Sean Elliott

Sir Thomas More, edited by John Jowett, Arden Shakespeare, 360pp, £16.99 (paperback)

For the editors of the Arden Shakespeare this is an age of miracles. In 2010, they published the eighteenth-century play Double Falsehood, claiming it contained traces of Shakespeare’s lost Cardenio. Now they have republished Sir Thomas More, which survives as a manuscript and supposedly includes a passage in Shakespeare’s handwriting.

Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle wrote Sir Thomas More in the 1590s. The Master of Revels, Edmund Tilney, censored it in handwritten notes, demanding that almost a third of the text be cut. He warned the playwrights to proceed at ‘your own perils’. The play was revised, possibly in1604, by four additional writers, perhaps hoping that King James would allow a relaxation of censorship over a play about a Catholic martyr executed by Queen Elizabeth’s father. These authors were probably Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heyward and a professional scribe. From 1871 onwards, many eminent scholars have claimed that Hand D is Shakespeare’s.

The Arden Shakespeare embraces a recent scholarly movement which sees Shakespeare as a collaborator with other playwrights rather than the solitary genius of Romantic iconography. John Jowett’s edition of Sir Thomas More is indispensable reading concerning issues of Elizabethan collaboration and authorship. It implicitly asks: how do we identify a Shakespearean play?

Jowett argues for More’s place as ‘part of the Shakespeare canon’. He claims, ‘Though no volume of poor evidence will produce a sound conclusion, andthough no volume of probable evidence will produce an absolute certainty, the accumulation of evidence showing good probability moves the case progressively towards the point of certainty.’ Can anyone who writes so badly be convinced of their own argument? What is the difference between ‘absolute certainty’ and ‘the point of certainty’? The evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship is ambiguous, based on the similarity of his signature to Hand D and stylistic parallels. But Hand D uses words like ‘transportation’ and ‘inhumanity’ which occur in none of Shakespeare’s plays. The Shakespearean phrases might suggest his influence rather than his authorship. The phrase ‘Friends, masters, countrymen’ for instance, with its echo of ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ in Julius Caesar, sounds exactly like the kind of moment an admirer would remember rather than Shakespeare’s conscious self-imitation. In Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607) the stage-struck apprentice Ralph recites a speech from Henry IV, Part One. For a rising generation, Shakespeare was the voice of the theatre.

Sir Thomas More focuses on an outbreak of xenophobia, the May Day riots of 1517, and fictitiously presents More quelling the threat. It begins by showing foreigners in London stealing Englishmen’s wives and blatantly cheating in business. These outrages lead to the riot. Suddenly, Hand D’s additions reverse the depiction of foreigners through More’s compassionate speech:

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silenced 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,
How order should be quelled. And by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man;
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With selfsame hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men, like ravenous fishes,
Would feed on one another.

More’s ‘ravenous fishes’ recall Albany’s lament that ‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself,/Like monsters of the deep’ in King Lear. The association of clothing with authority, suggested by ‘ruff of your opinions’, echoes Measure for Measure officials ‘dressed in a little brief authority’. The insistence on the benefits of a fixed social order evokes Ulysses’ speech in favour of ‘degree, priority, and place’ in Troilus and Cressida. Without order, we create a world in which appetite, ‘an universal wolf’, is the sole law and old people cower before the younger generation.

Significantly, Munday recalls More’s skill as an impromptu actor in a scene where he performs with some professional actors in a morality play. On the scaffold More declares, ‘my offence to his highness makes of me a state pleader a stage player’. He is an accumulation of witty roles with no central core of identity. Rather than a Catholic martyr, his wisdom and love of practical jokes make him the representative of Merry England, that mythical land where the social classes are united in good fellowship and the beer is never watered down. His death offers a tragic diminution of the nation.

The most incisive comments in the play belong, however, to the women. The working class Doll Williamson offers a tellingly ambivalent portrait of More:

An honest, wise, well-spoken gentleman.
Yet would I praise his honesty much more
If he had kept his word and saved our lives.

Doll is spared but she witnesses the execution of her fellow protestor, John Lincoln. The royal pardon was delayed; More may be suspected of a politician’s strategic absence. Equally, Lady More reveals the suffering that More’s impenetrable ‘merriness’ inflicts on his family:

Lord, that your honour ne’er will leave these jests!
In faith, it ill becomes ye.

There are affinities with Shakespeare’s approach throughout Sir Thomas More but these do not confirm that he is Hand D. The dispute recalls Abraham Bredius’ reaction when he was asked in 1937 to authenticate a lost Vermeer painting, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus: ‘I found it hard to contain my emotions when this masterpiece was first shown to me, and many will feel the same who have the privilege of beholding it.’ The painting was a fake. Although the More manuscript is authentic, Bredius’ sense of ‘privilege’ still merits consideration. Whether the text contains his handwriting or not, it reflects our culture’s desire for the ‘privilege’ of a more immediate connection with Shakespeare than print offers. In a play which explores wisdom, merriness and folly, the cautious Shrewsbury deserves the last word: ‘Error in learned heads hath much to do.’

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.