It may surprise you to learn that I have other interests apart from excessive web design geekery. In fact, as an English with Drama graduate, I like the theatre and managed to palm some of the buy-plastic-crap-for-the-kids budget in order to see the second night of "Sir Thomas More" at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford last week.
The play is by several different authors, most notably Dekker and Shakespeare, and I’d never read it. The production was reasonable enough – the pacing not quite tight enough, and some scenes that were frankly baffling to a modern audience, and should have been cut by the director. One speech stood out, however: Sir Thomas calms a race riot by asking the citizens to consider the feelings of the 16th century asylum-seekers they’re protesting about:
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England.
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail.
Sir Thomas More, Act 2 Scene 4
It sounded just like Shakespeare, in amongst the rhyming couplets penned by lesser hands – and when I was reading the script later, it turns out that, indeed, this speech is in Shakespeare’s own handwriting.
An interesting comparison sprang to my mind about the difference between Robert Bolt’s wonderful 1960 play "A Man For All Seasons" (film, 1966) in which More is shown wrestling with his religious conscience, and going to his death for refusing to sign a document agreeing that Henry VIII was head of the church. In "Sir Thomas More", More goes to his death for refusing to sign a document, but we are never told what the document is.
Of course, a 16th century theatre-goer would have known – and it would have been very dangerous indeed in Elizabethan England to explicitly show a Catholic martyr as a tragic figure . In fact, there is no record of this play ever having been performed at all on the 16th century stage; the manuscript has the censor’s warning that the company perform certain scenes "at their peril".
It would by no means be the first time that the content of a Shakespeare play was dictated by political expediency. His Richard III is Tudor propaganda blackening the name of the King whom Elizabeth’s grandfather had usurped.
His Macbeth (one of my very favourite Shakespeare plays) was the first play Shakespeare wrote for King James I (James VI of Scotland), and curries the new King’s favour by being very short (James was renowned for having a short attention span). The emphasis on the Witches was because the King had written a book on witchcraft.
"Macbeth" also plays fast and loose with historical accuracy; the real Macbeth murdered King Duncan with the help of Banquo. However, James had written a book about the divine right of kings (in which regicide is considered deicide) and believed that he was a descendent of Banquo – thus the Shakespearian Banquo is a blameless hero.
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