Profit and Loss
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...
Cited: Bolt, R. 1990. A man for all seasons. New York: Vintage Books.
[ 1 ]. Thomas More hints at that consequence when he calls Cromwell “a pragmatist, the merest plumber” (113). Like a plumber, whose job is to facilitate removal, ‘pragmatically’ getting conscience out of the way of pursuing earthly goals sets the soul in position to be easily flushed, and, like the water cupped in two hands to which More compares the self, once a man flushes that, “he needn’t hope to find himself again” (140).
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