Study Guide

Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII

By William Shakespeare

Cardinal Wolsey

At the beginning of the play, Cardinal Wolsey is Henry's right-hand man. He's involved in all Henry's political and personal stuff, and he advises the king on major decisions. We learn from Buckingham that he also has a habit of, you know, spending the king's money. But what's a little green between friends?

Social Climber

At the beginning of the play, things are going great for Wolsey. He's the "prime man of the state," he's helped strike up a peace treaty with France, and he's gotten rid of any naysayers in the process (3.2.207). He's got a plan to outsmart everyone and take all the fame and power money can buy. When we first hear about Buckingham's run-in with Wolsey, we're not sure whom to believe. It's not long, though, before Wolsey's true colors shine through.

We see the guy plant the idea of divorce in Henry's head; we hear him make back-handed deals with Gardiner to double-cross the king; and we learn that he uses the king's seal whenever he darn well pleases—without the king's knowledge. Oops.

Let's be real: this guy is up to no good.

Pride Comes Before a Fall

The nobles are on the verge of a takedown when Wolsey himself hands them the ammo. Henry learns that Wolsey had a secret pen pal in the Pope. Wait, what? Yep: old Wolsey has been trying to convince the Pope that Henry and Anne shouldn't get hitched. When Henry flips out about it, Wolsey can't do much but slink away and sit in the corner. He tells us, "I shall fall / like a bright exhalation in the evening / and no man see me more" (3.2.277-279).

Wolsey knows he's a goner, and he doesn't mind telling us all about it. He even goes one further, saying, "And when I am forgotten, as I shall be […] no mention / of me more must be heard of" (3.2.512; 513-514). There's something almost heart-wrenching about Wolsey's final speeches on stage. He points out that no one will remember him, and tries to give Cromwell some good advice so he doesn't make the same mistakes.

(By the way, Wolsey: people totally do remember you, so can quit your griping already.)

Faulty Towers

Wolsey is one complicated villain—that's for sure. We hate him; then we pity him; then we question how we feel about him. Wolsey dies fearing God, and gets some praise from Griffith, who says that since Wolsey made things right and felt bad about scheming against the king, people should remember him as a good guy in the end. After all, "men's evil manners live in brass; their virtues / we write in water" (4.2.50-51).

We can maybe get behind that. It sure is a lot easier to remember a laundry list of evil deeds than it is remember the random good things people did. Katherine, however, isn't so sure. She wants to buy into it, but she says that Wolsey "was a man / of an unbounded stomach" (4.2.37-38). In other words, Wolsey was greedy and took things for himself, even when he wasn't supposed to. Maybe the dude is just doing some last-minute damage control by pretending to be all sorry for what he did—even if he wasn't actually sorry.

So, that brings us to the million dollar question: Wolsey was a greedy, manipulative liar his whole life, but then felt bad about it in the end. Does that make it okay? Are we supposed to forgive and forget? Basically, do you agree with Katherine (that Wolsey was a schemer) or Griffith (that Wolsey was a good guy at heart)? Shmoop amongst yourselves.

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