Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Role-Play and Self-Portrayal in Thomas More's A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Role-Play and Self-Portrayal in Thomas More's A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation

Article excerpt

Soon after Thomas More's death his family sought to take control of his public image by writing or commissioning accounts of his life. Through those biographies they presumably hoped to dominate future as well as present views on the conflict between his religious and his political commitments. Certainly that was the outcome, whatever the exact scope of their aspirations (see Guy 1-20). Before those biographies were brought into being, however, More had carefully attempted an authoritative self-portrayal--not as revealed by a narrative of his entire life but, rather, as discernible throughout a fictionalized version of his experience in prison, the most dangerous and (as he rightly anticipated) final part of his life. The self-likeness presented throughout his A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation is an image for private yet also public viewing, both intimate and polemical; how he portrayed himself, and what that indicates, would seem to come more clearly into focus when one examines role-play and its implications in his text.

From the "Pageant Verses" to De Tristitia Christi--that is, from probably his earliest extant work to certainly his last--More revealed his fascination with what he, like so many of his contemporaries, perceived to be the theatricality of human experience. Here I want to consider how selection, interplay, and performance of role form a strategy, dominant though not exclusive, of serf-presentation in A Dialogue. (1) More does not there describe the world as a theater; on the contrary, he writes of it as a maze and a prison (CW 12:2.17, 3.19-20). Nevertheless, his protagonist, who is demonstrably his alter ego, presents himself again and again in terms of roles that are, he indicates, to be prized and enacted (sometimes, of course, he indicates roles that are to be avoided). His doing so accords with More's remarks in De Tristitia Christi about role-play's linking the individual with Christ and, as is mentioned separately, playing the Good Shepherd. (2) Through that strategy of self-presentation, it will be suggested, More attempted simultaneously to show how he was confronting imminent death and to create a composite, immutable, final image of himself for his family and for posterity. He seems, with typical cunning, to have designed a self-portrayal that would both memorialize him and turn him into an exemplum of adherence to the old religion, thus allowing him in effect to evade constraint by gaoler and executioner and to continue his resistance to Henrician religious policy. The roles that More's surrogate performs or seeks to fulfill include some of those that were adopted by or imposed on him in his days of less troubled celebrity before he entered the Tower. He brings them together and recontextualizes them, he himself having been now recontextualized. (3) In addition, the roles sought or enacted by the surrogate More are frequently associated by him with issues arising from the instability of the imagination or of the will to pleasure. The latter is a preoccupation in More's writings from the "Pageant Verses" onwards. (4) Given, too, that More's A Dialogue indicates a broadly identifiable sequence to role selection as a human phenomenon, there seem to be illuminating similarities and differences between that work and Juan Luis Vives' Fabula de Homine as well as Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy. The second of those textual relationships is at least in part self-conscious, whereas the first is, I think, uncalculated; nevertheless, recognizing and examining them emphasizes the extent to which More's last major work can be seen as implicitly engaging with concerns that recur throughout the culture of humanism-namely, self-transformation and exile. (5)

By way of clarifying my argument, I want to focus for a moment on More's unmistakable unveiling of his text's artificiality. In the Preface to Book 2 he has the protagonist of A Dialogue, Antony, say to Nephew Vincent:

   And therfor wished I the last tyme after you were gone / when I felt
   my selfe (to sey the trowth) evyn a litell wery / that I had not so
   told you styll a long tale alone / but that we had more often
   enterchaungid wordes / and partid the talke betwene vs, with [ofter]
   enterparlyng vppon your part / in such maner as lernid men vse
   betwene the persons / whom they devise disputyng in their faynid
   diologes. … 
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