April 5, 2015

MORE IS LESS?:

"Wolf Hall" Shows a Different Side of St. Thomas More (EAMON DUFFY, 4/03/15, Aleteia)

We know More better than almost anyone else in Tudor England. We are familiar with his eloquence, learning and often risqué humour, his legal reforms and judicial integrity, and his sardonic realism about the snake-pit of Tudor politics. Roper's words and Holbein's paintings open windows into More's household at Chelsea, full of laughter, music and exotic pets, where girls were treated as equal to boys and taught Greek and Latin to a standard that would shame any modern undergraduate. 

But More's reputation has fallen on hard times. For centuries, he was an icon of innocent suffering for conscience's sake; more recently, he has been represented as a hypocrite, a bigot and a persecutor. The More of Wolf Hall is the latest and most powerful example of this reversal. Mantel's character is More as he was perceived by his enemies - a joyless puritan, a man whose social charm but cruel humour masked a steely religious bigotry. He is a sneering misogynist who enjoys humiliating the women in his household. Above all, he is a religious fanatic, flogging himself in a fear-driven piety, obsessively writing vitriolic and obscene polemical books, implacably hunting down defenceless Protestants, imprisoning and torturing them in his own cellars. 

Far from being the innocent victim of a cruel regime, this More is a calculating political schemer, treated better than he deserved. After More's arrest, Thomas Audley, the contemptible climber who succeeded More as Lord Chancellor and pronounced the death sentence on him, tells him: "We spare you the methods that you used on others."

One of the avowed motives of Wolf Hall was to correct the idealized picture of A Man for All Seasons. In this unforgettable but misleading portrait, More featured as an icon for twentieth-century liberals, defending the rights of the individual against a coercive society. Bolt projected on to his hero opinions More would have indignantly repudiated; Mantel's starker portrait has sixteenth-century warrant, and far greater plausibility.

What makes More so problematic is that, no matter the rest, his stand was still on legal principle, and there's always value in that, even if it's more important that the sovereign carry the day.  We need both W and those who protest the (successful) methods of the WoT.
Posted by at April 5, 2015 8:00 AM
  

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