The title of this blog is Living Wittily. The phrase comes from Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons. The play is based on the life of Thomas More and explores the moral, psychological and theological morass created by Henry VIII and his ruthless determination to produce a male heir with or without Catherine of Aragon. Of course, it was going to have to be without her, which set Henry on a collision course with the Pope, the Catholic Church, and any close to him whose conscience prohibited approval of the King's dynastic goals.
Disapproval of the policies of a Tudor King may well be dictated by conscience but it was equally an act of political suicide and invited martyrdom. This was brilliantly captured in the most recent episode of Wolf Hall, in which the King's ruthlessness, Thomas Cromwell's manipulative cleverness, and Thomas More's adamantine refusal to violate his conscience. were composed into a concerto movement of tragic slowness, tortuous windings, and an outcome made certain in its fatal climax. The psychological subtleties and virtuoso ethical performances of More were never going to save him in a drama about power in need of substance, about evolving national identity, debts of remembered grievance being called in, and the beginnings of Parliamentary muscle flexing towards a more democratic distribution of power, at least amongst the nobility and between Parliament and King.
The portrayal of More's moral dilemma and spiritual crisis, was a brilliant narrative of a frightened man whose fear of death was only tolerable because the alternative would be the fear of an enraged God should he go against conscience. In Bolt's brilliant paraphrase of human tragedy and moral perplexity, More claimed he sought to serve God in the tangle of his mind. Equally brilliant, was Cromwell's deconstruction of More's own self-image as one who never sought another human being's harm. Although not made more prominent than it needed to be, the use of the rack, burning at the stake, and the whole hellish machinery of religious violence against those who believe differently, is a telling reminder in our own day of the cruelties and violations unleashed when an ideology with the status of a religion secures its dominance by a process of elimination. I welcomed the reference to the deceits behind Tyndale's capture, More's gloating piety, and Cromwell's much less religious distaste for religious persecution as justifiable on theological grounds.In this production More is saint and sinner, with the weight on the saint oblivious of his own deep and cruel sins against others.
Which doesn't mean Thomas Cromwell was himself above coercion of conscience and the use of force to suppress dissent; More's hounding to execution is part of the evidence against him.
Another enjoyable and important strand in the production is the role of women in the making and breaking of power in a cultural context so structurally masculine. While serial Queens were to be taken and discarded if they failed Henry's obsession with succession, Catherine, and Anne Boleyn, are not portrayed as the wilting, timid, or unintelligent consorts in other productions. They are strong; they understand power; they form alliances and plot against dangers; their fears are real, but so is their courage and integrity. They are an important alternative narrative to the insecure King desperate to establish a dynasty, and the power hungry nobility and advisers whose loyalties are ambiguous, and whose own security has to be bought at the expense of others.
A TV adaptation will always struggle to persuade those who are fans of the original book, but this one comes as close to the real thing as may be possible. The occasional historical anachronism is easily ignored in a production that varies in pace but is overall a leisurely unfolding, increasing in tension and crisis, and which therefore allows the chief characters to be developed and established in all their emotional complexity and political ambiguity in the mind of the viewer.
Thomas Cromwell is I think convincing, chilling, hard to read, but a man with a long memory for grievance and a passively violent way of settling things his way and in his own interests. Not sure what it says about me but so far I like him! His portrait being painted in this week's episode (by Holbein?) placed him in the classic partial side profile of Renaissance portraiture, and showed that same strong, unreadable face, unflinching in gaze, and coming alive only when he speaks in an understated, considered forcefulness of someone who always, but always, thinks before he speaks.
I can understand why Hilary Mantel is very happy with the adaptation. It will bear repeat broadcasting later.