Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Not Shakespeare's Moor, but His More

The role of More, six times the length of the second-biggest part, is one of the largest in the entire repertoire of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. It calls for an actor of great versatility: we see him commanding both a crowd and a council chamber, meditating in soliloquy and taking rapid action, philosophising and philanthropising. He is a prankster, a Christian and a voice of reason, truly the wisest fool in Christendom (though it is disappointing that his encounter with his great fellow philosopher and wit, Erasmus of Rotterdam, comes to so little). If, as seems likely, the Shakespearean intervention in the script was intended for a production by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, then one can see why they wanted to stage the play: it would have been a magnificent showcase for their lead tragedian and Shakespeare’s intimate friend Richard Burbage.

Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen write about Shakespeare's colloboration on a play titled Sir Thomas More:

As a tragedy, Sir Thomas More belongs beside the Chamberlain’s Men’s Thomas Lord Cromwell and Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII as the story of the rise and fall of a royal counsellor in the turbulent time of the English Reformation. More ascends from Sheriff of London to Lord Chancellor, but falls from the king’s favour when he refuses to participate in the process of enacting the break from Rome. It’s a satisfying arc: we get a full ascendancy, a brief period of power and favour, and then a slow descent to the execution. The moments of More’s career chosen to illustrate this movement are well chosen, oscillating between his most public appearances (the May Day riots, his execution) and private ones (his conversation with Erasmus, his defence of his position to his family). In balancing character and plot, the dramatists create a coherent portrait that, ultimately, goes to show the fickleness of favour and the cost of piety. In the closing scenes, we see him preparing for death with dignity and grace. Whereas the usual scenario in such dramas places the condemned man alone in his cell, sometimes in conversation with his keeper, here we also witness More’s farewell to his family. He is seen as a husband and parent, not just a holy man and a politician.

They also discuss a manuscript with Shakespeare's handwriting:

The exact circumstances in which Shakespeare made his contribution to Sir Thomas More will never be known, though scholars now lean strongly to the view that he did so when at the height of his powers in the early 1600s, not in a prior stage of his career, as was once supposed. But, whatever the date and context, an overwhelming body of internal evidence, in the form of unique marks of orthography, spelling, vocabulary and literary technique, attests that the so-called “Hand D” in the manuscript is truly his. This is Shakespeare in the act of composition, writing rapidly, occasionally changing a word or scratching out a line, mining his capacious imagination and minting his incomparable poetic imagery. But it is also Shakespeare the collaborator, building on the work of other dramatists and contributing to a magnificent team effort.

Read the rest here.

From the play, More's farewell to his family:

Be comforted, good wife, to live and love my children;
For with thee leave I all my care of them.—
Son Roper, for my sake that have loved thee well,
And for her virtue's sake, cherish my child.—
Girl, be not proud, but of thy husband's love;
Ever retain thy virtuous modesty;
That modesty is such a comely garment
As it is never out of fashion, sits as fair
upon the meaner woman as the empress;
No stuff that gold can buy is half so rich,
Nor ornament that so becomes a woman.
Live all and love together, and thereby
You give your father a rich obsequy.

And his execution scene--wit writ in prose:

My Lords of Surrey and Shrewsbury, give me your hands. Yet before we….ye see, though it pleaseth the king to raise me thus high, yet I am not proud, for the higher I mount, the better I can see my friends about me. I am now on a far voyage, and this strange wooden horse must bear me thither; yet I perceive by your looks you like my bargain so ill, that there's not one of ye all dare enter with me. Truly, here's a most sweet gallery; [Walking.] I like the air of it better than my garden at Chelsea. By your patience, good people, that have pressed thus into my bedchamber, if you'll not trouble me, I'll take a sound sleep here.

My lord, twere good you'ld publish to the world
Your great offence unto his majesty.
MORE. My lord, I'll bequeath this legacy to the hangman, [Gives him his gown.] and do it instantly. I confess, his majesty hath been ever good to me; and my offence to his highness makes me of a state pleader a stage player (though I am old, and have a bad voice), to act this last scene of my tragedy. I'll send him (for my trespass) a reverend head, somewhat bald; for it is not requisite any head should stand covered to so high majesty: if that content him not, because I think my body will then do me small pleasure, let him but bury it, and take it.

My lord, my lord, hold conference with your soul;
You see, my lord, the time of life is short.
MORE. I see it, my good lord; I dispatched that business the last night. I come hither only to be let blood; my doctor here tells me it is good for the headache.
I beseech thee, my lord, forgive me!
Forgive thee, honest fellow! why?
For your death, my lord.
MORE. O, my death? I had rather it were in thy power to forgive me, for thou hast the sharpest action against me; the law, my honest friend, lies in thy hands now: here's thy fee [His purse.]; and, my good fellow, let my suit be dispatched presently; for tis all one pain, to die a lingering death, and to live in the continual mill of a lawsuit. But I can tell thee, my neck is so short, that, if thou shouldst behead an hundred noblemen like myself, thou wouldst ne'er get credit by it; therefore (look ye, sir), do it handsomely, or, of my word, thou shalt never deal with me hereafter.
I'll take an order for that, my lord.

MORE. One thing more; take heed thou cutst not off my beard: oh, I forgot; execution passed upon that last night, and the body of it lies buried in the Tower.—Stay; ist not possible to make a scape from all this strong guard? it is. There is a thing within me, that will raise And elevate my better part bove sight Of these same weaker eyes; and, Master Shrieves, For all this troop of steel that tends my death, I shall break from you, and fly up to heaven. Let's seek the means for this.

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