Most of us, politically, mentally, morally, socially, live somewhere between the negative pole of Robert Bolt’s “terrifying cosmos [where] …no laws, no sanctions, no mores obtain” (xvi), the nadir of the human spirit and self, and the positive pole he finds in Thomas More, who makes, not only in oaths but in all his dealings, “an identity between the truth … and his own virtue,” and “offers himself as a guarantee” (xiii-xiv) – a self which proves incorruptible by either promise or punishment.
Near to More’s level of righteousness are his wife and daughter, though he feels the need to protect them from perjuring themselves, a corruption stemming from one of the hardest temptations, protecting their family from harm. Rich and Cromwell are nearer to the lower pole in the play, the former making the complete arc from innocence to its opposite, and the latter starting from a place of moral bankruptcy and guiding Rich there with him. In between is the political corruption of King Henry who won’t let “all the Popes back to St. Peter [get] between me and my duty” (54), and of Woolsey’s appeal to More along patriotic and anti-war lines. With the exception of More, and those who anchor themselves to him like his family and Will Roper, they are all, like the Boatman’s wife, “losing [their] shape, sir. Losing it fast” (28). Richard Rich is the play’s most developed exemplar of the gradual, and gradually accelerating, course that leads, through corrupt action, to corruption’s end-point: a shell without a self.
As the Common Man, in the guise of Matthew, correctly predicts, Rich “come[s] to nothing” (17), despite his final worldly status, symbolized by his rich robes which, as that same Man says elsewhere of all clothing, say nothing about the man inside them, “barely cover[ing] one man’s nakedness” (3). Oliver Cromwell, a disciple of Machiavelli, and unashamedly corrupt, is Rich’s teacher and exhorter along that road. Rich is bullied into telling Cromwell information that might harm Thomas More, a betrayal.
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Cromwell uses this sin as a teaching opportunity – the more you give in to corruption (and therefore the less of you there is left to struggle against it), the easier it becomes: CROMWELL There, that wasn’t too painful, was it? RICH (laughing a little and a little rueful) No! CROMWELL That’s all there is, and you’ll find it easier next time. (76) Richard Rich sums up the teachings of Machiavelli, embodied in Cromwell, as quintessentially empty (though Rich is too fearful for his worldly status to be afraid of the legitimately fearful consequence of following those teachings): “properly apprehended, [Macchiavelli] has no doctrine.
Master Cromwell has the sense of it…” (13). In following Cromwell into philosophical corruption, Rich will reap the rewards of such pragmatism. More, at the apex of Rich’s ascent to influence and wealth (he’s been named Attorney General for Wales as a reward for perjury), reminds Rich that “it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world” (158). That word, “nothing,” both represents that he doesn’t gain anything worth having, and that he will, in consequence, add to the absence of his being – what he will gain is nothingness.
The reasons Rich and Cromwell are tempted are simple in that they (the reasons) are particular to self-profit (More, and perhaps Bolt through More, would find that an ironic term): personal wealth, influence and power, and escape from suffering. Cardinal Woolsey tempts More with a form of corruption less black-and-white: not merely Cromwell’s short-sited “administrative convenience” (73), but a seemingly moral and patriotic act: possibly preventing a war of succession like the War of the Roses had been. “Oh your conscience is your own affair,” the Cardinal tells More, “but you’re a statesman! Do you remember the Yorkist wars? All right [my solution to this problem is, in that it isn’t perfectly moral,] regrettable, but necessary…” (22). It is a dilemma: whether the good of a country (or the prevention of an evil to a country) somehow outweighs the evil of achieving that end by corrupt means. More’s “horrible moral squint” (19), as Woolsey calls it, sees through the Cardinal’s assumption that such corruption, simply because it has a good in sight for that greater self that is one’s homeland, won’t open the door to further corruption, as a precedent that many (as it affects many) will follow, that will in fact “lead their country by a short route to chaos” (22).
The form of corruption with which Thomas More will have to grapple most desperately, and from which he will protect his family most carefully, is the temptation to act against conscience, not for personal gain, or for the sake of an abstract like ‘the common good,’ but for loved ones. More knows that temptation, in this case to perjure themselves for his own sake, might topple even the upright Alice and Margaret. For that eason, despite the anger and suffering his wife and daughter evidence at being kept in the dark, he never once opens his mind to them about those issues (the real reason behind his resignation, which lands them in poverty, and imprisonment over taking an oath, which deprives them of father and husband, and puts them in danger) – a relief he must have craved were they the picture of understanding. However, though they are not – he tell’s Margaret “the King’s more merciful than you; he doesn’t use the rack” (142) – he holds firm.
This he also does for himself, never taking the oath and perjuring himself to God (as, he says, “what is an oath then, but words we say to God” (140)), though he knows his family will suffer his ultimate loss. For that reason, though, he can go to his death with a special tranquility, telling the headsman “you send me to God … He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him” (160). We are left, then, with so many who died long ago, and the tale that history, and this play, tells of them.
Richard Rich loses himself to corruption for purely personal gain, and while he lives with outward wealth, he is inwardly rotten, and ends in obscurity. Cardinal Woolsey, who ruthlessly pursues personal power and uses the same tactics in pursuit of patriotic goals, is remembered as an influencer of the policies of Europe, but, in the play, paves the way for greater evil, though he tries to stave it off by electing More Lord Chancellor.
That evil is personified in Cromwell, a man with no morals, patriotic or otherwise. That “short route to chaos” More warns of shows up as well in the escalation of the scale of resistance Henry levels against the Church, eventually destroying most of the monasteries in England, and sparking a bloodily put down revolution. More, meanwhile, is an inspiration not only for his family, but has inspired conscience and nobility of spirit for almost five hundred years since his death, which is its own kind of immortality.
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