I’m reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m a quarter way into the book and I love it already. It’s simply a splendid novel. As someone who has long thought better of Thomas More, I’m also fascinated by Mantel’s portrayal of More against Cromwell.
In Part II of the book, the cardinal gives Cromwell a history lesson:
He speaks of the death of kings: of how the second Richard vanished into Pontefract Castles and was murdered there or starved; how the fourth Henry, the usurper, died of a leprosy which so scarred and contracted his body…
This passage evokes Richard II by Shakespeare. In the Act 3 of the play, Richard is stuck in Barkloughly Castle and faces a rebllion led by Bolingbroke. He despairs for a moment and says:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
What a mind Hilary Mantel has! In the 1980s, my mother was given a recording of the late actor Richard Burton reading poems (by Donne and the like) and a couple of passage from plays, the above speech among them. It was something to hear the speech. Anyway, Wolf Hall brought this back to me. Now back to the book.