Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sir Thomas More

By Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle; with additions and revisions by Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and William Shakespeare; coordinated by 'Hand C'. First published in Britain in 1844 by Alexander Dyce. Review copy from 'The Arden Shakespeare: Third Series', edited by John Jowett.

As you can see from the above, this is not exactly a play by William Shakespeare. Its inclusion in the Arden Shakespeare series will no doubt be somewhat controversial, although I hope not as much as Double Falsehood was. It was never published in Britain around the time it was written, and most likely was never performed either, being censored to death until it was finally abandoned as unworkable. The sole text comes from a manuscript that is slowly falling apart, although the British Library is doing their best to halt that. And honestly, it's a very awkward play to perform, never quite deciding if it's a history or a tragedy, and never quite deciding how it feels about its leading man.

One thing that the majority of Shakespeare scholars agree on in modern times is that Shakespeare DID write one of the revisions of the original text that are attached to the manuscript. A good deal of Scene 6 is in his handwriting, and there are some other bits written by the anonymous 'Hand C' who put it all together that might also be his work. Of course, that still leaves a great deal of the play - the majority of it, in fact. And most of the play is thought to have been written by Anthony Munday, who is... almost as interesting as Shakespeare himself. I'll leave it to curious people to buy the text I'm reviewing to find out more, but I'll note that one of the supposed main texts that Sir Thomas More was taken from would appear to be a manuscript stolen from More's descendants by Munday in an anti-Catholic raid. That's a lot more hardcore than cribbing from Boccaccio.

There's a lot of civil unrest in this play - indeed, that's probably one of the main reasons that it was never performed. The city is seen to be on the verge of riot, with foreigners implied to be the general cause. The play sides with the Londoners against the foreign rabble a bit too much for modern liking, and indeed the censor who went through the manuscript with his metaphorical red pen demand they be made 'Lombards' to make everything a bit less inciting. The main issue with the play, though, is that it dances around the King. King Henry VIII is not in it, and More is asked to sign 'certain articles' which he refuses to do, and is then executed for. These are, of course, the papers that acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the new Queen, but the play never outright states this. It's a bit of a political gaping hole that begs to be filled in (and indeed some modern productions have done so).

You don't see many productions of Sir Thomas More these days. Partly due to the fact that 75% of all audience members will think they're seeing A Man For All Seasons; partly due to the canonicity problem (you never want to see Shakespeare scholars pelting your actors with fruit); but mostly due to a very familiar Shakespearean quality; ambiguity. More is a very hard role to grab a hold of. If you play him too light he comes across as heartless, especially in the later scenes with his wife. Too serious and the whole play gets unbalanced. It's meant to be more of a history than a tragedy, but the tragedy is never far away, what with the play almost divided into two halves, each ending with an execution.

Is it Shakespeare? Well, that depends how much Shakespeare you want. We've already allowed co-written plays such as Pericles, Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen. But this isn't just something that was co-written. It's something that was written entirely by other people and then revised by a committee of writers, one of whom was Shakespeare. I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable performing it as a piece of Shakespeare, but I think I'm OK with reading about it, even if it's such a mess that it's far more fascinating to read about its creation than to read the play itself. Something which, come to think of it, is very Shakespearean.

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