Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey and the Lord Chamberlain are discussing the problem of Wolsey. Norfolk believes that if they all unite against Wolsey, he cannot survive. The alternative, he says, is more disgrace. The Lord Chamberlain says that they must bar Wolsey's access to the king if they want to make any sort of attack on him, since he has the king as if under his spell. Norfolk says that the king is already displeased with Wolsey, as he has evidence of his double-dealing in the divorce. Wolsey had written letters to the Pope asking him to delay his decision on the divorce until the king had got over his infatuation with Anne. Wolsey's letters were intercepted by the king.
The Lord Chamberlain reveals that the king has already married Anne. Suffolk confirms that her coronation as queen has been arranged. Suffolk praises Anne and says that he believes she will bring blessings to England. He adds that Campeius has displeased the king by leaving for Rome without the king's permission and without having assisted in the divorce. He says that Cranmer is about to return from his tour of the famous colleges, where he has been collecting churchmen's opinions on the divorce. These opinions have supported the king. Soon, news of the king's marriage to Anne will be published. Katherine will lose her title of queen and will be called the princess dowager, and Prince Arthur's widow. Norfolk praises Cranmer for having taken such pains with the king's business. Suffolk predicts that Cranmer will be promoted to Archbishop.
Wolsey enters with his servant, Cromwell. The Lords observe them, unseen by Wolsey. Wolsey asks Cromwell if his letters have been given to the king. Cromwell confirms that they have, and the king read them with a serious air. Cromwell leaves, and Wolsey muses that the king must marry the French king's sister, not Anne Bullen. Anne is a passionate Lutheran (and therefore a Protestant, as against Wolsey's Catholicism), and will obstruct Wolsey. Wolsey worries too about the growing influence of Cranmer, another Protestant, over the king.
The king and Lovell enter. The king is reading a document that reveals the enormous wealth that Wolsey has accumulated. The king asks the Lords whether they have seen Wolsey. They say that they have been observing him, and that he seems very agitated. The king says this may be because an inventory of Wolsey's possessions has, probably mistakenly, been included in some state papers he had sent to the king. The king is amazed that a subject could accumulate such wealth. He suspects that Wolsey right now is musing on worldly, rather than spiritual, matters.
Lovell summons Wolsey to the king. The king says to Wolsey that his mind must be so full of spiritual matters that he has no time to look after worldly responsibilities. Wolsey says that he allots some time to spiritual matters, some to affairs of state, and some to the demands of the body (sleep, eating, etc.). The king says that Wolsey speaks well. He goes on to say that his father, Henry VII, thought highly of Wolsey, and he himself has employed him as his closest aide. Wolsey, unnerved at where this conversation might be heading, points out that he has worked only for the good of the king and the state, and that the king's favor has been payment enough for his labors.
The king says Wolsey has answered well, though it is clear that he doubts his integrity. The king says that a loyal subject is rewarded with honor, and a disloyal one with dishonor. Wolsey repeats that he has always worked for the king's good, not his own. Again, the king commends Wolsey's reply. He gives Wolsey the papers he has intercepted and leaves, followed by the Lords, who are smiling happily at these developments.
Left alone, Wolsey examines the papers. When he finds the inventory of his wealth, he realizes that this has caused the king's anger. He admits that he has built up wealth for his own ends, specifically, to bribe his friends in Rome to gain the position of Pope. Then he finds his letter to the Pope, asking him to delay his decision on the divorce. He knows that he is ruined.
Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey and the Lord Chamberlain enter. Norfolk has been sent by the king to order Wolsey to hand back his seal of office and confine himself to his house. But Wolsey is unwilling to obey without a written warrant from the king. He accuses the Lords of envy and refuses to give up the seal except into the king's own hands. Surrey accuses Wolsey of having brought about the death of his father-in-law, Buckingham, and having sent him, Surrey, to Ireland, so that he could not seek justice. Wolsey protests that he is innocent of the death of Buckingham, who was convicted under the law by a jury. Surrey angrily replies that if Wolsey were not protected by his churchman's office, he would kill him. Surrey reminds Wolsey that he has gained wealth by extortion from the nobles, and dealt with the Pope against the king's interests. Norfolk tells Wolsey that he has a list of articles, written by the king, enumerating Wolsey's misdeeds. Wolsey insists that he will be able to prove his innocence to the king. Suffolk says he remembers some of the king's complaints against Wolsey, and Wolsey will not be able to save himself.
The Lords begin to read out the list of articles against Wolsey drawn up by the king. First, Wolsey made himself the Pope's representative without the king's consent. Second, in letters to Rome and foreign monarchs, he wrote, "I and my king," implying that the king was his servant. The Lords read out other crimes that Wolsey is guilty of, including having his cardinal's hat stamped on the king's coins and bribing the Pope. The Lord Chamberlain, feeling sorry for Wolsey, stops the Lords from reading any further, saying that they must leave him to the law. Surrey says he forgives Wolsey. Suffolk tells Wolsey that the king has ordered that all Wolsey's property should be forfeited and that he is no longer under the king's protection. Norfolk tells Wolsey that the king will be informed about his unwillingness to give up his seal of office, and the Lords leave him on his own to ponder on "how to live better."
Wolsey reflects that his life has been like that of a plant, which grows, blooms, and then is killed by a sudden frost. He also compares himself to little boys who swim out of their depth, using swim bladders to keep them afloat. His pride has burst, just as swim bladders can burst, and has now left him at the mercy of the "rude stream" (lline 364) of events. He denounces the vain glories of this world, and feels that his heart has been "new open'd." Those who depend on royal favors are in a precarious position, and when they fall, it is as Lucifer fell from heaven, "Never to hope again" (line 372).
Cromwell enters and weeps at Wolsey's fate. But Wolsey tells him he is now at peace and has never been happier. He knows himself now. The king has cured him (of the disease of pride), for which he is thankful. He feels strong enough to endure even more miseries, and certainly more than his enemies could offer. Cromwell reports to Wolsey that Sir Thomas More is to replace him as Lord Chancellor, and that Cranmer has been welcomed home, and made Archbishop of Canterbury. Lastly, he reports that Anne Bullen, who has been secretly married to the king for some time, has appeared in public for the first time as queen and that her coronation is expected soon.
Wolsey realizes that Anne has been his downfall. He tells Cromwell to leave him, as he is "a poor fall'n man," and to go to the king, who will promote him. Cromwell cannot bear to leave his master. He tells him that though the king shall have his service, Wolsey shall have his prayers. Wolsey is moved to tears. He tells Cromwell that when he is dead and forgotten, he must tell the world that Wolsey showed him an honorable route to success - one that Wolsey himself had missed. He advises Cromwell to reject ambition, to love himself last, to value his enemies, and to remember that honesty will serve him better than corruption. He must serve his country, God, and truth. If he does all this and still falls, then "Thou fall'st a blessed martyr." He asks Cromwell to take the inventory of his possessions to the king, who now owns them all. He ends by saying that if he had served God with half the zeal with which he served his king, God would not have abandoned him to his enemies. His hopes now are fixed on heaven.
This scene tracks Wolsey's fall. Until now, we have seen Wolsey largely through the eyes of his enemies, and this tradition is continued into the beginning of this scene, when we see the Lords delighting in the fact that the king has found evidence against Wolsey and anticipating his downfall. But with Wolsey's entrance, at last we see him speak for himself. As is usual with Shakespeare, the more we learn of him, the more we are able to see his human and sympathetic aspects alongside his less admirable qualities.
When we first see Wolsey, he still believes he is at the height of his powers. The impression we gain of him is largely unsympathetic. We see him plotting to marry off the king to the French king's sister and dismissing Anne Bullen as unsuitable. In terms of the grand purpose of the play, this is unacceptable, as Anne is necessary in order to give birth to Elizabeth. His interaction with the king also shows him in a bad light. He claims that all his actions have been for the good of the king and the state and his only reward the king's "graces," whereas we are aware that the king holds in his hand an inventory of Wolsey's massive wealth. In this respect, he is dishonest.
It is a brilliant stroke on Shakespeare's part to have the king refrain from confronting Wolsey about his dishonesty directly. Instead, the king merely praises Wolsey's noble-sounding speeches, and as he leaves, gives to Wolsey his own inventory of possessions. Wolsey only has to see the paper to know that his career is no more. In this way, Shakespeare gives the impression that it is not the hostility of the king that brings Wolsey down, but Wolsey's own overweening pride, of which the king cures him. This is confirmed by Wolsey later in the scene, when he says, "The king has cur'd me, / I humbly thank his grace" (lines 380-1).
Wolsey's subsequent interaction with the Lords is psychologically revealing and shows him in an even worse light than his interaction with the king. From the time he sees his letter to the Pope in the packet intercepted by the king, he knows that he is ruined (lines 222-7). But he treats the Lords, who have been sent by the king, with reckless contempt, refusing to surrender the seal of office to anyone but the king in person. His taunting question, "Now, who'll take it?" (line 250) is reminiscent of the challenge a school bully in possession of the ball might shout to other smaller or weaker boys. His action is also extraordinarily inappropriate for a churchman, who is not supposed to form attachments to worldly things and is certainly not supposed physically to hang onto his badge of office when the king has requested him to give it up. However, at the same time, the indignity of the incident awakens our pity for Wolsey, unable to give up the symbol of the high office he has striven to gain.
With the Lords, Wolsey continues to avoid taking responsibility for his actions, telling Surrey that the law, not he, was responsible for Buckingham's execution - a similar excuse to the one he used for the unfair taxes in Act 1. He also insists that the king will exonerate him when he knows of his loyalty - another dishonest claim, since he has already proclaimed his loyalty to the king and not been believed.
When Wolsey is left alone by the Lords, he begins his journey into self-awareness. He compares himself to a small boy who, lulled into a false sense of security by using inflated bladders to keep him afloat, swims out of his depth only to find that the bladders have burst, leaving him without support. His pride was his swim bladder, keeping him afloat: now that the king has burst it, he is left to the mercy of the "rude stream" of fate. He also compares himself to Lucifer, who fell from heaven, "Never to hope again" (line 372). Though this image adds to the whiff of devilry surrounding Wolsey, it also vividly portrays the depth of his despair and the extent of his self-condemnation for his vanity.
Wolsey is most sympathetic in the last part of his final scene. The lords have told Wolsey of the king's order that all his goods will be forfeit, and that he will no longer enjoy the king's protection. He has no worldly goods or status. But as so often in Shakespeare (e.g. in King Lear and As You Like It), this is the perfect time for him to achieve peace and self-knowledge. Left alone by the lords, Wolsey renounces the "vain pomp and glory of this world" and says, significantly, "I feel my heart new open'd" (lines 365-6). This last statement paves the way for what happens next.
Wolsey's servant, Cromwell, comes in. A silence falls upon the stage. When Cromwell sees the broken Wolsey, he begins to weep in sympathy. It is plain that, whatever Wolsey's faults were, he was loved by his servant. Cromwell only wants to know how Wolsey is - after so much language has been spent in lying, equivocation and power-play, it is moving to hear words spoken in a spirit of pure love and acceptance. It is no coincidence that it is in this context that Wolsey, finally freed from his habits of grasping and manipulation, replies from a place of perfect serenity, "Why, well; / Never so truly happy, my good Cromwell; / I know myself now, and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities, / A still and quiet conscience. The king has cur'd me." (lines 376-80). He goes on to counsel Cromwell to renounce ambition and work only for God, his country and the truth. Self-knowledge is invariably the highest good in Shakespeare's plays, and Wolsey achieves it, though via a difficult path and at the expense of many others, including Buckingham, Katherine and the nobles he impoverished.