Thomas Betterridge. Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Work of Thomas More

By Schaeffer, John D. | Style, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Thomas Betterridge. Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Work of Thomas More


Schaeffer, John D., Style


Thomas Betterridge. Writing Faith and Telling Tales: Literature, Politics, and Religion in the Work of Thomas More. Notre Dame IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2013. Xi + 256pp. $38.00 paper.

Thomas Betteridge is a professor of theater at Brunei University, specializing in the plays of the English Middle Ages. Early in this book he says that "many of the concerns that More addressed in his writings are the same as those that interested late fourteenth and fifteenth- century English writers" (7). Betteridge, however, rejects the view of the Middle Ages as a period of pious monolithic orthodoxy, a view which he says informed interpretations of More's medievalism by R. W. Chambers, Richard Marius, and G. R. Elton. Instead, Betteridge claims that More's writings ought to be viewed as analogous to The Canterbury Tales (7). More, he says, saw life as a pilgrimage on which we hear and tell stories. Some of the story tellers are wise; others are wicked; all are human (7-9). From this vantage point, Betteridge views and interprets nearly all of More's writings, dividing his four chapters into Politics, Reason, Heresy, and Devotion--and then a Conclusion.

The first chapter, "Politics," discusses More's History of King Richard III. Betteridge contextualizes this work, first, by juxtaposing it with some of More's Latin epigrams, and second, by reading it in the light of two early sixteenth-century morality plays: the anonymous Youth and John Skelton's Magnificence. Betteridge interprets the epigrams as displaying "an understanding of the political sphere as a space sustained by skeptical, applied reason" (48). He interprets the two dramas as challenging the stability and justice of the monarchy, and this leads Betteridge to a controversial claim: that Skelton's play dramatizes anxiety about the direction of the Henrician kingship--and that this anxiety is also expressed in More's Richard III. This interpretation contradicts a long interpretive tradition that sees Richard III as More's contribution to the so-called "Tudor myth," which demonized Richard to justify the Tudor claim to the throne. Betteridge problematizes many passages of Richard III by pointing to More's qualifying phrases, such as "of all this point there is no certainty" (52). Similarly, he interprets many other passages as reflecting the sympathies of works that were overtly critical of the monarchy, like PiersPlowman (56-58), or echoing works that Betteridge claims subvert political language and institutions: Chaucer's Shipman's Tale, The Tale of Meliboee, and The Nun's Priest's Tale (59-65). Citing such similarities, some admittedly remote, Betteridge claims that Richard III is "bad history" but "a profound critique of tyranny and an implicit critique of emerging Henrician political tropes" (72).

Betteridge transitions from chapter one to chapter two, "Reason," which will include not only the obvious Utopia but also More's religious polemic A Dialogue Concerning Heresies. He begins by saying that in Utopia "More reflected upon the dangers of abstract reason and its costs--social, political, and religious" (74). Betteridge immediately joins the critics who say that Utopia is a satire that encourages its readers to construct their own interpretation rather than to seek a normative position within the text. He says "reason in Utopia is quite different from reason in Utopia" (77). He adds that

   More's target in Utopia ... is modes of thought that oscillate
   between a complete rejection of reality, such as Utopus's fantasy
   world, and an overwhelming pessimism in the face of human
   sinfulness, such as Hythloday's sweeping rejection of even the
   possibility of meaningful social reform. (77)

Betteridge then continues his project, enumerating medieval works that prefigure More's Utopia. First, he lists Henry Medwall's play Nature which, he says, dramatized the conflict between sensuality and reason. The play was probably composed and performed at the house of Cardinal Morton when More was living there (77-78). …

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