Play: Sir Thomas More
Date of Reading: October 25, 2014
The script was mostly the work of playwrights Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle who probably started to piece together the play on Sir Thomas More or Saint Thomas More, depending on whether you speak to a Protestant or Catholic around 1592 which was around the time that Tilney rejected it. Sir Thomas More was a confidant of Henry VIII who served as Lord Chancellor of England enforcing and writing state laws under the king. More retired to private life during Henry’s break with Rome over his first marriage and refused to sign a pledge that would give Henry complete authority over the Church of England. More, a devout Catholic, could not bring himself to sign the document despite the pleads from his family and friends and was executed for this non-compliance.
The play sat unproduced for several years when it was picked up at various times by Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare. Its thought that Shakespeare contributed a scene and monologue along with a couple of other passages in Act 3 around the middle of his career in 1602 making it contemporary with “Twelfth Night”.
The Play Readers:
The Play Reading:
We divided up the some 50 speaking roles between the 8 reading actors with one just reading the role of More because its so large. In fact is on par with Hamlet with the number of spoken lines. The other main characters are the nobleman Surrey and Shrewsbury that appear throughout with characters like Doll Williamson, Lincoln a leader of a riot, Betts, Roper, and Lady More being featured parts. The play is divided into three sections:
1. The opening which consists of the Shakespeare section and features native Londoners rioting against an immigrant population, known historically as “Ill May Day”.
2. More getting promoted to Lord Chancellor due to his pacifying of the riot and rubbing elbows with the court and English higher-ups that feature a play within a play at party thrown by More.
3. His imprisonment and eventual execution for refusing to sign the declaration making Henry VIII, the head of the Church of England and approving of his new marriage to Anne Boelyn.
The script that we had was divided into the usual 5 act structure so it was easy to work through scenes as one would on any other Shakespeare play but found the number of characters to be a bit daunting. The short description of the play’s plot above would indicate that the play is a tragedy but we found that many funny elements to it. A couple of these were included in the commoner characters of Doll Williamson, Clown Betts, Lifter, and the characters of Wit and Inclination of the dumb show. The character of More himself is quite a jokester as he plays 3 pranks in the show, one on a judge, the other on his mentor Erasmus and another on a long haired felon.
In reading the play the first section which includes Acts 1-the middle of Act 3 read much better than the remainder of the show. In this section, the characters of Lincoln and Doll and their associated rioters are pretty drawn out and have voices for an actor to play. When we got to the Shakespeare scene and monologue that speaks of tolerance but in a sarcastic fashion, it stood out quite a bit from the rest of the dialogue. The second section that incudes More’s promotion and the play was enjoyable but it didn’t seem to further the action of the play in the same way that the first section did. The dinner party with the play was interesting in that More asks the players how many actors they have and they respond by saying they have 3 men and one boy but several female parts and More is dumbfounded that one boy would play many roles. So it was a nice meta reference to see how a theater group like Shakespeare would have assigned roles out sort of reminiscent of the mechanicals in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The final section of the play was More’s arrest, imprisonment and death which was perhaps the most unsatisfying of the entire play. The scenes often felt a bit repetitious with family members pleading with More to recant his position and save his life but he remaining steadfast to his principles. This is historically accurate where he keeps a jovial mood and has lovely speeches but didn’t feel very satisfying. Roles for other actors seem to be just supporting More until the end.
Discussion after the Play Reading:
We discussed the highs and low points of the script and this is what we found:
Our assessment, is that the play is definitely worth doing but is in need of serious adaptation. Scholars and actors tend to focus just on the Shakespeare sections and other production notes that I’ve come across tend to favor the first half but ignore the second. Our group echoes this sentiment the first half of the play with the rioters up to More’s promotion can be a play by itself as it feels like a complete section with viable characters. An impression that we had was that it plays like a modern commentary on race relations and setting the show in a modern era would work better.
Its only in the second and third halves where the playwrights were sort of left with more boring material that it gets plodding. Henry VIII is missing entirely from the play which makes sense as the work was produced when his daughter Elizabeth was on the throne and it was already a political hot potato. So removing Henry’s relationship with More and other court figures is what would make the second half more interesting, however, it would then make more sense to keep the show in its historical period. The play within a play of “The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom” whose subject matter is reminiscent of Bottom’s comment about bringing together Love and Reason is a bit of fun comedy with More joining in but ultimately a bit weird. It feels like filler and doesn’t really move the plot along. Also, as mentioned above once the arrest happens it seems like were biding time until the execution.
Some notable personable observations were that those who do die or accept their punishments do so in a very “English” way. Lincoln was a hot head rioter, basically kills himself on the gallows with no issue. More joyfully goes to the chopping block with an “Oh well, those are the breaks”. Also, the fact that Henry VIII is missing from the show is definitely one of the things that hurts it. Those unfamiliar with the relationship between Henry and More would completely lost as to why More, a delightful guy, is arrested and being executed. One of our readers Maggie Lalley had this to say about the general feel of the play; “The reading of Sir Thomas More reaffirmed a major complication that apocrypha plays share: poorly integrated genre changes. I had to work to understand the plot. Like Arden of Faversham, Sir Thomas More switched from comedy to tragedy, to romance, and back to comedy and tragedy again. We were stunned to confront unexpectedly atrocious hangings pretty early on in the script, which were followed by an overly sensual play within a play. More hangings came later, and at that point, not much was at stake for the characters. Despite some of the beautiful language and scenes in Sir Thomas More, the script would need some major cuts and rearranging in order to be performed on stage”.
We found the play to be a very interesting piece of Elizabethan theater both with its connection to Shakespeare and as a collaboration, but due to the collaborative nature the play feels unfinished. The first half of the play feels pretty complete while the second half needs some major work. Like the other “incomplete” apocryphal play of “Double Falsehood”, “Sir Thomas More” needs stuff cut but other material needs to be added in as well. Some of the items that we discussed were bringing in dialogue of historical nature to be spoken by More and other characters such as the proclamation of Henry VIII’s being the head of the church. Also bringing in other characters such as Henry, Queen Katherine and Anny Boleyn to show More’s connection with the court and show why he was executed. Stakes need to be more fleshed out and a more cohesive through line is needed in the second half with perhaps the ending with More in his jail cell being kept intact.