Analysis of Cardinal Wolsey’s Soliloquy

Upon his dismissal from King Henry’s court in Henry VIII by William Shakespeare, Cardinal Wolsey deeply contemplates the circumstances for his sudden downfall. Having been left alone by other characters, he proceeds to give a soliloquy whereby he expresses his true thoughts. The figurative language throughout the soliloquy stimulates the numerous tone shifts that occur as he reflects on his ousting, suggesting of a complex progression of emotions that are indicated by tone.

The flower metaphor and the apostrophic references of Wolsey as he addresses his former greatness rouses a bitter tone, indicating his instantly resentful feelings towards dismissal. The cardinal directly wishes an apostrophic and ironic “farewell – to the little good [his power] bears [him]” (1), explicitly saying that “all [his] greatness” (2) is gone; the absolute of “all” contrasts the idea of his position doing him “little good,” signifying his anger and sarcastic attitude towards the situation. Moreover, he metaphorically compares himself to a plant, a symbol of potential, noting that his “tender leaves of hope” (4) with the capacity to “blossom” (4) were snuffed by the unexpected “killing frost” (6) of dismissal that permanently “nips his root” (8) despite his ripening greatness, illustrating the aggrieved attitude that he holds which contributes to his bitterness. The initial bitter tone establishes the foundation for the other tone transitions throughout the soliloquy, thereby highlighting the emotional significance of this event on Wolsey.

The connotations of Wolsey’s simile indirectly characterizes him as hubristic and incompetent for his former role as an advisor, making him realize that he himself is to blame for his downfall, thereby illustrating a tone shift from bitterness to embarrassment and shame. He compares himself to “little wanton boys” (10), the word “boys” connoting naïveté that he was incognizant to because of his “full-blown pride” (12). Furthermore, as a result of him being metaphorically “far beyond [his] depth” (12) in “a sea of glory” (11), he was blinded by hubris that causes his sudden downfall. However, upon realizing the implications regarding him being ousted, he feels that he must “[forever] hide” (15), the hyperbole of “forever” and the feeble connotation of “hiding” emphasizing the eternal shame that he feels for being excessively prideful over a position he was incompetent for. Thus, his realization of why he got ousted illustrates him being at fault, thereby establishing the tone of his emotional reactions in the latter portion of the poem.

Wolsey’s figurative language as he laments his downfall illustrates the emotional gravity of the situation on him following his realization that he is at fault, stimulating a distraught tone that conveys his vacillation between sadness and anger. He calls out to “vain pomp and glory of this world” (16) stating that “[he hates] ye!” (16), the apostrophe and strong diction of “hate” which is emphasized by an exclamation point stressing the sheer loathing that he feels for the superficial world. However, upon indignantly screaming out, he idiomatic describes his “heart new open’d” (17) due to his emotional torment, the sorrowful tone contrasting the livid tone of the apostrophic statement as his emotions change from sadness to anger. Wolsey’s mixed emotions are represented by contrasting tones, establishing that while certain feelings are more prominent than others, the complexity of human emotion cannot be delineated.

The allusion and the clear break from the established meter reflect the hopelessness that Wolsey feels, highlighting the transition from anger and sadness to a despairing tone. He alludes to himself “[falling] like Lucifer” (22) the connotation reflecting the eternal suffering associated with a fall from grace to which there is no recovery, thereby hyperbolically relating it to his fall from nobility with a simile to emphasize the despair he feels in never getting his power back. In addition, the break from the pentameter in the final line with “never to hope again” (23) both parallels the abruptness of his ousting and underscores the finality of his despair, the absolute of “never” reiterating the eternal aspect of his dismissal from advisor. By implying that Wolsey would not get his position back, the despairing tone is highlighted and thereby garners sympathy for him because of his hopeless outlook.

The tone of Wolsey throughout his soliloquy is indicative of the progression of his emotions as hinted at by figurative language. He is taken aback by his dismissal, only to realize that he himself caused it. Thus, Wolsey serves as a metaphor for the complex emotional struggles of man; his progressive reaction to the surprise illustrates the different tones that indicate ever-changing emotion.

Wolsey’s Complex Response

This excerpt from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII describes Cardinal Wolsey’s reaction to his sudden dismissal from his position as advisor to the king. On a deeper level, this soliloquy displays Wolsey’s unfiltered and complex emotions as he thinks out loud, revealing a change in how he views the monarchical system. Indicated through figurative language, allusions, and tone shifts, Cardinal Wolsey undergoes an intricate process of self-reflection as he evaluates the nature of his downfall due to his tragic flaw as well as reveals the injustice of the monarchy.

Wolsey’s metaphors and bitter but remorseful tone display the confused nature of his emotions, revealing the great immediate psychological impact of his dismissal. As Wolsey begins to process what has just happened to him, his repetition of the word “farewell” (1/2) represents his initial shock and bewilderment. In an attempt to comfort himself, he bitterly bids his position “farewell” (1), falsely convincing himself that his position is only of “little good” (1) to him. However, his pathetic self-consolation is short-lived since he soon recognizes the reality that he is saying “a long farewell to all [his] greatness” (2), which he may never be able to attain again. He expresses this sentiment by spitefully describing “the state of man” (3) by comparing himself to a flower. At first, he “puts forth / the tender leaves of hopes” (3-4), approaching his job with optimism and the potential for eminence. Then, he “blossoms / and bears his blushing honors thick upon him” (4-5), representing his subsequent numerous successes and achievements as advisor to the king. However, unexpectedly “a frost, a killing frost … / … / … nips his root” (6-8), heartlessly destroying him in the midst of his prominence when he thinks “full surely his greatness is a-ripening” (7-8) and nothing can knock him down. His abrupt tone shifts and sarcastic metaphors emphasize his disbelief at his sudden termination despite his brilliance as an advisor.

Wolsey’s allusions depict the lasting negative impacts of his dismissal while displaying his developing resentment for the unfair monarchy through his cynical tone. Wolsey compares his fall from greatness to the fall of “Lucifer” (22) from heaven, illustrating the inescapable hell into which his termination has plunged him. After a fall of such great magnitude, he would be cursed never to regain his previous glory, “never to hope again” (24). As a result, he ironically laments “that poor man that hangs on princes’ favors” (18), alluding to how foolishly beholden he was to his own king and his king’s approval, brainwashed by “that smile we would aspire to” (19). Consequently, it is through his downfall that he recognizes and resents the duality of princes, who can cause one’s “ruin” (20), yet paradoxically possess the “sweet aspect” (20) and ability to raise a person’s status. These allusions and his self-pitying tone serve to elaborate upon the intensity of his dismissal and its life-changing implications.

Through similes and diction, Wolsey indicates his realization that his downfall was preventable, substantiating his tragic nature and creating a tone of regret. Wolsey likens himself to “little wanton boys that swim on bladders” (10), his word choice indirectly characterizing him as naive and ignorantly self-satisfied. He carelessly wallowed “in a sea of glory” (11) lost in his own success, never realizing, until it was too late, that he had gone “far beyond [his] depth” (12) and possibly overstepped his authority. In this way, he, “weary and old with service” (14), admits that his hubris, his “high-blown pride” (12), is his true undoing. Now, his pride “has left [him]” (13), replaced by shame, resulting in his dependence on “the mercy / of a rude stream that must for ever hide [him]” (15). However, his embarrassment quickly shifts to anger and irritation as he professes his hatred for “the vain pomp and glory of this world” (16) that fostered his ultimately self-destructive ignorance to his tragic flaw. Following this apostrophe, he feels his “heart new open’d” (17), his emotions exposed and his stupidity heart-breaking. Had Wolsey not been blinded by his overweening pride, he may have been able to preclude his dismissal.

Wolsey’s sudden termination and his subsequent, multi-layered response featuring a variety of tones, extended metaphors, and allusions highlights his discombobulation and his greater insight upon analysis of the incident. Furthermore, his downfall illustrates the detriments of pride and ignorance. In this way, the reader learns the dangers of complacency and the importance of knowing one’s place in society particularly when in a position of great prominence.