The Cordelia Question; Or Would You Rather Be Thomas More or Thomas Cromwell?

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Being played by someone who’s done God and Moses was probably exactly what Thomas More had in mind, to be honest.

The Cordelia Question
When I was 17, I had to stop studying A-level English Literature, mostly because I couldn’t bear the writings of Sylvia Plath (although You’re is a poem I only love more and more as I get older). But the final straw was a spectacular argument I managed to stage between me and everyone else in the class. The question was something like “Who is the most moral character in King Lear?” and everyone seemed pretty clear that it was Cordelia, the daughter who tells the truth for the good of her father even though it hurts him, rather than her nasty sisters who lie to get part of the kingdom. I disagreed. I said not only was Cordelia not the most moral character in the play, she was the most immoral: it is her refusal to say a few words her father, evidently old and going senile, wanted because she felt he was being a bit needy that gets pretty much everyone killed, including herself and her dad. The immortality of this act derives from the certainty of negative consequences that will flow from it: Lear had made clear what he is intending to do, and Cordelia knows for certain that if she doesn’t do as requested (she doesn’t even have to lie, she actually does love her father!), Goneril and Regan will do terrible things to the country and her father. But she doesn’t do it – a principle is at stake. Sadly, her time to reflect on the value of that principle as her dying father carried her lifeless corpse out of a prison cell was probably pretty short. Cordelia is a woman in a political world, with a political role, who will not bend herself just a little for the benefit of the commonweal. Her purity kills everyone. Well done, Cords.*

Which Thomas is better?
It was on watching Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent recent documentary on Thomas Cromwell that I realised that Cromwell and that other famous Tudor Thomas, St Thomas More, reflect exactly the same choice. Each is posed what might be called “the Cordelia Question” – will you serve the royal will, even though its edicts are not all you want and some you disagree with, and in doing so attempt to deliver something of what you do want and believe is for the good of all, or will you stand upon your principles, bring about your death and rob the king and the nation of your service?

More chose death rather than accept the Royal Supremacy–or rather he chose silence, which he knew would eventually bring him death–and he is remembered as something of a hero: immortalised by the Catholic Church as a saint (although not till the 20th Century) and vividly brought to life in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons (he even gets played by Charlton Heston in one version!). Cromwell, on the other hand, cleaved to the king and delivered what he desired: the divorce of his first wife, the death of his second, the cultural and socio-economic vandalism of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the grisly death of the abbot of Gloucester … the list goes on. And history did not remember Cromwell kindly. Seen for a long time as a brute and a dark-hearted Machivell, it is only with Hilary Mantel’s recent Wolf Hall that he has received a popular attempt to grant him any graces at all. MacCulloch, like Mantel, clearly rather liked Cromwell, and had him as a man of religious principle achieving a Bible in English by adroit management of the king, aiding Henry in difficulty in order to deliver projects he felt made the realm better, including founding a (very) proto-welfare state.

Most, I imagine, would not go so far as MacCulloch and Mantel in rescuing Cromwell’s reputation, just as few would go as far as Mantel in condemning More (in Wolf Hall he is an authoritarian bigot, hypocrite and monstrous egotist with not a single redeeming feature) but I think it is undeniable that Cromwell left a far greater and more important legacy to this country, and indeed the world, than did Thomas More–the innovation of using Parliament to deliver and validate the Royal Supremacy is much more the cornerstone of modern Parliamentary democracy than Magna Carta–yet More has a halo and a lot of churches and schools, and Cromwell has not very much at all.

It turns out we don’t like people who answer the Cordelia Question the hard way, the way where you have to set your principles in a political context and ask which are deliverable, and to what extent, and act accordingly. Where you don’t complain because everything isn’t exactly as you want it to be, but instead work to make it as good as it can be.

Teaching and the Cordelia Question
The Cordelia Question faces all those who work within a political context, and of course that includes teachers. And I fear that, as a profession, our public persona answers the question all wrong: we will list our complaints endlessly at union annual conferences, and seem to take pride in our disdain and derision of politicians engaged with education. And we also condemn those teachers who do try to make a difference within the system: bloggers who offer suggestions for improvement in ways that might make ministers think, teacher groups who want to build free schools to show they know what they’re doing, academy chains employing outstanding teachers to support and mentor the others. These are seen as having betrayed the purity of Thomas More; they are dissolving the monasteries and are castigated for it. In doing so, the corporate voice of teachers seems totally unwilling to build a better future. We have become the Martyr Profession: endlessly suffering our lot, and making sure that everyone knows about it, with the desire for relief but no will to get it.

Of course, in the end, answering the Cordelia Question the way he did, didn’t keep Thomas Cromwell’s head from a traitor’s spike, but then, politics is a risky business with high stakes and uncertain outcomes – a trait it shares with teaching. But, though lifeless yet, Cromwell’s eyes in death looked out on an England made anew largely in his image because he was willing to bend his own principles into those of his political master’s to deliver a workable synthesis of both. I can’t help but feel there is a lesson for education in there somewhere.


* There was obviously another side of this argument which everyone else felt was a lot more convincing than mine, but this is my blog, so you just get my one. The other side is probably something to do with virtue ethics or Kant or something. Have fun with that.

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3 responses

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber and commented:

    More about politics in general, although there are some ideas here about the risks teaching runs if our corporate voice pursues purity of motive over impact of action…

  2. So that Eton scholarship exam question addressed matters relevant to future teachers as well as future prime ministers? I don’t think the Twittersphere is ready to hear that.

  3. That Cordelia answer would probably have got you an unconditional offer from Oxbridge, as it’s very well argued, shows detailed knowledge and understanding of the play and opposes the received wisdom. If it really made you give up English, then it was a great loss to the subject, IMO.

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