|Sir Thomas More|
Facsimile of a page written by 'Hand D' (William Shakespeare)
|Written by||originally written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle; later heavily revised by Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and William Shakespeare|
Earl of Shrewsbury
|Date premiered||c. 1591-93|
|Place premiered||The Rose, London|
|Original language||Early Modern English|
|Subject||xenophobia, law and order, church and state|
|Genre||English Renaissance theatre, History play|
Sir Thomas More is an Elizabethan play and a dramatic biography based on particular events in the life of the Catholic martyr Thomas More, who rose to become the Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII. The play is considered to be written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle and revised by several writers. The manuscript is particularly notable for a three-page handwritten revision now widely attributed to William Shakespeare.
This play is not simply biographical, because, for example, significant facts of More's life are not described: There is no mention of his literary career, his book Utopia, or the dispute between Henry VIII and the Pope in Rome. Also the life of More is at times expanded beyond what actually occurred and beyond the sources that were used, in order to suit the drama. What the play is about has been debated, but the issues revolve around obedience to the crown and rule of law, particularly when a populace becomes stirred up in an anti-alien fervor. Even More must obey; when he does not he loses his life.
There are three primary actions in the drama: First is the uprising of 1517 known as Ill May Day and More's quelling of the rioters. Second is the portrayal of More's private life, his family and friendships, demonstrating his generosity, kindness, and wit. Third is his service as Privy Councillor and Lord Chamberlain, and the principled stand he took in opposition to the king, which leads to More's execution.
The particular articles More refuses to sign are never described, so the play avoids the specific conflict that occurred between the church in Rome and the English Church, allowing the story to focus on the issue of freedom of an individual conscience from worldly authority. This explains why Munday, who fought against the Catholic Church, would be an author of a play that vindicates More, a Catholic martyr. Munday's abiding interest, as demonstrated in his other plays, was in speaking out against attacks on an individual's freedom, attacks that came from both church and state.
Considered in terms of theatrical performance, it is seen as effective and dramatic in the scenes dealing with the rioting, it is warm and human when dealing with More's private life, and it is sympathetic and admiring as More sticks to his principles in the conclusion of the play. It is considered to be the best of the dramatic biographies that were written in Elizabethan times. Even with these qualities it would not have attracted as much interest if it were not for the association this play has with Shakespeare.
Sir Thomas More has an unusually high total of 59 speaking parts, including 22 in the first 500 lines of the play; this, plus crowd scenes, would have taxed the ability of any playing company of the time to stage it. The job could only be managed through complex doubling and more-than-doubling of roles by the actors. Out of necessity, the play is structured to allow for this multiple doubling of roles: it is set up in three phases--More's rise; More's Chancellorship; More's fall--with very limited overlap between the thirds. Only three characters, More himself and the Earls of Shrewsbury and Surrey, appear in all three portions; six other characters--Lady More, Palmer, Roper, Sergeant Downes, the Lord Mayor, and a sheriff--appear in two of the three segments.
Lord Cardinal's Players
The play dramatises events in More's life, and it deals with issues of obedience to the crown and rule of law, particularly when a populace has become stirred up in an anti-alien fervour. It consists of 17 scenes, four of them cancelled. It begins with the Ill May Day events of 1517: Foreign nationals, who have immigrated to England from Lombardy, which is the northern region of what is now known as Italy, are misbehaving in a variety of ways, and are treating the citizens of London with abuse and disrespect. This is outraging the workers of London, who decide to join together on Mayday and seek revenge on the newcomers. London noblemen are having difficulty deciding what to do about this, when rioting breaks out all across London, and even the Mayor of London is endangered. The noblemen decide to engage Sheriff Thomas More, who is popular and respected by the people, to try and calm the civil unrest.
A group of native Londoners plan to set fire to the foreigners' homes. Others urge a military response. More decides the best way is for him to speak to the rioters.
More arrives at St. Martin's gate. The rioters express their complaints, then agree to hear from More. More begins by saying that the riots are disgracing England, and that if disorder prevails, civil society will fall apart, and none of the rioters will live to an old age. He tells them that when they rebel against the law, they rebel against God. More offers a deal to the rioters: If they will behave, and go to prison in peace, he promises that they will be given a pardon. The only other option for them is death. The rioters accept More's offer, and are taken away.
The rioters are about to be hanged. One of their leaders, Lincoln, has already been executed. Then Surrey arrives to announce that the execution order has been stayed by order of the King, because More has pleaded for their lives.
More is knighted and promoted to Privy Councilor for his role in ending the riots.
At home, More is visited by his friend, the Dutch philosopher and theologian, Erasmus. More then hosts a visit by the Mayor of London. For the guests' entertainment, a play is performed, The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom.
Later in Whitehall, the Privy Council, including More, is meeting, when Sir Thomas Palmer enters with undisclosed articles from the King, King Henry VIII, who wants them signed. More refuses to sign, because he is conscientiously opposed. Rochester, who also refuses to sign, is taken away to the Tower of London. More resigns his office and is placed under house arrest. His fellow Privy Councilors urge him to change his mind and sign, but he will not.
More goes home and informs his family. He discusses the situation and how it will affect them, and he comforts them, all the while maintaining a positive demeanor and his moral position. The Earls of Surrey and Shrewsbury arrive to encourage More to sign the articles; he will not and is taken away to the Tower.
Catesby goes to More's house to inform the family that More has been sentenced to death.
More's family arrives at the Tower on the eve of his execution. They urge him to change his mind, but he is resolute. The next day, on Tower Hill, More is positive and resolved as he mounts the scaffold and prepares to die by beheading. More has thoughtful and considerate exchanges with the noblemen, who are present, and his executioner, and then is taken off-stage to his fate.
The original manuscript, involving so many revisions, has reinforced the incorrect idea that the play has been pieced together or is in poor condition. Instead, the revisions should be considered in recognizable theatrical terms as a script's natural progression towards its being readied for production.
The original manuscript is a handwritten text, now owned by the British Library. The manuscript is notable for the light it sheds on the collaborative nature of Elizabethan drama and theatrical censorship of the era.
Now MS. Harley 7368 in the collection of the British Library, the manuscript's provenance can be traced back to 1728, when it belonged to a London book collector named John Murray. He donated it to the collection of Edward Harley, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, who bequeathed it to the British Museum with the rest of his manuscript collection in 1753. Some time between 1728 and 1753 the play was bound with another manuscript, The Humorous Lovers.
Now in poor condition, the original manuscript probably consisted of 16 leaves--31 handwritten pages of a working draft of the play (foul papers), with the last page blank. Two or three of the original leaves have been torn out, and seven leaves and two smaller pieces of paper have been inserted.
Aside from folios 1 and 2, the wrapper of the manuscript proper, the revised extant manuscript comprises the following:
1) Folios 3-5, Hand S: the first three scenes of the play, through page 5a; censored by Edmund Tylney, the Master of the Revels, but otherwise intact. On page 5b, all text after the first 16 lines is marked for deletion. At least one, and probably two, of the leaves immediately following (the original leaves 6 and 7) are missing.
2) Folio 6, Addition I, Hand A: a single leaf, written on only one side. The addition is misplaced, and belongs later in the play, with page 19a.
3) Folios 7-9, Addition II: three leaves replacing the excised material on 5b and the original 6 and probable 7. Each of the three leaves is in a different hand.
4) Folios 10-11, Hand S: back to the original manuscript, though with some insertions on pages 10a and 11a in Hand B.
5) Folio 11c, Addition III, Hand C: the first of the two insertions on smaller pieces of paper, formerly pasted over the bottom of page 11b, and consisting of a single 21-line soliloquy meant to begin the next scene.
6) Folios 12-13, Addition IV, Hands C and E: four pages to replace excised or cancelled material, written mainly in Hand C but with input from Hand E on page 13b.
7) Folio 14a Hand S: the original again, and the whole page cancelled for deletion. Addition IV, directly previous, replaces this material.
8) Folio 14c, Addition V, Hand C: the second of the insertions on smaller sheets of paper, formerly pasted over the bottom of page 14a.
9) Folios 14b and 15, Hand S: the original again.
10) Folio 16, Addition VI, Hand B: the last of the six Additions.
11) Folios 17-22a, Hand S: the conclusion of the play in the original version. On page 19a a long passage is cut, and this is the place where the mislocated Addition I, folio 6, actually belongs.
Hand C attempted to provide corrections to the whole, enhancing its coherence; yet some stage directions and speech prefixes are missing, and the stage directions that exist are sometimes incorrect. (In Additions III and IV, More speaks his soliloquy before he enters.)
Scholars, critics, and editors have described the text as "chaotic" and "reduced to incoherence", but in 1987 Scott McMillin maintained that the play could be acted as is; and at least one production of the play has ensued, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005.
The manuscript was first printed and published in 1844, two and a half centuries after it was written, by the Shakespeare Society, edited by Alexander Dyce; and again in 1911 by the Malone Society, edited by W. W. Greg.
Part of the need for revisions of the play was clearly due to purely practical concerns of stagecraft, apart from the demands of political censorship. Much of the point of the revision was to streamline the play, to make it more actable; though even the revised version would have needed a minimum cast of 18-13 adults and five boys. Two of the Additions, III and VI, occur at the beginning and end of the middle third respectively, giving more time for costume changes. Addition III provides a soliloquy by More and a 45-line dialogue between two actors; Addition VI provides a similar breathing-space for the actors to get ready for the play's final phase.
Allowing for a range of uncertainties, it is most likely true that the original text of Sir Thomas More was written c. 1591-93, with a special focus on 1592-93 when the subject of hostility against "aliens" was topical in London. Edmund Tylney censored the play when it was submitted to him for approval at that time, for this topicality as well as for more general considerations of controlling political expression on the stage. The effort at revision is difficult to date; many scholars have favoured c. 1596, though a date as late as ca. 1604 is also possible.
The manuscript is a complicated text containing many layers of collaborative writing, revision, and censorship. Scholars of the play think that it was originally written by playwrights Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle and some years later heavily revised by another team of playwrights, including Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, and William Shakespeare.
The most common identifications for the six hands:
Munday, Chettle, Dekker, and Heywood wrote for the Admiral's Men during the years before and after 1600, which may strengthen the idea of a connection between the play and that company. Shakespeare, in this context, seems the odd man out. In his study of the play, Scott McMillin entertains the possibility that Shakespeare's contribution might have been part of the original text from the early 1590s, when Shakespeare may have written for the Lord Strange's Men.
In 1871, Richard Simpson proposed that some additions to the play had been written by Shakespeare, and a year later James Spedding, editor of the works of Sir Francis Bacon, while rejecting some of Simpson's suggestions, supported the attribution to Shakespeare of the passage credited to Hand D. In 1916, the paleographer Sir Edward Maunde Thompson published a minute analysis of the handwriting of the addition and judged it to be Shakespeare's. The case was strengthened with the publication of Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More (1923) by five noted scholars who analysed the play from multiple perspectives, all of which led to the same affirmative conclusion. A second significant gathering of scholars to consider Sir Thomas More grew out of a seminar that was held during the meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America at Ashland, Oregon in 1983. It resulted in a second book of essays, eight by eight different authors, that was published as Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More; Essays on the Play and its Shakespearean Interest. It is a comprehensive study of the manuscript, and states that it appears more likely than ever that Shakespeare did indeed contribute to the revision of this play. This would make it the only surviving manuscript text written by Shakespeare. Although some dissenters remain, the attribution has been generally accepted since the mid-20th century and most authoritative editions of Shakespeare's works, including The Oxford Shakespeare, include the play. It was performed with Shakespeare's name included amongst the authors by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005.
The suggestion that passages in Hand D were by Shakespeare was first made in 1871 by Richard Simpson. It was supported and disputed over a long period on the evidence of literary style and Shakespeare's distinctive handwriting. The lines in Hand D "are now generally accepted as the work of Shakespeare." If the Shakespearean identification is correct, these three pages represent the only surviving examples of Shakespeare's handwriting, aside from a few signatures on documents. The manuscript, with its numerous corrections, deletions and insertions, enables us to glimpse Shakespeare in the process of composition.
The evidence for identifying Shakespeare as Hand D is of various types:
The original perceptions of Simpson and Spedding in 1871-72 were based on literary style and content and political outlook, rather than palaeographic and orthographic considerations. Consider one example of what attracted attention to the style of Hand D.
First, from Sir Thomas More, Addition IIc, 84-87:
Next, from Coriolanus, I,i,184-188:
Thirdly, Troilus and Cressida, I,iii,121-124:
Finally, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, II,i,26-32:
Many features like this in the Hand D addition to Sir Thomas More first attracted the attention of Shakespeare scholars and readers, and led to more intensive study from a range of specialised perspectives.
According to Mark Brown of The Guardian, British Library curator Zoe Wilcox argued that "all the evidence suggested the writing was by the hand of Shakespeare," and the library has posted the text online.
It has been reported that audiences "find that the play speaks with more urgency" in the pages attributed to Shakespeare. While Shakespeare's supposed contribution is consistent with the overall theme and develops the plot, there is an impression of a virtuoso piece inserted, but not completely integrated, into the play. Some editors go as far as to question whether Shakespeare had read any of the other contributions at all.
The play was most likely written to be acted by Lord Strange's Men, the only company of the time that could have mounted such a large and demanding production, at Philip Henslowe's Rose Theatre, which possessed the special staging requirements (large-capacity second-level platform and special enclosure) called for by the play. The massive lead role of More, 800-plus lines, was designed for Edward Alleyn, the only actor up to that time who is known to have played such large-scale roles. After the re-organization of the playing companies in 1594, the manuscript may well have passed into the possession of the Admiral's Men.
Whether or not the play was performed in the Elizabethan or Jacobean age is unsettled, and there are indications to support both sides of the question. By the nature of the revisions and the mention of the actor Thomas Goodale in 3.1 it is clear that it was written for the public stage. Since that time no recorded performance of Sir Thomas More took place until a three-night student production by the Birkbeck College, University of London, in December 1922. The play was staged with more than 40 students at the King's School, Canterbury, 4-6 November 1938, with P. D. V. Strallen in the title role. The first known professional staging of the play was 22-29 June 1954 at the London Theatre Centre for the Advance Players Association. It was first performed in Elizabethan costumes and then in modern dress, with Michael Beint as More.
Sir Thomas More has been acted in whole or in part several times as a radio play, twice by the BBC Third Programme (1948, 1956), by the Austrian public radio ORF in 1960, and then again by BBC Radio 3 in 1983 with Ian McKellen playing the title role. McKellen also played the role at the Nottingham Playhouse 10 June-4 July 1964, taking over from John Neville on short notice, when the latter had artistic differences with director Frank Dunlop during rehearsals.
Sir Ian McKellen performed the Shakespeare monologue regarding immigrants on the Marc Maron podcast in response to the Trump phenomenon.