Monday, May 4, 2015

Still More on Wolf Hall

By this time last week, I had thought that I had said all that I had left to say about the BBC series Wolf Hall, currently making such a splash, getting great reviews, and garnering great critical acclaim on PBS. But then I read Fintan O'Toole's article, "The Explosions from Wolf Hall," in The New York Review of Books and felt compelled to comment on the show at least one more time. (O'Toole's fine article is to be found in the May 21, 2015 print edition of The New York Review of Books and can also be accessed online at

O'Toole raises the obvious class dimension of Cromwell's story and suggests that that is what accounts for some of the series' appeal today. Cromwell was, of course, as on this at least both history and the TV series agree, an upstart - a low-born commoner, a blacksmith's son, who had insinuated himself into the King's inner circle, much to the chagrin of the traditional aristocratic elite whose natural and customary leading role (by right of birth) he seemed to be usurping. This theme rightly runs through any account of his rise and fall and certainly permeates the TV series. As the emperor's ambassador expressed it in one of the earlier episodes, "A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be ..."

None of this is particularly new, but O'Toole interestingly spins this story's contemporary appeal as a reflection of what is happening in our society. "What makes Mantel’s Cromwell appealing to readers, audiences, and TV viewers is that he is rather like most of them. He is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. ... As the world becomes more oligarchic, middle-class virtues become more precarious. This is the drama of Mantel’s Cromwell—he is the perfect bourgeois in a world where being perfectly bourgeois doesn’t buy you freedom from the knowledge that everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment. ... He is a perfect paragon of meritocracy for our age. … Except for the twist—meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?"

Undoubtedly, O'Toole is on to something important here and is making an argument worth pursuing - on the one hand, about the class-related appeal of the show and, on the other, about contemporary economic and social conditions in a contemporary cultural milieu much more like that of Tudor England than we might care at first to admit.  

But, that said, there is still a another dimension to this argument, which warrants attention too

For, in order to focus on the class dimension of the story, O'Toole all too easily dismisses the contemporary relevance of the story's religious dimension.. Perhaps he is just saying that people can only think about one thing at a time. Or perhaps he simply sees the old religious divide as no longer relevant in this enlightened age. Religion, he writes, “matters as historical setting, not as contemporary passion. There is no religious shortcut to engagement with these dramas, no assumption that Catholics will hiss Cromwell and cheer More and that Protestants will do the opposite. Some other connection must be forged.

Stipulating that the "other connection" O'Toole has identified is a valid and powerful one, I still think it is possible to think about two things at once. One can engage with Wolf Hall in terms of Cromwell's class and still also care about the religious angle of the story - to "hiss Cromwell and cheer More" if one sides with the Catholics and the opposite if one sides with the Protestants. That he doesn't expect this to happen may be more a reflection of the presumed secularism of his intended audience.

But that secularism is itself just the modern incarnation of what the historical Cromwell was bringing about in Tudor England - i.e., the removal of religion as the significant generator of meaning and its modern replacement by politics, by means of its subordination to an all-powerful State, now deemed to be the ultimate adjudicator of the most fundamental values. That transformation also lies at the heart of the story and also accounts in significant measure of its evident relevance to our context today.

There is, after all, a direct line - both historically and conceptually - from an all-powerful political State empowered to decide entirely on its own whether or not and to whom the King is validly married, from there to an all-powerful political State empowered to decide entirely on its own what marriage means.

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