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From More to Shakespeare
By Stephen Greenblatt
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
At the Table of the Great: More's Self-Fashioning and Self-Cancellation
"A Part of His Own"
A dinner party at Cardinal Wolsey's. Years later, in the Tower, More recalled the occasion and refashioned it in A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation as a "merry tale," one of those sly jokes that interlace his most serious work. The story reaches back to a past that, in the gathering darkness of 1534, might well have seemed to More almost mythical, back before the collapse of his career, the collapse of his whole world. Perhaps as important, it reaches back to a time before More had decided to embark upon his career. He pictures himself as an ambitious, clever young man, eager to make a good impression, but at the same time an outsider: in his fictionalized version, he is a Hungarian visitor to Germany. The vainglorious prelate—transparently Wolsey—had that day made an oration so splendid in his own estimation that he sat as if on thorns until he could hear it commended by his guests. After casting about in vain for a discreet way of introducing the subject, the cardinal finally asked bluntly what the company thought of his oration. Eating and conversation came to an abrupt halt: "Every man was fallen in so deep a study for the finding of some exquisite praise." Then one by one in order, each guest brought forth his flattering speech. When the young More had played his part, he felt confident that he had acquitted himself well, the more so in that he was to be followed by an ignorant priest. But the priest—a "wily fox"—far surpassed him in the craft of flattery, and both in turn were bested by the last to speak, a "good ancient honorable flatterer" who, when he saw that he could not exceed the elaborate compliments already produced,spoke not a word, "but as he that were ravished unto heavenward with the wonder of the wisdom and eloquence that my Lord's grace had uttered in that oration, he fet [i.e., fetched] a long sigh with an "oh" from the bottom of his breast, and held up both hands, and lifted up his head, and cast up his eyes into the welkin, and wept" (215–16).
How much of More is in this little story! The jibes at the ignorant priest who "could speak no Latin at all" and at the rich, worldly cardinal are the last sparks of that humanist indignation at clerical abuses that he once shared with Erasmus and that had somehow survived fifteen years of bitter anti-Protestant polemics. The setting recalls the rich significance for More of the dinner party, emblem of human society both in its foolish vanity and in its precious moments of communion. Above all, the acute observation of social comedy links the story to More's lifelong fascination with the games people play. The particular game in this case is the satisfaction of self-love, played by fools who rejoice to think "how they be continually praised all about as though all the world did nothing else day nor night, but ever sit and sing sanctus sanctus sanctus upon them" (212). The rich and powerful have the means to realize this fantasy: in their "pleasant frenzy" they hire flatterers who do nothing but sing their praises.
This is the distillation of More's long career in the dangerous, glittering world of Renaissance politics, the essence of his observation of king and cardinal: bloated vanity, ravenous appetite, folly. The spectacle at once repelled and fascinated him; he could never bring himself simply to renounce the world in holy indignation. On the contrary, he made himself into a consummately successful performer: from modest beginnings in the early 1490s as a young page in the household of Lord Chancellor Morton, four decades of law, diplomacy, parliamentary politics, and courtship brought More in 1529, as Wolsey's successor, to the Lord Chancellorship, the highest office in the realm. Then, as if to confirm all of his darkest reflections on power and privilege, his own position quickly deteriorated beneath the pressure of the king's divorce. In May 1532, attempting to save himself, More resigned the chancellorship on the pretext of ill health, but he was too important and too visible to be granted a silent, unmolested retirement. Refusal to subscribe to the Oath of Supremacy—that is, to acknowledge that the king was Supreme Head of the Church in England—brought him in 1534 to the Tower and, on 6 July 1535, to the scaffold.
This chapter will describe the complex interplay in More's life and writings of self- fashioning and self-cancellation, the crafting of a public role and the profound desire to escape from the identity so crafted, and I propose that we keep in our minds the image of More sitting at the table of the great in a peculiar mood of ambition, ironic amusement, curiosity, and revulsion. It is as if he were watching the enactment of a fiction, and he is equally struck by the unreality of the whole performance and by its immense power to impose itself upon the world. This is, in fact, one of the central perceptions of the Dialogue of Comfort, repeated again and again in an endless variety of guises. No sooner is one fantasy laid to rest than another pops up to be grappled with in turn and defeated, until the whole world, the great body of man's longings, anxieties, and goals, shimmers like a mirage, compelling, tenacious, and utterly unreal.
But why should men submit to fantasies that will not nourish or sustain them? In part, More's answer is power, whose quintessential sign is the ability to impose one's fictions upon the world: the more outrageous the fiction, the more impressive the manifestation of power. The vain cardinal may be in the grip of madness, but he can compel others to enter the madness and reinforce it. So too, a generation earlier, Richard III cast his ruthless seizure of the throne in the guise of an elaborate process of offer, refusal, renewed offer, and reluctant acceptance. The point is not that anyone is deceived by the charade, but that everyone is forced either to participate in it or to watch it silently. In a brilliant passage of his History of Richard III, More imagines the talk among the common people who have just witnessed the sinister farce. They marvel at the whole performance, since no one could be expected to be taken in by it, but then, as one of them observes, "men must sometime for the manner sake not be aknowen what they know." After all, a bishop goes through a similar charade at his consecration, though everyone knows he has paid for his office. And likewise, at a play, everyone may know that the man playing sultan is, in fact, a cobbler, but if anyone is foolish enough to "call him by his own name while he standeth in his majesty, one of his tormentors might hap to break his head."
And so they said that these matters be king's games, as it were stage plays, and for the more part played upon scaffolds. In which poor men be but the lookers-on. And they that wise be will meddle no farther. For they that sometime step up and play with them, when they cannot play their parts, they disorder the play and do themselves no good. (81)
To try to break through the fiction is dangerous—one can have one's head broken. To try to take a part of one's own, "to step up and play with them," is equally dangerous. On the one hand, the great have the means to enforce their elaborate, theatrical ceremonies of pride; on the other, those ceremonies are usually performed, ominously, on scaffolds.
But if wealth and force are the props on which such ceremonies are based, why should the great bother with the masquerade at all? More's observation that few, if any, among the performers or the audience are taken in by the elaborate pretense obviates a purely political explanation such as Machiavelli, describing similar rituals, provides. For Machiavelli, the prince engages in deceptions for one very clear reason: to survive. The successful prince must be "a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived." The observation hovers characteristically between cynicism and revolt, cold counsel and satire, but at least there is only one layer of deception: strip off that layer and you reach the naked realities of appetite and fear. The initiated observer can always see beneath the surface and understand how appearances are manipulated by the cunning prince.
In More, appearances have a more problematical relationship to reality. His is a world in which everyone is profoundly committed to upholding conventions in which no one believes; somehow belief has ceased to be necessary. The conventions serve no evident human purpose, not even deceit, yet king and bishop cannot live without them. Strip off the layer of theatrical delusion and you reach nothing at all. That is why Machiavelli's world seems so much more accessible than More's to the inquiring intellect: "My intention being to write something of use to those who understand, it appears to me more proper to go to the real truth of the matter than to its imagination; and many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality; for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation" (56). There are spiraling ironies in this famous passage from The Prince, but the vertigo is arrested by a passionate commitment to life in this world and by a hard, steady confidence that it is possible to penetrate "to the real truth of the matter."
More, of course, could claim with even greater confidence to know the "real truth," but his was a truth of an entirely different order, capable of canceling, but not clarifying, human politics. In neither of his great political works, the History of Richard III and Utopia, does he invoke this ultimate religious truth as a decisive explanation: in the former, he writes a historical narrative in imitation of classical models; in the latter, he illuminates contemporary politics with the light not of his faith but of his imagination, inventing one of those republics "which have never been seen or known to exist in reality." His work then has neither the cold clarity of cynicism nor the confident purposefulness of providential history showing God unfold his great plan through the agency of second causes. For Machiavelli and the providential historian alike, the political world is transparent; for More, it is opaque. And his great faith, his sense of the absolute truth, seems only to have increased that opacity, by rendering political life essentially absurd.
More did, to be sure, spend much of his career acting as if Parliament, the Privy Council, the law courts, and the royal court were anything but absurd, as if his own considerable gift for compromise, subtle maneuver, and partial reform might well contribute to a rational amelioration of social life and a comfortable position for himself and his family. The tragic drama of his end may obscure for us his remarkable ability to survive and flourish for decades in perilous political waters. After all, the survival rate for those closest to Henry VIII roughly resembles the actuarial record of the First Politburo. More could scarcely have succeeded for as long as he did had his response to power consisted merely of remarking its absurdity. He was evidently a canny judge of human motives, possessed a firm grasp of the complex network of material interests that underlay the intricate formalities of Tudor government, and knew well how to make his own place within these formalities. The actual texture of his long public life is thick with the ceremonies of power. And yet when he tries to explain why the great bother with these ceremonies, why they stage elaborate theatrical rituals, he concludes ultimately not in a sense of rational calculation but in a sense of the absurd: because they are mad, possessed by "fond fantasies," incapable of distinguishing between truth and fiction. It is not only Machiavellian calculation but humanist reform that finds its limits in this madness: political life cannot be resolved into underlying forces, cannot be treated as a code that the initiated understand and manipulate, because it is fundamentally insane, its practitioners in the grip of "frenzies." And it is not only political life, in the narrow sense, that is so judged, but the great body of man's social relations.
To understand More, we must take this haunting perception of universal madness very seriously, not, in other words, simply as a rhetorical device or conventional turn of phrase, but as a central and enduring response to existence. It is a response he shared, like so much else, with Erasmus, whose Praise of Folly is its supreme and definitive expression. But The Praise of Folly is a dangerous tool for exploiting More's response to life, in part because of the fundamental differences between Erasmus and More (the former a dissatisfied monk, impatient with confinement; the latter a dissatisfied layman, impatient with liberty), in part because of the success and familiarity of Erasmus's great work. Only when we pass from the confidence, flexibility, and charm of the literary masterpiece to the nervous instability over which it triumphed can we feel how disturbing as a lived experience is the sense of the absurd, how it marked for More a profound alienation from his society, from the greater part of his acquaintance, from himself. It is as if, in the midst of intensely valued attachments to family and friends, he carried within himself the perspective of the London Charterhouse in which he had lived, without vow, for four years, a perspective from which not only the ceremonies of the great but most of his own involvements seemed to him manifestations of limitless folly. "I assure thee, on my faith," he told his daughter in his cell in the Tower, "if it had not been for my wife and you that be my children, whom I accompt the chief part of my charge, I would not have failed long ere this to have closed myself in as strait a room—and straiter too."
Admiration for More should not be permitted to efface the disturbing estrangement of this summary utterance at the end of his life. To be sure, More is responding in a characteristically brilliant and one might say witty way to the horrible conditions in which he found himself: he consoles his grieving daughter by transforming the suffering inflicted upon him into a gift, in effect making his destiny his choice. (And indeed that destiny was in a very real sense his choice, though not a choice he actively sought to make.) But there is more than comfort against tribulation here; in his words to Margaret, More gives voice to a lifelong current of contempt for a world reduced in his mind to madness, a rejection not only of all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of men, but of much that he himself seemed to cherish, a desire to escape into the fastness of a cell. In part, this attitude should no doubt be traced less to qualities peculiar to More than to the style of late medieval culture with its intense shiver of revulsion against the world it nonetheless embraced. But our knowledge of More's participation in a larger cultural mood should not diminish our sensitivity to its actual effect in his life and writings.
To grasp the precise character of what I have called More's estrangement, we might compare it with the mood evoked by Holbein's famous work "The Ambassadors" (see frontispiece), painted in London two years before More's execution. Jean de Dinteville, seigneur de Polisy and Francis I's ambassador to the English court, and his friend Georges de Selve, shortly to be bishop of Lavaur, stand at either side of a two-shelved table. They are young, successful men, whose impressively wide-ranging interests and accomplishments are elegantly recorded by the objects scattered with careful casualness on the table: celestial and terrestrial globes, sundials, quadrants and other instruments of astronomy and geometry, a lute, a case of flutes, a German book of arithmetic, kept open by a square, and an open German hymn book, on whose pages may be seen part of Luther's translation of the "Veni Creator Spiritus" and his "Shortened Version of the Ten Commandments." The hymn book suggests more, of course, than the interest in music that is elsewhere indicated; its presence in the portrait of two important Catholic statesmen may signal the French king's attempt, by cynically advancing the Lutheran cause in England, to further tension between Henry VIII and the emperor Charles V, or, alternatively, it may mark that moment in European history in which it still seemed possible to cultivated men of good will that the Catholic Church and the Reformers could meet on common ground and resolve their differences. If More had once harbored such a hope, the moment for him was long past.
Excerpted from Renaissance Self-Fashioning by Stephen Greenblatt. Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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