Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review: Sir Thomas More by William Shakespeare et al.

Sir Thomas More by William Shakespeare et al., edited by John Jowett

Since today is the feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, what better way to celebrate the saint than review a book about him. Actually, there are probably a lot of better ways to celebrate, but we do what we can...

While browsing through one of the Shakespeare bookstores in Stratford-upon-Avon this volume caught my eye. I had never heard that Shakespeare wrote a play on Thomas More. After looking through it at the store it was clear he hadn't written the entire play. He was one of about four other authors and he revised an already prepared text. Loving St. Thomas More as I do, I couldn't resist and bought the book.

The book is part of the Arden Shakespeare series, a scholarly series designed to support both literary research and theatrical presentation. The introduction is 120 pages, covering the history of writing the play, prominent themes in the play, sources used by the playwrights, performance history, and staging advice. It's quite comprehensive if occasionally bogged down in critical literary jargon, for example this passage concerning a scene where Thomas More and his servant Randall swap clothes to see if they can fool Erasmus into thinking Randall is More:
The exchange of costumes for the purpose of metatheatrical role-playing asserts the nature of the play itself as an enactment for the commercial theatre, and places the institution of theatre in relation to the play's subject-matter, the learned scholar. The low social and intellectual status of the actor of More in relation to the role he is playing corresponds with the social and intellectual status of the role of Randall - though the play insists repeatedly that More is himself of humble origin. [p. 78]
Fortunately the historical comments are straightforward and interesting. The four or five authors used various sources on More's life, some favoring More and some despising him. More was still a controversial topic when the play was written (around 1600), with Queen Elizabeth on the throne. More had refused to acknowledge the authority of Henry VIII over the church in England and implicitly his marriage to his second wife (the mother of Elizabeth). The play was reviewed by a censor who made many suggestions and deletions, all of which readers can see in the main text.

The text of the play itself is a critical edition, with extensive footnotes clarifying who wrote what and explaining the meaning of the archaic words and phrases. It requires a little patience to read. I read the play before I read the introduction. I definitely recommend that reading order since the introduction discusses details of events in the play, events I was unfamiliar with from other sources. I would have been somewhat lost in the introduction without reading the play first.

The play is in roughly two halves. The first half deals with More's rise to power in England, eventually becoming Chancellor. The main incident depicted is a near-riot of lower class workers. They want to burn the homes of foreigners in London who have the favor of the king and have been putting natives out of work. More, as a sheriff of London, speaks to the crowd and quells their anger. His service in averting the riot is what brings him political success. [Historically, this incident is almost twenty years before More becomes chancellor and lots of other events and actions contributed to his rise.]

The second half deals with his life in court, his refusal of the Oath of Supremacy (never named or detailed in the play), and his eventual execution. Throughout both halves, his jovial nature, both in personal affairs and as a lawyer/political figure, is demonstrated by many witty little scenes. If A Man for All Seasons is the straight-laced drama of More's life and death, this is much more like a comedy. Not that the play makes fun of More, but it presents his penchant for jests, for being witty in both the smart and the funny senses of the term.

The play is a little uneven in that it moves from episode to episode in More's life without a strong sense of connection between the scenes. Various court room scenes tell us more about More's character but do not point us to his eventual decision and fate. I still found it fascinating reading and would not mind seeing a stage production of this play (which is the proper way to experience a play, after all).

The book also has several appendices with textual analysis of the additions and deletions to the play, a close look at authorship of various parts, and some passages from source materials. I only skimmed through this part since it was very scholarly and not my main interest.


  1. I've never even heard of this play. I'm not a Sir Thomas More---Josephine Tey convinced me that he was an unreliable historian, at the very least. But I would like to see the play you describe.