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Shakespeare’s "Sir Thomas More"

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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8 Responses to “ Shakespeare’s "Sir Thomas More" ”

Comment by Ann Marshall

Very useful piece about Thomas More. I also saw the production at the Swan – I thought it was very good apart from the weakness in the play itself – it was never disclosed why he didn’t sign. One knew from other sources what was in the document but your input helped me understand why it wasn’t explicit in this play. I was looking at this play because I am doing an essay on ‘The Shoemaker’s holiday’ and the question of immigrant workers is an important element in that play – Dekker trys to say that everyone in London loved them. Having seen Thomas More I knew that wasn’t so. Your piece helped me to support that idea as I don’t have the Thomas More text. Many thanks. I should add that I am a mature student doing a BA in Theatre Studies at Rose Bruford College.
Ann Marshall

Comment by Bruce

Glad to help, Ann. There’s an essential difference between Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday and Sir Thomas More, however. I was once hired to direct Shoemaker’s as an Xmas pantomime, as it’s an old-style comedy in which any conflict is set up to be swiftly resolved to a happy ending with concord and harmony. “Thomas More”, on the other hand, is a tragedy, the rules of which require that conflict can only be resolved by the death of the main protagonist (cf Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Othello et al).

Note, too, that the text of Sir Thomas More is available online. The Royal Shakespeare Company also sell a paperback edition in modernised spelling with a useful introduction for five pounds, if (like me) you prefer not to read it online/ make notes in the margin.

Comment by Jeff

You state that the speech “is in Shakeapeare’s own handwriting” but I defy anyone to compare the handwriting of the passage in question with any of the signatures believed to be by Shakespeare of Stratford and not have serious doubts about the differences.
The handwriting of the said passage is remarkably similar to that of William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby who has been proposed as the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays. An example can be found here:

Comment by Bruce

On the other hand, the aptly named J. Thomas Looney identified “Shakespeare” as being Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. I’m a great wielder of Occam’s Razor, Jeff. It seems more sensible to me to take the generally accepted truth at face value – that William Shakespeare did exist, he was extraordnarily gifted and he wrote the stuff that’s attributed to him. Otherwise, there’s an enormously elaborate conspiracy going on: Heming, Condell, Jonson all liars etc etc.

Comment by Jeff

For a long time the account of the creation given in Genesis was the generally accepted truth, at least by peoples of the West; latterly science has cast grave doubts upon these notions. I know that millions still hang on to these beliefs – but what was that you were saying about Looney?
If one starts to examine seriously all the evidence concerning the idea that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works attributed to him, the only part of the theory that emerges unscathed is that he did, indeed, exist.
Yes, I think there was an elaborate conspiracy behind the Shakespeare business; those responsible for promoting the Stratford tourist business perpetuate it still, for example, by passing off a cottage as Anne Hathaway’s which appears to have had nothing whatsoever to do with that particular lady.
Over the years I’ve read scores of books on this subject and have heard the cases of Shakespeare of Stratford, de Vere, Rutland, Bacon and others but, for me, the strongest case for authorship is that of William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby.
If your own beliefs on the matter have been formed by just accepting “the generally accepted truth at face value”, Bruce, I would suggest you might have them rocked just a little if you were to investigate the subject with a more open mind. A really excellent, entertaining, (and inexpensive!) book on the subject is John Michell’s “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” which can be read as an intriguing mystery thriller even by the sceptical.

Comment by Jeff

Good to hear that, Bruce – and just to prove that I’m not doing plugs for Thames & Hudson I first encountered the book in a copy which I borrowed from the library. However, I enjoyed it so much that I bought my own copy so that I could read it again…and again. I hope you enjoy it too.

Comment by Don Chatfield

Hello, Bruce–

I was glad to find this speech here! I was hunting for it because I had just read about it on the blog of Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in England for the Lambeth Conference (from which he was pointedly disinvited by the Abp. of Canterbury, clearly because Gene is gay, out and partnered).

In Bp. Robinson’s blog of Friday, July 17, 2008, he reports an evening in the South Bank Centre for the Arts the previous Monday. Robinson writes:

‘Earlier, I had contacted Sir Ian McKellen, arguably the greatest living Shakespearean actor (and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings series), to see if he wanted to help introduce the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” in its British premiere on Monday evening. He enthusiastically said yes. After welcoming the audience of some 700-800, and viewing the film, he introduced me, and we sat and had a conversation about the issues raised in the movie.

‘Sir Ian had told me about a rarely-heard speech written by Shakespeare . . . included as part of a play written by a group of playwrights. In the play, the people of London have rioted, demanding that all foreigners be expelled from London and from England. Sir Thomas More comes out on a balcony to address the angry mob, and delivers a speech urging the welcoming of strangers, and cautioning them that they too, someday, in some other context, might be considered “the other.” They too might someday pray for compassionate treatment of “the other.” I had asked Sir Ian to deliver this soliloquy as a way to end the evening. (He had recited it for me when we had dinner, and I was stunned by its relevance to our current situation.)

‘As we closed the evening, I asked Ian to share this recitation with us. He stepped forward to the edge of the stage, away from the microphones, and proceeded to fill the theatre with his distinctive and thrilling voice, becoming Sir Thomas More as we watched and listened. It was a breathtaking moment none will soon forget.’

I (DC) do wonder if McKellan wouldn’t have included the rest of that line of More’s, and then the latter half of his second speech following (beginning at “You’ll put down strangers, Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses, And lead the majesty of law in line, To slip him like a hound.”). I know I would have.

Thanks again!

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