What's To Like About … (2) Thomas More
(This is the second in a series of blogs where I make a case for the interest of several neglected "apocryphal" plays)
Unlike Thomas Lord Cromwell, The Book of Sir Thomas More requires little pleading. It's a great play, and one of the more widely available of the apocrypha (in the 2nd Oxford Complete Works, the Revels Plays and an RSC performance text from Nick Hern).
What is more often overlooked with this play is how coherent and satisfying a piece it is as a whole. The repeated printing of merely the Hand D extract (the section generally believed to be by Shakespeare) has encouraged the interest in the play for the fragment of Shakespeare it preserves, and it's only really been in the last twenty years or so that scholars and theatremakers have championed the play over its author(s). Here are some of the reasons why:
1) Thomas More himself - one of the largest parts in the extant early modern drama, and a joy for actors. Constantly joking, playacting and philosophising, seen both in public and intimate settings, managing his house and rioting multitudes, and steeling himself for his final inevitable execution, the part requires an actor of tremendous range, charisma and capability.
2) The dramatists' attention to character even in the small parts is quite extraordinary for a chronicle history of this sort. Doll Williamson is one of the liveliest characters I've ever come across, while bit parts such as Falkner, Randall and Lifter are sympathetically drawn. Even the nameless Warders and Woman of V.i are surprisingly fleshed out.
3) The riot scenes of the first two acts are a source of genuine excitement, picking up on similar scenes in 2 Henry VI and Jack Straw that allow rioting citizens to both air their grievances and condemn themselves with their foolishness. Lincoln is a complicated anti-hero, noble at first then succumbing to more base demands, before being allowed a fine gallows speech. The bustle of these scenes is expertly drawn to give More's speech all the more impact.
4) There's some beautiful poetry, particularly in More's reflections on his own rise and fall. The start of Act III ("It is in Heaven that I am thus and thus") is a particular stand out, although obviously the "Shakespeare" speech has attracted most attention.
5) The mid-point set-piece, the playlet of The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom, is not only a great character moment for More and a well-constructed piece of drama, but also provides some fascinating insights into the contingencies of early touring players: Luggins has run to get a beard, one boy actor is down to play three parts, and Wit is required to improvise to match More's interruptions. As a snapshot of the expectations and potential of early modern players, it's extremely revealing.
6) Amazingly, the play works despite effectively lacking an antagonist. As in Cromwell, Henry VIII is kept resolutely offstage, his distance from events this time precluding him from seeing More as we see him, allowing us to (dangerously) invest more in More's position than the official line. The play's more obviously unpleasant characters - particularly the French of the first scene - are deliciously obnoxious, but it is in the silent Downes that the opposing forces of the play find embodiment. Only opening his mouth to announce More's arrest, he's a powerful presence.
7) 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.
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Despite a major RSC revival, the play still hasn't made as much of an impression on the modern stage as it deserves, but as it gets included in more Shakespeare series, no doubt we'll see much more of More. I've seen it once, and it's a thoroughly stageworthy and entertaining piece; and as a piece of literature, it repays repeated readings.