Sir Thomas More – Introduction

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Sir Thomas More is a curiosity among Elizabethan/Stuart plays for several reasons.  For one thing, it is one of the handful plays to have survived in manuscript form.  But it is unique even among these few plays.

No less than six varieties of handwriting have been detected.  They are referred to as Hands S, A, B, C, D, and E.  Scholars have long debated the exact identity of the six hands, but the usual consensus is the following (in the text colors used on this web version of the text}:

Hand S:  Anthony Munday.  This is almost a certainty, as one of the others of the few surviving manuscripts, a play entitled John a Kent and John a Cumber, is known to be his.

Hand A:  Henry Chettle.

Hand B:  Thomas Heywood

Hand C:  Unknown.  Assumed to be an anonymous theatre scribe, as his hand can be seen in other surviving papers.

Hand D:  William Shakespeare.  Not surprisingly, the three pages in Hand D have been among the most hotly debated among scholars, for if it is indeed Shakespeare’s, it is the only surviving sample of his handwriting, aside from a few signatures.

Hand E:  Thomas Dekker.  This consists of a single page at the end of Act Three, scene one, and is the reason I’ve treated this play on the Dekker website.

In addition, there is a seventh hand to be found in the margins of the manuscript, that of Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels (doing the job that today we would call a censor).  He made a few comments as to what could not be included, especially on the first page on which he directs the players not to include the insurrection scenes “at your own perils.”  At various places he indicated passages to be cut, which I have indicated.  In one scene he even orders that the word “strangers,” meaning foreigners be changed to “Lollards,” changing the reason for the May Day riots completely!

What is the story behind this manuscript?  There is no indication that the play was ever performed in its age (there have been a few modern performances).  It has been greatly edited; the original being that composed by Hand S, and the other hands are found in the “additions.”  Previous to 1911, a few attempts had been made to edit the play from the decomposing manuscript but all met with limited success.  It was in 1911 that the definitive edition, painstakingly prepared by W. W. Greg for the Malone Society Reprints, appeared, and it has become the model for all future editions (including this online edition, as I referred to it constantly).

Probable order of composition

The exact story on how all of the “hands” became involved, and why, has been as hotly debated as the identity of the hands themselves.  There have been several theories advanced.  What follows, is what I feel is the most probably theory.

  1. Hand S (Munday) wrote the original play at some point in the early 1590’s.  He was with the Lord Strange’s Men at the time, and the play was most probably to be one of their own.
  2. The play was submitted to the Master of the Revels (Tilney) as was the fate of all plays of the period.  Tilney ordered several changes and cuts be made, in particular the elimination of the “Ill May Day” insurrection scenes, most likely because the country was in such a state about foreigners moving to England that a real life insurrection was a distinct possibility and Tilney would therefore outlaw such depictions on the stage.
  3. Hand D (Shakespeare, at the time also a member of Strange’s Men), apparently not knowing of Tilney’s directive, expanded the crowd portion of the May Day insurrection.  There are those who believe that Shakespeare’s contribution actually happened a few years later, after the possibility of insurrection had died down.
  4. Without the insurrection scenes, the play was considered unsuitable, and was abandoned.  Over the next ten years, Strange’s men broke up, it’s members splitting into the Admiral’s Men, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (with Shakespeare in the latter).  The abandoned play remained the property of the Admiral’s Men.
  5. An attempt was made to revive the play in the early 1600’s by the Admiral’s Men.  At this time, Hand A (Chettle) made his contribution, which is a new version of part of Act 4, Scene 4, showing More with his family as he awaits execution.
  6. Hand B (Heywood) then made his contribution.  Most of his work is in the insurrection scenes and is primarily to introduce a Clown role, who is created out of the role of Ralph Betts, who was originally mute. He also worked on a portion of the “play within the play” in Act 3, Scene 1.
  7. Hand C (anonymous theatre scribe) worked on the manuscript, principally to flesh out some scenes, and contribution much of the “long-haired ruffian” (Falkner) and Erasmus portions of Act 3, Scene 1.  His work is seen in other portions of the play as well.  (It is interesting to speculate about what Hand C’s source was; if he was truly a theatre scribe, then who did write the scenes he transcribed?  Some experts have detected Shakespeare’s style in the soliloquy that opens Act 3. Scene 1, suggesting that some more pages, now lost, still existed from the earlier version, since Shakespeare was not with the Admiral’s Men at this later date).
  8. Hand E (Dekker) was brought in to lengthen III, i.  The suggested reason for this is that the actor who played Erasmus needed more time to change costumes in order to play either the Lord Mayor or one of the players in the following scene.

This then is the possible series of events that led to the manuscript as it now exists.  Flash forward to the year 1844, and we find an edition of the play prepared by Alexander Dyce.  Today, this edition is considered very inferior, but it is invaluable if only for being the sole source of a few lines in various parts of the play that had been printed at the upper or lower edges of the pages which have deteriorated in the years since.

Then came W. W. Greg’s 1911 edition already mentioned.  Greg makes no attempt to put the scenes into a coherent sequence; he merely creates a printed version of the existing pages in the order they have been passed down to us, that is, Hand S’s original manuscript, with the additions at the end. Later editors, working from Greg’s edition, have completed the work, arranging the play into a coherent whole (with some discarded portions).

The play itself is a mix of comedy and history, and what history is there is not entirely reliable.  The first major incident in the play is the Ill May Day riots, which we see being quelled by a speech to the commoners from More.  History, however, tells us that More’s role was marginal at best.

We then proceed to the incident added by Hand C of Falkner, the long-haired ruffian, and the visit by Erasmus.  This has no counterpart inhistory; it merely becomes an amusing interlude.  This is also true of the following segment, in which More plays host to the Lord Mayor and his party, and becomes a part of the entertainment presented by the players.

The final portion of the play returns us to history.  But we are not told the full story.  All we are told is that More refuses to put his signature on “certain articles” sent him by the king.  This would, of course, refer to the act recognizing Henry VIII as the head of the Church of England.  The playwright could not describe the true nature of the “articles” as that would be an act of treason, since the child born of Henry’s second marriage currently occupied the throne.

The play is sometimes revived in modern times.  Ian McKellan has played More on at least two occasions.

A Note on my Treatment of the Text.  Since this play is “special” in the annals of Elizabethan drama, I decided that a simple text version was not enough.

The reader may be interested in knowing what portions of the text were written by the various “hands.”  I have used the color coding indicated above in my description of the different hands involved.

Tilney’s notes I have included as well, in red.  I have inserted them into the text rather than in the margins where they were originally placed.

Since some portions of the manuscript have deteriorated, particularly at the tops and bottoms of the pages, some words are not legible.  A few people over the years have made speculation as to what the missing words are.  The Revels edition of the play, edited by Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchori, supplies some of the variations that have been proposed.  In this online edition, I have indicated what these passages are by inserting the disputed words into braces {like this} and I’ve used whichever variation given in the Revel’s edition appealed the most to me, although I have not indicated the original source.  For the record, the editors who have proposed them are A. C. Hopkinson, (in a 1902 edition), John Shirley, (for a 1939 stage revival in Canterbury), and Harold Jenkins (a 1953 edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works edited by C. J. Sisson).

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