolved. Norfolk asks about Cranmer's return, and Suffolk says Cranmer has sent opinions that justify the divorce. Norfolk and Suffolk say Cranmer will likely be made an archbishop.

Wolsey and Cromwell enter, and Norfolk and Suffolk watch them, remarking on Wolsey's moodiness. Wolsey asks Cromwell about letters he sent to the king. Cromwell reports the king read the letters and wants Wolsey to meet him. Wolsey dismisses Cromwell, complaining in an aside the king prefers Anne Bullen to the French king's sister and now favors Cranmer, whom Wolsey considers a heretic.

Henry enters, accompanied by Lovell. Henry is angry at the wealth Wolsey has accumulated, and amazed at how much the cardinal spends. Norfolk tells the king they have been observing Wolsey, who seems to be in distress. Henry reveals he is in possession of some papers Wolsey didn't mean for him to see, including information about the extravagant way Wolsey lives. Henry speaks cordially to Wolsey, reminding the cardinal that his advantageous position at court is because of the king's favor. Wolsey thanks him profusely, professing total loyalty. Henry then gives Wolsey the papers he was reading and leaves. Once Wolsey is alone, he glances at the papers and realizes his mistake. In addition to the financial information about Wolsey's household, the papers include Wolsey's correspondence with the pope in which he objects to Anne Bullen.

Norfolk re-enters and says Wolsey must give up the royal seal. Wolsey doesn't believe the king has really asked for this, and is obstinate. Suffolk then delivers the message that Wolsey must forfeit all his possessions and the king's protection. Alone again, Wolsey is dismayed and soliloquizes on how quickly a man may rise and fall. He reflects on his own pride, and how he now realizes he has none left, expressing his hatred for the decadence of the world and how foolish people are when they rely on the whims of royalty.

Cromwell enters, amazed at the current events. Wolsey asks for news, and Cromwell reveals Sir Thomas More has been chosen to replace Wolsey as Lord Chancellor, Cranmer has been made Archbishop of Canterbury, and Anne has gone public as Henry's wife. Wolsey laments Anne has been the cause of his downfall. Wolsey advises Cromwell to secure his place in the king's service. Cromwell says he is sorry to have to leave Wolsey, but Wolsey, weeping, asks Cromwell to eulogize him kindly, and to use his example as a warning against ambition. He ends by saying he should have served God as well as he served the king, and heaven is the only source of hope for him now.


Any time Anne is mentioned in the play, someone alludes to her legacy, which is Elizabeth I. Here, as the lords discuss Anne's marriage and coronation, Suffolk says he is convinced she will bring blessing on the land. The blessing, of course, will be in the form of Elizabeth I and her heir, James I, because Anne's life proves to be quite short.

Henry VIII begins to come out of his shell in the scene. Until now he's been somewhat passive, as his advisers hustle around manipulating and scheming. Henry's passivity changes as he becomes disillusioned with Wolsey. It is as if the spell is broken. Henry even seems a little cruel in his treatment of Wolsey, sarcastically telling Norfolk and the others that if they think Wolsey is really contemplating spiritual matters they should leave him alone, but he is fairly certain Wolsey is not doing so. He toys with the cardinal, apologizing for interrupting Wolsey in his "holy offices," noting it must be hard for Wolsey to take his mind off spiritual matters to consider earthly things: "You have scarce time/To steal from spiritual leisure a brief span/To keep your earthly audit." Of course Henry has just been looking over Wolsey's personal financials and knows he spends a great deal of time thinking about earthly things. Henry very cordially reminds the cardinal the king has bestowed many riches and honors on him, implying the king could also revoke those riches and honors. When Henry observes honor creates honor, just as disloyalty creates dishonor, and has the attending lords witness Wolsey's profession of loyalty, Wolsey should be very suspicious that all is not well. Soon enough he understands very well the subtext of this awkward conversation.

The sun and seal symbols coalesce, again. Wolsey compares himself to the sun—"I haste now to my setting"—which symbolizes royal power. Norfolk arrives shortly after to take Wolsey's seal away, to which Wolsey responds, "That seal ... with [the king's] own hand gave me;/Bade me enjoy it." This implies Wolsey doesn't truly believe he is guilty. He believes he is loyal and simply enjoying royal privilege. From his perspective, Anne Bullen is beneath the king. Wolsey's real crime is equating himself with the king and forgetting there can be only one sun—the monarch. Norfolk, coming to take away the seal, symbol of royal power, clearly states Wolsey's crime, and in Latin: "ego et rex meus," which means "I and my king." Accusing Wolsey in Latin connects the accusation with the religious theme in the play, suggesting the king has religious power in reflecting divinity, also associated with the sun in the play. Wolsey loses everything for believing himself to be like the sun, a life-giving force, a king, or even divine. The scene ends with Wolsey referring now to the king as the sun—"That sun, I pray, may never set"—and reduced to a state of deference.

Wolsey is the third character to fall from the king's grace, and his fall follows the pattern established by Buckingham and Katherine. Although Wolsey's "trial" is not a public or formal trial, it still has all of the necessary elements: the accused, a judge (Henry VIII), an audience (the nobles present), a defense (Wolsey's professions of gratitude and loyalty), and a judgment (decrees from the king that Wolsey lose his seal and his possessions). However, once Wolsey is cast down, he makes a quick and complete turnaround. He realizes he has been led astray by greed, pride, and ambition. As was the case with Buckingham, once the accused is tried and convicted, acceptance soon follows.

As much as Shakespeare, in line with the politics of his time, in which he must defer to the divine right of royalty, shows Henry VIII acting with virtuous and pious intentions, there is still the fact in the play that Henry VIII turned to Cranmer to get his annulment made legal through formal religious doctrine. Cranmer finds religious justification for Henry VIII and rises, whereas Wolsey, who did not find religious justification for the divorce, falls, showing the corrupting influence of politics on religious leaders—at least to modern audiences. Shakespeare obscured this possible interpretation in his own time by portraying Cranmer's character as loyal and spiritually uncorrupted, and by ending the play with Cranmer's sublime prophecy about Elizabeth I and James I.

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