Wolf Hall and the Birth of Modern Subjectivity
The British costume drama, and the novels upon which it is based, force viewers to inhabit the dangerous time/space of modernity.
There is a moment in the television series Wolf Hall in which the Duke of Norfolk (played with biting panache by Bernard Hill) calls Thomas Cromwell by what he seems to think is the worst insult imaginable. He calls him a “person,” the implication being that there is something fundamentally tainted about being such a thing as a person. For a man like Norfolk, a representative of one of the grand old noble families of England, it must be dismaying indeed to see a person like Cromwell — raised the son of a blacksmith in Putnam — climbing his way resolutely up the ladder of power to become the righthand man to the King of England himself.
In many ways, this moment crystallizes the central message that Wolf Hall, like the novels that it is based upon, articulates: namely that Thomas Cromwell is, in many significant ways, the first modern subject. Unbound by the strictures that have governed the England that he was brought up in, highly critical of both the increasingly inflexible nobility and the corrupt church, Cromwell sees it as his mission to drag England into the modern age. And, because the series works so hard to suture us into his perspective, we are invited to experience the birth of modernity right along with him.
The series begins with Cromwell serving the venerable Cardinal Wolsey, formerly Henry VIII’s chief adviser and now a casualty of his efforts to have his marriage to his first wife Katherine of Aragon annulled so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. Henry’s decision upends his kingdom, and soon everyone is attempting to gain more power. Alone among the many competing powers at court, Cromwell seems to genuinely care about serving the king that his master the Cardinal served with such devotion, and most of his actions throughout the rest of the series revolve around his desire to preserve the Cardinal’s memory, up to and including orchestrating Anne’s eventual downfall and execution.
As television, Wolf Hall is as different from its predecessors — such as The Tudors — as it is possible to be. Whereas The Tudors emphasized sex and gore to convey its historical argument — that erotic desire is one of the chief engines of history — Wolf Hall suggests instead that it is the small, intimate moments upon which history hinges. The dialogue is frequently sparse, the acting is subdued (except for some notable moments when specific characters have emotional outbursts), the lighting is often dim (they used natural sources of light where possible), and the costumes are closer to authenticity than one usually sees in these sorts of costume dramas.
Wolf Hall is also more mature in how it thinks about the workings of historical change. The epochal events of this period always hover just outside of the frame, yet we are always aware of them. We are never allowed to forget that this is an age in which the old Catholic faith is under immense pressure from the Reformation. The abbeys are being closed and their substantial holdings being transferred into the hands of the nobility and the crown, and in several key moments we see Cromwell’s active engagement in this process. Likewise, this is an age in which the power of the nobility has begun to wane, when the power that they once assumed to be exclusively there is now dispersed more widely. The House of Commons in Parliament is in the ascendant, and men like Wolsey and Cromwell — one the son of a butcher and the other of a blacksmith — are able to attain power that would have been unthinkable even a generation earlier. Indeed, so great is their power that they can now command those who were once their betters.
For example, during an intense conversation with Henry Percy, a young man who seeks to rekindle his relationship with Anne Boleyn during her own burgeoning relationship with the king, Cromwell, never once to mince words in the midst of a crisis, reminds Percy that power in this brave new world doesn’t reside with the nobility and the old families. Instead, he says, it is now in the hands of those who are in charge of trade, the burghers and tradesman in cities that are strewn across Europe. Of course, part of his strategy here is to make sure that Percy gets himself out of the way so that Henry can pursue his marriage to Anne without any complications, but it’s also a moment that reveals the truth. This is indeed a world on the cusp of great change. The old social order is being overturned, and Cromwell is one of the great orchestrators of those changes.
Part of what makes this moment — and others like it — so effective is Rylance’s understated performance. Slightly world-weary, ever-so-rumpled, Rylance is the perfect person to play an everyman like Cromwell, someone whose past is only glimpsed in fits and starts. He almost always talks in a tone of voice that is just above a whisper, a slightly hoarse voice that allows everyone, including us, to underestimate him. It is precisely his seemingly innocuous appearance that heightens the impact when he does have outbursts, such as his confrontation with Thomas More during the latter’s imprisonment in the Tower. Rylance is the perfect stand-in for all of us dwelling in the modern world, the ideal surrogate for those of us dwelling in the uncertain times of the present.
In fact, what is striking about Wolf Hall is how subdued and stately it is. I’ve heard some of my friends refer to it as either boring or as sumptuous but serious, and there is merit in both of this commentaries. In eschewing the trappings of the traditional costume drama, this series forces us to pay attention to the details, to see the subtle ways in which history plays out on the bodies of those involved. It’s in the subtle glance that the fate of nations may be determined, whether it’s the look exchanged between Henry and Jane Seymour or Anne Boleyn’s silence on the scaffold. History is a force that seems to press in with ever-increasing force.
It’s often been remarked that part of what makes Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies so compelling as literature is the way in which they seem to put us as readers on the shoulders of Thomas Cromwell. The series carries this into the realms of the aesthetic. Again and again, the camera follows Cromwell as he navigates the halls of power, both literally and metaphorically. It’s sometimes unsettling to feel as if we are in the midst of the royal palace. We know all too well how these spaces — opulent and well-appointed as they might be — are also full of danger, of plots and schemes and those who want nothing more than to see their own rise, no matter who they have to tread on to get there.
As a result of the series’ resolute suturing of us into Cromwell’s perspective, we see the world, and its inhabitants, as he sees them. Thomas More, far from the revered intellectual and author of such classics as Utopia, is instead a withered old fanatic who tortures Protestants and is too stubborn and convinced of his own moral rightness to bow to the political realities of the age (the casting of Anton Lesser, famous for portraying the sinister and unscrupulous Qyburn in Game of Thrones helps with this impression). Wolsey, far from being a scheming and ruthless and corrupt churchman, is instead a faithful public servant whose devotion to Henry is ultimately his own undoing.
Henry, dashingly portrayed by Damian Lewis, is a bluff ruler with no shortage of charm, but there’s always an edge of menace lurking just beneath the surface of his charm. Again and again, we see the ways in which he can turn on a dime, how his favour is fickle and can turn to hatred and destruction more quickly than one can respond. From the first episode to the last, we see the many casualties of a king who is unbound by any of the old ties that formerly bound a monarch to his subjects: Wolsey, Katherine, More, one by one they fall to Henry’s caprice.
In fact, the last shot of the series is one in which Henry, finally rid of Anne (who has been executed by a French swordsman) embraces Cromwell, the architect of his newfound happiness. As Cromwell walks slowly down the hall toward his master, one can see the heavy toll that this has taken upon him, the burden that he bears as the harbinger of modernity. There is a deep and troubling irony about this moment. He has definitively shown Henry that he is the one who can fulfill his wishes; even the members of the nobility now dance to his tune. And yet, at the same time, it now means that he is entirely in Henry’s power. Henry represents the one part of the old world that has yet to be replaced by the modern one, the all-powerful sun around which everyone is condemned to revolve. When that last image captures Cromwell’s face, it’s clear from his blasted visage that he recognizes the monster that has been unleashed, the extent to which his fate is tied to that of the king’s goodwill.
In fact, Wolf Hall suggests, this reliance upon the king is one of the most significant consequences of the shift to modernity. The thoroughly modern Cromwell recognizes, in a way that almost no one else can or does, that in this topsy-turvy world, this time in which everything is up for grabs, that the only sure point is the king himself. The flip side of this dynamic, of course, is that this means that there is nothing to protect him should the tides of history turn again. The Tudor court is a dangerous place to be, for the new men even more than for the old families (who, at the very least, have at least a bit of power to be able to resist the king’s will). The haunted look on Cromwell’s face reveals his knowledge that it might just be his head that comes to rest on the executioner’s block.
As historians frequently lament, many series set in the past assume that people who lived then were just like us. As a result, the characters and the plot tend to look and feel like a contemporary soap opera with fancy costumes. There’s nothing wrong with this necessarily. For many, this equivalence between the past and the present provides a means by which many people gain access a time period before their own, a past that, to some extent, is always beyond reach or recall. However, there is something refreshing about Wolf Hall’s willingness to challenge us as viewers by denying us so many of the things that we have come to expect from costume dramas.
Perhaps Wolf Hall’s greatest contributions to the representation of Renaissance England is in its forcing us as viewers to inhabit that uncomfortable space on the cusp of history, when an entire way of life is about to be swept away. We are asked to stand along with Cromwell as he strides through the halls of history, determined to grab as much power as he can for himself before it all comes crashing down into death, ruin, and blood.
The modern subject that emerges from Wolf Hall is one that is constantly aware of the uncertainties of life. Whether this is the unexpected death of family — Cromwell’s wife and two daughters die as a result of the sweating sickness — or the dangerous desires of an all-powerful monarch, peril is always lurking around the next corner. In fact, the only certainty in the modern world as depicted in Wolf Hall is uncertainty itself. This makes it a perfect articulation of the terror of history.