What's To Like About … (1) Thomas Lord Cromwell
(This is the first in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)
The True Chronicle History of the Whole Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell is one of the most ignored of all the "Shakespeare Apocrypha", and if I'm being honest, it's not hard to see why. Its plot is linear and rambling; it has almost no poetic value (you're unlikely to read many plays this mundane in terms of language); and it has an overly moralistic tone that grates. Yet it's also one of the plays I'm most drawn back to, and bears much closer attention than it has garnered.
The problem is, as with so much of the non-Shakespearean drama of the period, that an unfavourable aesthetic judgement leads to critical neglect; yet Thomas Lord Cromwell, while not pretty, offers a great deal of interest to scholars, and it's a not-uninteresting hour for the casual reader too. The latter is particularly neglected because there is no decent modern-spelling edition available for readers, which no doubt contributes to the play's entire absence from the stage. Here, then, are some of the reasons to revisit this forgotten play.
1) It's incredibly accessible. What it lacks in imagery or complexity, it makes up for in a quick and efficient style that even readers unfamiliar with early modern language could read with no difficulty. The story of Cromwell is, of course, fascinating in and of itself, and particularly since the Globe's successful revival of Henry VIII and the runaway bestseller Wolf Hall's Booker Prize victory, I'd be surprised if there isn't something of a market for a dramatisation of his life.
2) It's a rags-to-riches tale. These are extremely rare in the period; the interest in historical figures is usually confined (in plays at least) to the figure's public life (cf Thomas More). Cromwell begins with the student, living in a room above his father's smithy, and follows him on his travels around Europe, long before his elevation to Wolsey's service. It's a real surprise that this hasn't received further attention; clearly, Cromwell's life was felt to be of particular interest to theatre audiences. It's also, perhaps, our best evidence for the lost play(s) on Cardinal Wolsey taking a similar approach: Wolsey's background as butcher is alluded to throughout Cromwell, and no doubt the Cardinal's background was a similar source of fascination.
3) We know the characters. Aside from their historical interest, this is a fascinating companion piece to both Thomas More and especially Henry VIII. Particularly after seeing the Globe's production, I've become interested in how prominent both Cromwell and Gardiner are in that play, having played such a major part in the company's earlier play on Cromwell. Thomas More, too, appears in all three, as well as Norfolk and Suffolk. Combined with the other plays of the period on Henry's reign - the lost Wolsey, When You See Me You Know Me etc. - there's something very interesting going on with this same recurring group of characters appearing in a variety of situations, in different companies, by different writers.
4) It tells history from the ground up. Perhaps in a bid for popular appeal, Cromwell shares with More a weighted attention to how the history of this court appears from the perspective of commoners and the middle classes, all concerned with their own day-to-day existence. Cromwell takes this to an extreme, with an entire subplot set among the mercantile middle-classes, and repeated commentary from citizens on Cromwell's actions. The construction of the play's protagonist through the voices of his subordinates is a particularly effective method, of course, of garnering sympathy for him.
5) It's implicitly critical of authority. Henry's absence from the play (probably occasioned by the date of composition) allows the dramatist(s) to show what happens when a King cedes too much authority to his councillors. Repeated appeals by Cromwell for the King are denied; he is rendered ineffectual through his distance from immediate affairs.
6) Cromwell doesn't go down lightly. Unlike More's pious acceptance of death, Cromwell complains to the end, after having been so patient throughout. He repeatedly attaches blame to Gardiner, cries out in despair when he realises he missed Bedford's warning, and gives warnings rather than stoic council to his son. This rather bitter end defies expectations and adds to the implicit criticism mentioned above.
7) It's quite funny. Hodge is an amusing comic sidekick for Cromwell, with some wry commentary after their robbing in Italy and opportunities for a great set-piece when he disguises himself as Bedford. The motif of the servant putting on the clothes of a lord and getting lost in his elevation recurs in More and Shrew, and offers great comic value. I also find Bagot, a pantomime villain if ever there was one, surprisingly amusing, particularly as his evil plot is never allowed to get too threatening. His offstage execution is a sobering moment in a comic subplot.
8) It's surprisingly neatly-structured. The various plot lines of the first three acts are pulled together in the fourth as Cromwell brings together acquaintances from all periods of his life for a celebratory dinner, thanking his various benefactors. The core moral message of the play ("Do unto others...") is rehearsed in a number of scenarios, particularly among the reciprocal acts of kindness of Friskiball and the Banisters.
9) It carries an interesting political contrast to Henry VIII and More. The rising and falling of More, Wolsey and Cromwell under Henry VIII were clearly popular stories; yet it's fascinating to see More and Cromwell, in particular, giving heroic status to two very different - even opposed - figures. Cromwell is the play far more in keeping with a strictly Protestant ideology, celebrating the mover of the English Reformation and demonising the bishop who attempts to prevent his labours. When put into conversation with More, though - celebrating a Catholic martyr - we start to see that it is not politics or religion so much as personal integrity that matters to both sets of dramatists.
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I don't claim any great status for the play; it's a modest piece, clearly important enough to be performed and printed, and no work of art. However, its treatment of a personality clearly embedded in the public consciousness; its connections to several better-esteemed plays in material and structure; its accessible and interesting narrative and its political interest demand the play be read once more.