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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Wolf Hall and the myth of the Moral Pragmatist

The BBC/PBS miniseries Wolf Hall is six hours of some of the most absorbing television (or just storytelling generally) I've ever seen. I have not yet read the books by Hilary Mantel on which the show is based, but now I certainly intend to. The series does a splendid job of dramatizing the tense and devious politics of the Henrician court, and its central character, Thomas Cromwell, is splendidly acted (by Mark Rylance) and a riveting fictional portrait.

Emphasis on fictional. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is almost certainly much more sensitive, compassionate, and moral than the historical character. The show goes out of its way to invite sympathy with Cromwell rather than with his hapless victims. In the two execution scenes, of Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, the camera focuses on Cromwell's reaction to the deaths rather than on the victims themselves. (This is particularly the case with More--at the moment of his beheading we get a flashback of Cromwell's early memory of More, when they were both adolescents, a flashback that demonstrates More's privileged social position compared to Cromwell and points up the irony of the present situation, but also draws off our sympathy to some degree from More to Cromwell.) Now this is entirely justifiable artistically on the grounds that Wolf Hall gives us Cromwell's subjective perspective on the events. But the effect of this artistic strategy is to force us to empathize with the ruthless choices Cromwell makes and to see them as difficult and anguish-ridden decisions by a basically benevolent person.

As many people have pointed out, this sympathetic portrait of Cromwell contrasts with the harsh picture of St. Thomas More, who is shown as a whiny, egotistical fanatic who has "cast himself as the hero of a drama for all of Europe" and forces everyone else to play his script (an obvious reference to the iconic play and movie A Man For All Seasons). Some of this is fair and well-deserved. More did do plenty of ruthless things himself. He was a fierce persecutor of Protestants, and when More (as he did historically) protests that he "does none harm" Cromwell retorts, effectively, that he has done plenty of harm to people like James Bainham, a Protestant whom More had tortured into recantation but who later returned to Protestantism and was burned at the stake. (Bainham's "relapse" and execution did not take place on More's watch as Lord Chancellor, and the show recognizes this, but again tries to shift our sympathy away from More with a fictional scene in which Cromwell begs More, now out of power, to go as a private individual to Bainham and try to persuade him to recant once again.) Cromwell even suggests (completely inaccurately as far as I know) that Tyndale's arrest and execution on the Continent was somehow the work of More's agents.

More has had his day in the dramatic sun with A Man for All Seasons (and if anyone reading this hasn't seen the Paul Schofield movie, or the lesser-known made for TV version with Charlton Heston, please go out and rent one of them as soon as possible!). It's quite fair to point out More's dark side. Nonetheless, Wolf Hall goes to outrageous lengths to negate More's well-documented virtues and in some cases to ascribe them to Cromwell. Cleverly, More's unusual (for his time) education of his daughters in Latin and Greek is foreshadowed by an earlier scene in which Cromwell does the same thing. So when we encounter the learned Margaret, her father's respect for her intellectual capacities doesn't seem as unusual as it really was. Similarly, Cromwell is shown opposing the king's desire to go to war with France (though for pragmatic rather than explicitly moral reasons). I'm not sure whether that happened or not, but I know that More distinguished himself from the beginning of his career by his opposition to foreign offensive warfare, and in fact nearly brought that career to a premature end as a very young man by opposing Henry VII on this point in Parliament (if his son-in-law Roper's admittedly hagiographic biography can be believed).

There's obvious anti-Catholicism in all of this. Mantel is an ex-Catholic with bad memories of her upbringing and education, and Wolf Hall, like Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth,  illustrates the truth of Chesterton's dictum that England has lost the Protestant faith but has kept up the Protestant feud. But there's more going on than simple anti-Catholicism. Truly zealous Protestants come off only a little better than More. At one point Cromwell reads a letter from Tyndale refusing to sanction the king's marriage and exclaims in disgust: "Tyndale and More deserve each other--these mules who think they are men." This remark nicely complements C. S. Lewis' statement in a letter to an Italian Catholic priest that (after having read all the works of both authors) he considered Tyndale and More to be two of the holiest men of their time.

Holiness, in short, gets short shrift in Wolf Hall. And this attitude is typical both of secular people in the contemporary Western world and of many folks who still adhere to some form of Christianity (as I believe Mantel herself does). It is taken for granted, in many circles, that religious fervor makes people more likely to do evil things, and that true morality is more likely to be found among people who are rather lukewarm in their commitment to transcendent ideals. But this does not, in fact, seem to be true in reality.  In reality, pragmatists have plenty of blood on their hands--I would argue far more than fanatics. Contrary to the stereotype, religion has not been the cause of most wars in history. Most wars, most massacres, most judicial murders have been done by people like Cromwell--cool-headed pragmatists who did what seemed the best and most reasonable thing at the time to advance their own interests and the peace of the realm. That is not to let the fanatics (whether conventionally "religious" or adherents of secular ideologies) off the hook. Their atrocities may be more spectacular. But those of the pragmatists are, I think, far more common.

Mantel tries valiantly to turn Cromwell into a hero, and she does succeed in making even More fans such as myself empathize with him. But in the end Wolf Hall (at least in the TV form as I saw it) says more about the particular prejudices of modern people than about the Tudor period itself. Which is par for the course in historical fiction, and so perhaps not really a criticism.


Anonymous said...

"Most wars, most massacres, most judicial murders have been done by people like Cromwell--cool-headed pragmatists who did what seemed the best and most reasonable thing at the time to advance their own interests and the peace of the realm."

What if such pragmatism is precisely what religion is (supposed to be) all about to begin with?

Whence the idea that a "truly religious" person is someone who is, basically, a lovey-dovey, benign, impotent wimp?

Contarini said...

Why would it be?