Sir Thomas More (play)

"Sir Thomas More" is an Elizabethan play by Anthony Munday and others that depicts the life of Thomas More. It survives only in a single manuscript, now owned by the British Library. Its main claim to fame is that three pages of it may have been written in William Shakespeare's hand, but the manuscript is also important for what it reveals about censorship of Elizabethan drama.

The Shakespearean appearance of the additions to the play was first noted in 1871-2, by Richard Simpson, a prominent Shakespeare scholar of that era, and by James Spedding, editor of the works of Sir Francis Bacon. In 1916, the paleographer Sir Edward Maunde Thompson judged the addition in Hand D to be in Shakespeare's handwriting. The case was strengthened in 1923, with the publication of "Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More", by a quintet of major scholars; they analyzed the play from multiple perspectives, all of which led to the same affirmative conclusion. [See References.] Although doubters remain, the play was performed with Shakespeare's name included amongst the authors by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005 and is included in the 2007 second edition of The Oxford Shakespeare's complete works.

The manuscript

Now MS. Harley 7368 in the collection of the British Museum, the manuscript's provenance can be traced back to 1728, when it belonged to a Londoner named John Murray. It then passed into the collection of Edward Harley, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, and then to the British Museum with the rest of his manuscript collection in 1753.

In poor condition at present, the manuscript in its original form probably consisted of 16 leaves, and 31 handwritten pages of a fair copy of the play in its first incarnation, with the last page blank. Two or three of the original leaves have been torn out, and seven leaves and two smaller pieces of paper have been inserted.

The revised manuscript in its extant form consists of the following contents (ignoring folios 1 and 2, the wrapper of the manuscript proper).
1) Folios 3-5, Hand S: the first three scenes of the play, through page 5a; censored by Edmund Tylney, the Master of the Revels, but otherwise intact. On page 5b, all text after the first 16 lines is marked for deletion. (At least one, probably two of the leaves immediately following—the original leaves 6 and 7—are missing.)
2) Folio 6, Addition I, Hand A: a single leaf, written on only one side. The addition is misplaced, and belongs later in the play, with page 19a.
3) Folios 7-9, Addition II: three leaves replacing the excised material on 5b and the original 6 and probable 7. Each of the three leaves is in a different hand.
*Folio 7a, Addition IIa, Hand B: a scene to replace a short deleted scene on 5b.
*Folio 7b, Addition IIb, Hand C: another complete scene, with stage directions leading to its successor.
*Folios 8-9, Addition IIc, Hand D: a three-page scene (page 9b being blank), with about a dozen corrections in Hand C.4) Folios 10-11, Hand S: back to the original manuscript, thought with some insertions on pages 10a and 11a in Hand B.
5) Folio 11c, Addition III, Hand C: the first of the two insertions on smaller pieces of paper, formerly pasted over the bottom of page 11b, and consisting of a single 21-line soliloquy meant to begin the next scene.
6) Folios 12-13, Addition IV, Hands C and E: four pages to replace excised or cancelled material, written mainly in Hand C but with input from Hand E on page 13b.
7) Folio 14a Hand S: the original again, and the whole page cancelled for deletion. Addition IV, directly previous, replaces this material.
8) Folio 14c, Addition V, Hand C: the second of the insertions on smaller sheets of paper, formerly pasted over the bottom of page 14a.
9) Folios 14b and 15, Hand S: the original again.
10) Folio 16, Addition VI, Hand B: the last of the six Additions.
11) Folios 17-22a, Hand S: the conclusion of the play in the original version. On page 19a a long passage is cut, and this is the place where the mislocated Addition I, folio 6, actually belongs. [Bald/Erdman, pp. 148-51; McMillin, "Elizabethan Theatre," pp. 13-33.]

Hand C attempted to provide corrections to the whole, enhancing its coherence; yet some stage directions and speech prefixes are missing, and the stage directions that exist are sometimes incorrect. (In Additions III and IV, More speaks his soliloquy before he enters.)

Given this state, it is perhaps not surprising that scholars, critics, and editors have had harsh words for the text, calling it "chaotic" and "reduced to incoherence." In 1987 Scott McMillin presented a contrarian argument, maintaining that the play could be acted as is; and at least one production of the play has ensued, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005.

The manuscript was first printed and published in 1844, two and a half centuries after it was written, by the Shakespeare Society, edited by Alexander Dyce; and again in 1911 by the Malone Society, edited by W. W. Greg.

The play

"Sir Thomas More" would have been an extraordinary play, apart from the questions involving its revision. It has an unusually high total of 59 speaking parts, including 22 in the first 500 lines of the play; this, plus crowd scenes, would have taxed the ability of any playing company of the time to stage it. The job could only be managed through complex doubling and more-than-doubling of roles by the actors. Out of necessity, the play is structured to allow for this multiple doubling of roles: it is set up in three phases—More's rise; More's Chancellorship; More's fall—with very limited overlap between the thirds. Only three characters, More himself and the Earls of Shrewsbury and Surrey, appear in all three portions; six other characters—Lady More, Palmer, Roper, Sergeant Downes, the Lord Mayor, and a sheriff—appear in two of the three segments.

Part of the need for revisions of the play was clearly due to purely practical concerns of stagecraft, apart from the demands of political censorship. Two of the Additions, III and VI, occur at the beginning and end of the middle third respectively, giving more time for costume changes. Addition III provides a soliloquy by More and a 45-line dialogue between two actors; Addition VI provides a similar breathing-space for the actors to get ready for the play's final phase. [McMillin, "Elizabethan Theatre," pp. 44-9.]

Allowing for a range of uncertainties, it is most likely true that:
1) the original text of "Sir Thomas More" was written ca. 1591-3, with a special focus on 1592-3 when the subject of hostility against "aliens" was topical in London;
2) Edmund Tylney censored the play when it was submitted to him for approval at that time, for this topicality as well as for more general considerations of controlling political expression on the stage;
3) the play was written to be acted by the Lord Strange's Men, the only company of the time that could have mounted such a large and demanding production;
4) the massive lead role of More, 800-plus lines, was designed for Edward Alleyn, the only actor up to that time who is known to have played such large-scale roles;
5) the play was intended to be acted at Philip Henslowe's Rose Theatre, which possessed the special staging requirements (large-capacity second-level platform and special enclosure) called for by the play. [McMillin, "Elizabethan Theatre," pp. 64-73, 113-34.]

After the re-organization of the playing companies in 1594, the manuscript may well have passed into the possession of the Admiral's Men. The effort at revision is difficult to date; many scholars have favored ca. 1596, though a date as late as ca. 1604 is also possible. Much of the point of the revision was to streamline the play, to make it more actable; though even the revised version would have needed a minimum cast of 18—13 adults and five boys. [McMillin, "Elizabethan Theatre," pp. 74-94.]


The manuscript is a complicated text containing many layers of collaborative writing, revision, and censorship. It is believed that it was originally written by playwrights Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. Then, perhaps several years later, the play was heavily revised by another team of playwrights, including Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and, perhaps, William Shakespeare.

The most common identifications for the six hands: [Bald/Erdman, pp. 151 ff.; Evans, p. 1683; McMillin, pp. 82-3, 140-4, etc.]

* HAND S – Anthony Munday, the original manuscript;
* HAND A – Henry Chettle;
* HAND B – Thomas Heywood;
* HAND C – A professional scribe who copied out a large section of the play;
* HAND D – William Shakespeare;
* HAND E – Thomas Dekker.

Munday, Chettle, Dekker, and Heywood wrote for the Admiral's Men during the years before and after 1600, which may strengthen the idea of a connection between the play and that company. Shakespeare, in this context, seems the odd man out. In his study of the play, Scott McMillin entertains the possibility that Shakespeare's contribution might have been part of the original text from the early 1590s, when Shakespeare may have written for the Lord Strange's Men. [McMillin, "Elizabethan Theatre," pp. 135-59.]

The passages in Hand D "are now generally accepted as the work of Shakespeare." [Evans, p. 1683.] However, there is no absolute proof that Hand D is Shakespeare, and the identification remains debatable; John Webster has been suggested as an alternative. If the Shakespearean identification is correct, these three pages represent the only surviving examples of Shakespeare's handwriting, aside from a few signatures on documents. The manuscript, with its numerous corrections, deletions and insertions, enables us to glimpse Shakespeare in the process of composition.

Evidence for Shakespeare's authorship

The evidence for identifying Shakespeare as Hand D is of various types:

* Handwriting similar to the six existing signatures of Shakespeare;
* Spellings characteristic of Shakespeare;
* Stylistic elements similar to Shakespeare's acknowledged works.

The original perceptions of Simpson and Spedding in 1871-2 were based on literary style and content and political outlook, rather than palaeographic and orthographic considerations. Consider one example of what attracted attention to the style of Hand D.

First, from "Sir Thomas More," Addition IIc, 84-7:

:::For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,:::With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,:::Would "shark" on you, and men like ravenous "fishes":::"Would feed on one another."

Next, from "Coriolanus," I,i,184-8:

:::::What's the matter,:::That in these several places of the city:::You cry against the noble Senate, who:::(Under the gods) keep you in awe, which else:::"Would feed on one another?"

Thirdly, "Troilus and Cressida," I,iii,121-4:

:::And appetite, an universal wolf:::(So doubly seconded with will and pwer):::Must make perforce an universal prey,:::"And last eat up himself." [Halliday, "Shakespeare Companion," p. 457.]

Finally, "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," II,i,26-32:

:::"3rd Fisherman:"...Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.:::"1st Fisherman:" Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up:::the little ones. I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly:::as to a "whale": 'a plays and tumbles, driving the poor "fry" before him,:::and at last "devour them all at a mouthful."

Many features like this in the Hand D addition to "Sir Thomas More" first attracted the attention of Shakespeare scholars and readers, and led to more intensive study from a range of specialized perspectives.


The play dramatizes events in More's life, both real and legendary, in an episodic manner unified only by the rise and fall of More's fortunes. It begins with the Ill May Day events of 1517, in which More, as undersheriff of London, quells riots directed at immigrants living in London. (On Tylney's orders, the "foreigners" of the original draft were changed to "Lombards"—presumably because there were few Lombards in London to take offence at the reference.) In these scenes, More is made to express a doctrine of passive submission to civil authority which, while hardly appropriate to his fame, is pure late-Tudor orthodoxy.

The middle scenes of the play depict More as chancellor, and they are a medley of episodes taken from William Roper's biography and Foxe's Book of Martyrs. More is shown embarrassing a self-important judge, playing a practical joke on Erasmus, and encouraging an unkempt servant to cut his hair (Foxe ascribes the last episode to Cromwell.) The only unity in these scenes is that of character: each serves to illustrate More's wit and good sense.

The last group of scenes treats More's decline and death. Unsurprisingly for a play written when a Tudor still reigned, the king who has More executed is treated gingerly: the grounds of their dispute are not mentioned, and no one, including More, voices any direct criticism of the monarch. Instead, his fate is ascribed in the medieval manner to the inevitable turning of Fortune's wheel, and More himself accepts death with stoic resignation. In all, the authors seem to have gone to great lengths to make a play on this subject acceptable to a Tudor monarch; still, one can hardly be surprised that they failed.

Performance history

No recorded performance of "Sir Thomas More" took place until the Nottingham Playhouse staged the piece in 1964, with Ian McKellen playing the title role. [Boyce, Charles, "Shakespeare A to Z", Dell Publishing (1990)] McKellen took over from John Neville on short notice, when the latter had artistic differences with director Frank Dunlop during rehearsals. [ [ Sir Thomas More ] ] The Guardian called McKellen's portrayal "a strikingly interesting performance." The play has been infrequently revived since, although Nigel Cooke played More for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005.



*Bald, R. C. "The Booke of Sir Thomas More" and Its Problems." "Shakespeare Survey" II (1949), pp. 44-65. Reprinted in: David V. Erdman and Ephim G. Fogel, eds., "Evidence for Authorship: Essays on Problems of Attribution," Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1966; pp. 146-75.
* Gabrieli, Vittorio, and Giorgio Melchiori, eds. "Sir Thomas More." Manchester University Press, 1999.
* Evans, G. Blakemore. Introduction to "Sir Thomas More. The Riverside Shakespeare." Herschel Baker, Anne Barton, Frank Kermode, Harry Levin, Hallett Smith, and Marie Edel, eds. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974, 1997.
*Halliday, F. E. "A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964." Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
*McMillin, Scott. "The Elizabethan Theatre and "The Book of Sir Thomas More"." Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1987.
* Pollard, Alfred W., W. W. Greg, Edward Maunde Thompson, John Dover Wilson, and R. W. Chambers. "Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More." Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1923.

ee also

* "A Man for All Seasons" - a modern play about Sir Thomas More

External links

* [ "Sir Thomas More" eText] at Project Gutenberg

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