March 29, 2011

Sir Thomas More

Book front cover
Sir Thomas More (Arden Shakespeare) (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series)
William Shakespeare
Not rated

It's been a variable couple of years for the Arden Shakespeare. On the plus side, it has brought us stirling editions of The Taming of the Shrew and Double Falsehood (which, regardless of the ongoing debates over attribution, is a fine critical edition). On the downside, we've been given a dull Winter's Tale and an unstructured Merchant of Venice, as well as an updated version of the Sonnets that added almost nothing to the original version. Now, only a year after Double Falsehood, Arden have once more taken a risk (albeit a lesser one), becoming the first Shakespeare series to publish an independent critical edition of Sir Thomas More.

Happily, John Jowett's volume is a masterpiece of scholarship, setting a new benchmark for Arden in editorial standards, accessibility, lively discussion and the integration of textual and staging matters.

A lengthy introduction is particularly strong on the historical and literary sources for the play's conception of More, and the political contexts within which the writers were operating. Significantly, though, Jowett always pulls the sources back to the question of the play as a theatrical creation, concentrating on how themes and ideas present in the sources were selected and re-shaped for dramatic purpose. This is hugely important for the question of Thomas More, a play too often treated in fragmented terms. Jowett's insistence is on the play as a surprisingly cohesive and structurally sophisticated drama.

Context on the identified writers is included (and Jowett sticks to his guns on the identification of Hand B as Thomas Heywood, the clarification of support for which is an important contribution that this edition makes), but the play is not reduced to its relation to particular authorial canons. Instead, it sits at the juncture between a number of genres (including some useful discussion of Cromwell which helpfully sets up my own writing on that play for my thesis rather than gazumping it, thankfully!), debates and company movements.

The section on performance history offers a model of how to use performance to raise important critical questions, rather than using stage history to selectively illustrate moments of interest. Jowett discusses, for example, the relative effects of the RSC 2005-6 production's excision of the Erasmus/Falconer episodes on the play's overall structure, and the questions of doubling as a thematically embedded strategy rather than mere conservation of resources.

The usual issues of an introducion are extended into a series of appendices. While I am usually averse to the growing Arden trend to relegate textual discussion to a separate appendix, for More this is surely the desirable strategy, allowing the play to be discussed as a dramatic artwork in the introduction and as a bibliographic assemblage in its appropriate place. Jowett's "Textual Analysis" (344-94) will surely become the standard reference guide for all future students of the play, summing up issues of chronology, revision and design that are insanely complex in a detailed, rigorous but always clear narrative.

A further long appendix (415-460) discusses authorship and dates. Among his major contributions are a confident redating of the Original Text to c.1600-01, much later than usually suggested. Jowett sums up the authorship question confidently with particular attention to Hand D. He inclines towards the positivist here, giving perhaps too much weight to flawed projects such as Craig/Kinney's volume (ignoring the errors and limitations of Watt's study of Hand D) and not enough to recent critics of the orthodox position such as Jeffrey Masten and Paul Werstine. This is not so much a complaint as a desire to have seen Jowett's fair-minded and judicious approach applied to the detail, particularly of Werstine's argument about the underlying motives of the 1923 Pollard collection. A two page section at the very end raises the questions I deal with in my thesis about "Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More and the Ideology of Authorship" which would have been the ideal place to at least draw more attention to the consequences and implications of the play's addition to the canon, but perhaps this is best reserved for elsewhere.

The text itself is clear and readable, offering the play as a work to be studied and enjoyed. A simple series of annotations, superscriptions and underlinings draws attention to the points in the manuscript where alterations have been made, and for the specialist Jowett provides scrupulous annotations. The physical divisions between the original text and the various editions are marked with lines through the text, above and below which are noted the authors of the text. While I disliked this approach in the Oxford Shakespeare, where it seemed unnecessarily interventionist, here it provides an ideal critical cue to the important shifts between stages of textual survival, and the identification of authors is unobtrusive enough so as not to dictate reading.

I'll be thinking much more about this edition over the next few weeks, but I'm pleased to see that this wonderful play has finally been given the text it deserves. With all respect to Gabrieli and Melchiori's diligent Revels edition, the scope of that series doesn't allow for the kind of depth preserved here. Jowett has outdone himself, and the text reclaims Arden's aspirations to leading standards of textual scholarship.

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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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