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Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales? – A Man for All Seasons (1966)
This is my favorite line in a script filled with jewels. I have always loved the way Paul Scofield delivered that line with such delicate irony. Richard Rich lies to help convict Thomas More and is rewarded with the post of Attorney General for Wales. The clip of that scene can be seen here.
The temptation to replace “Wales” with “to elect Joe Biden” or the like and thus begin a rant is hereby resisted. I will leave that to inventive respondents in the comment section. I will instead discuss Richard Rich, a fictionalized rendition of an actual person. In the movie, he has academic credentials, a craving for fame and wealth but is lacking in both practical skill and character. He is a type, a permanent figure in every age, lurking around government and policymaking centers. In my days as a lobbyist, one or more Richard Riches was in attendance at most meetings. Richard Riches grab more than their share of peripheral congressional staff jobs. Rich would kill to be a regular commentator on cable channels and often succeeds in that ambition.
Early in the movie, Rich begs Thomas More for a political appointment of some kind. More recognizes that a position anywhere near the intrigues and temptations of court would instantly corrupt and destroy someone as weak as Rich. More advises him to be a teacher:
More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.
Richard Rich instead acts on his insecurity and ambition and agrees to help the Machiavellian Cromwell bring down Thomas More. Cromwell (played brilliantly by Leo McKern) himself has wonderful lines in the scene in which Rich succumbs to the temptations of wealth and position:
Richard Rich: I was lamenting. I’ve lost my innocence.
Cromwell: Some time ago. Have you only just noticed?
And after the agreement to betray Thomas More is consummated:
Cromwell: There. That wasn’t too painful, was it?
Richard Rich: No.
Cromwell: No. And you’ll find it easier next time.
A truly insightful remark. Conscience does dull with repeated violations. And yet a lie always necessitates an ongoing escalation of a personal war against the truth to protect itself. Dishonesty has a peculiar momentum.
Richard Rich, the actual historical figure was a complete weasel by all accounts so naturally, he managed to rise to the position of Lord Chancellor during the brief reign of Edward VI. He also managed to get into high positions with both Catholic Queen Mary and Protestant Queen Elizabeth without missing a beat. When still under Henry VIII, when England was negotiating with powerful Catholic monarchs and it served the political needs of the moment to suppress dissident Protestants, Rich even took a turn at the rack wheel to help torture Protestant martyr Mary Askew. A significant part of his own personal fortune was derived from lands and property stolen from abbeys, monasteries, and convents. What a guy.
His life story puts me in mind of the time one of my favorite grade-school teachers, a wonderful, energetic nun was asked why God allows bad people to get wealthy and live without apparent suffering. Her answer was that God sometimes shows his kindness and generosity in this life to people He already knows He will not be able to help in the next. A wonderful, memorable answer even if theologically silly.
Sixteenth-century England was a bad place and time to have consistent and sincere beliefs of any kind but a golden age for self-seeking weasels like Richard Rich. Although come to think of it, that is probably the case in most times and places.
As a youth, I believed that newswires, a plethora of prominent opinion magazines, TV, radio, and that emerging internet thing would forever block the weasels from getting over on us. The truth would have too many outlets to be able to silence it. That alone would make for a better world. It never occurred to me that the weasels would unite and actually own all of that. And they do appear to find it easier each time they betray us.Published in