Some weeks ago I set about to read a play-a-day, in a endeavour to read the entirety of Shakespeare and Others: The Collaborative Plays. I tackled Arden of Faversham, Locrine, Edward III, The Spanish Tragedy and Thomas Lord Cromwell before work took over again and I had to take a breather. But, an extended breather and a few deadlines out of the way, and the best Christmas present ever (yes, I mean a few minutes spare), I’ve found a couple of hours to get back to it and what better way to kick-start the new year than with a few Renaissance plays. So with full steam ahead, albeit a little later than planned, it’s time for play number six (of ten) and this time it’s Sir Thomas More.
The full title reads: THE BOOK OF SIR THOMAS MORE [by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and William Shakespeare]
Now in terms of early modern celebrities, this playbill is jam packed, Shakespeare aside (here’s the bit they think he might have written).
You might know Dekker for his Shoemaker’s Holiday which you can catch at the moment by the RSC or perhaps his hand in The Witch of Edmonton but he had his hands in all kinds of plays of the period sadly it seems he was a bit disorganised and as a result the bulk of his work has been lost, worse still unlike Shakespeare he wasn’t connected to a single company and so there was little demand to retain copies and reproductions of his plays. Those that have survived are for the most part collaborative affairs (Shoemaker aside) but more than just a playwright Dekker was a pamphleteer and he even managed to cash in on his time in prison producing this poetic affair. Quite the jack of all trades.
Heywood, thanks to a brilliant paper at BritGrad this year by Callan Davies will always flash into my mind as the firework playwright, the one with crazy stage directions like the one with the devils in The Silver Age with “fireworks all over the house” and all kinds of special effects. Think of the movie you’ve seen with the craziest special effects, I guarantee Heywood could give it a run for its money. He was decades ahead of his time. He wrote many plays, though is perhaps best known for A Woman Killed With Kindness or perhaps his Age plays. Over at the Shakespeare Institute this summer they did a Heywood marathon and to get a taster of this playwright check out this blog post about him.
To me Munday and Chettle were unknown. A quick Google search tells me I really should known about Munday who wrote well an awful lot of plays, and not only that, he also happened to write about Robin Hood and his merry men (and not just those singing – Disney style – oo-de-lally oo-de-lally golly what a day) and do a spot of translation. A busy guy, and embodying what it meant to be a Renaissance man. Less is known about Chetttle but he did write a play to rival Hamlet – not one to shy away from the big stuff – called The Tragedy of Hoffmann: or a Revenge for a Father. There is some suggestion that Chettle wasn’t a small man, thanks to a line in Dekker’s Knight’s Conjurer where he describes Chettle’s entrance: “in comes Chettle sweating and blowing by reason of his fatness”. But early modern obesity aside, let’s get back to the play in question.
I think the opening stage direction deserves to be quoted in full: “Enter, at one end, John Lincoln, with the Bettses [which I misread as besties, envisaging them arms linked trotting onto the stage – not quite, it turns out this is] [George and Ralph, the Clown] together. At the other end enteres Francis de [Bard and Doll,] a lusty woman, he haling her by the arm” What a brilliant way to open a play!
The opening scene sees a dove sparked debate, someone tries to take Williamson’s wife and his food. How rude! Doll is suitably unimpressed. Women stand up for themselves while weak men look on in panic as immigrants attempt to steal their wives and livelihood. Doll captures this in the line “Hands off, proud stranger or, by him that brought me, if men’s milky hearts dare not strike a stranger, yet women beat them down, ere they bear these abuses” She tells no-one to lay a finger on her and demands Cavaler return the pigeons to her husband. Or else she’ll bring out an army of women ready to revenge (which just reminds me of the empowered women of Lysistrata).
“I am ashamed that freeborn Englishmen, having beaten strangers within their own homes, should thus be braved and abused by them a at home.” It’s just embarrassing that the English have managed to win a war against these foreigners and now they’re coming over here taking our jobs, our women. I hope you’re listening Farage – this sounds like UKIP manifesto material to me.
Lincoln describes them as “aliens and strangers” these pesky immigrants who are taking the bread of fatherless children. This invasion needs to be stopped he entreats: “so must all men see to their willing power for remedy, and not suffer the said aliens in their wealth, and the natural born men of this region to come to confusion.” Veering on BNP territory, this bill is powerful stuff. Doll is impressed.
Switch to the next scene where there’s been a spot of pick-pocketing going on. Since we’re well before Dickens it can’t be Oliver that’s been caught this time but it is a character with a very Dickensian name: Lifter (which means thief). And Suresby’s explanation is brilliant: “Lifter my Lord/One that can lift a purse right cunningly”, just Mr Dodger of later pick-pocketing fame. Amusingly for the following line, the plaintiff is called “Smart” so when Suresby says “Hear me, Smart: thou art a foolish fellow” we all giggle at the wordplay – or perhaps that’s just me.
Suresby says it’s More’s fault for carrying around so much cash and bragging about it, and wishes More had lost um.. more. This play is ripe for, and is of course full of, puns. More and Lifter have other plans and meet privately while the court deliberates. The plan is sneaky, and involves another theft this time Suresby is the target. But don’t worry this is all above the belt (apparently) because More is a Christian and he’ll pardon Lifter. How generous. More will make sure Lifter gets easy access to Suresby as the stage is set for this teamwork theft. Watch out, Lifter. The credit isn’t financial this time (I told you it was loaded with puns).
Lifter milks the moment when the court returns, not answering the question immediately he repeats the opening “there be, sir there be” which of course infuriates Suresby even more. Then he comes out with a classic, the words of which we imagine will come back to haunt Suresby:
There be, sir, diverse very cunning fellows,
That, while you stand and look them in the face
Will have your purse
At this point the audience is giggling as they know what’s coming but of course righteous Suresby is far too oblivious to see who’s looking straight at him. Lifter continues this comic speech to Suresby who is certain Lifter is an “honest knave” – he is of course about as honest as “honest Iago”. I’m certain Lifter shared a wink or two with the audience during this conversation of a man who goes by his name and happens to be far more adept at his profession. In the midst of this comic exchange Lifter slips his hand into the pockets of Suresby and passes his purse onto More. I told you this was sneaky stuff.
And lo and behold just after the sentencing to death of Lifter, Suresby discovers his purse has gone. More turns Suresby’s own argument to him with the line ‘Seven pounds odd money! What were you so mad,/Being a wise man and a magistrate,/To trust your purse with such a liberal a sum?’ This speech is layered with irony, which comes to a head in the lines of Lord Mayor:
Believe me, Master Suresby, this is strange
You, being a man so settled in assurance,
Will fall in that which you condemned in other
The scene ends with a neat little turn of proverbial phrase by More, and he even squeezes in a rhyme: ‘fear nothing of More:/Wisdom still keeps the mean and locks the door.’
The next scene opens with Shrewsbury seeking the advice of Palmer and Surrey (both Lords), he’s concerned about the poor and their discontent, there follows a discussion of wives and their merits (which reminds me of Fagin’s ‘Reviewing the Situation’ song from Oliver!). Surrey isn’t happy with the “saucy aliens” and the upset they cause to the native citizens of the land, with passions high, fights and broils are bound to kick off. Cholmley defends his majesty citing ignorance for his lack of action. Cue a messenger with news of the city in uproar, thanks in part to Dr Beale reading the bill of wrongs (the one we heard about earlier in scene one), and the Mayor is trapped, Surrey suggests More would be the man for the job, to quell the riots of the people and rectify the situation because he’s a man whom the people respect, a good orator, and can probably do a better job than they can (or do they just want to save their own skins?).
Time for act two with begins with apprentices and some sticks, no this isn’t a Renaissance version of huff, puffing and blowing the stick house down (which was my first thought), these sticks were used for fencing, think Hamlet but less poison.
They challenge each other to a fencing match, and then begin to threaten to sharpen their sticks.. It’s all kicking off in this sticky situation. And this scene ends with an ellipsis, the footnote notes that the manuscript of the play is too difficult to decipher the final words of the scene.
The next scene opens with some brilliant metaphors for fighting, as images of roast dinner (very appropriate so soon after Christmas) are employed, featuring lines like ‘we’ll tickle their turnips’ and ‘we’ll baste the roast’ which follows the phrase ‘shall strangers rule the roost’ thus roast of course plays on the roost and the (foreign) birds within it waiting to be basted. I almost wish Henry V, or rather Shakespeare, had employed similar battle cries in his rousing speech, I’m sure there was space for a roasting metaphor or two, Shakespeare could’ve had “stuffen the sinews” ok perhaps not, but what about ‘The birds basted, the game’s afoot:/Follow your noses, and upon this charge/Cry ‘God for Turkey, England, and Saint George!’. Yes perhaps that’s too ridiculous too but what I’m getting at is that the speech in Sir Thomas More is designed to be just as rousing but with a comic twist as here it is the clown not the king of England who is inciting folk into battle against a foreign force. More recently in an episode of Friends Monica says something like “this bird is fat and basted ready to be roasted” or something similar, when referring to an easy victim in a fight and I’d like to think that this expression came right down to us from Renaissance plays, via an American sitcom or two!
Lincoln admittedly gives a more eloquent rousing speech in which he refers to the ‘aliens’ and ‘outlandish’ they are rallying against, we might as well be their slaves given the power they wield in our country he says, fire is suggested (with a great line from Doll in which she suggests that they ought to switch May Day to Midsummers and set down the memory of what they are about to do ‘in flaming letters’) but not so keen on loosing their own houses in the laze too they turn to other options, such as frightening the foreigners until they poo their pants, calling on Mars they set to work off to drag out the strangers into Moorfields.
Meanwhile Williamson has heard news of the Mayors defence, including More, and suggests they make peace or else will surely lose. Doll and George are adamant they will greet the defence with swords in hand, suggesting that Williamson is just scared. Clown returns to announce that the foreigners have fled and are nowhere to be found. Lincoln orders them to set fire to the empty houses as a distraction for the Mayor so that they may escape unnoticed.
Munday has been wounded by one of the apprentices and their cudgel, who are off to join Lincoln and Co. More brings news that the rioters have released prisoners, including Newgate, Lord Mayor requests immediate action, More suggests that many are ignorant of the high price they will pay (i.e. the death penalty) for their actions and suggest ‘breath of gravity, not dangerous blows!’ – i.e. firm words to bring them to their senses, not violent deeds.
Lincoln speaks with the manner of a politician urging those who aren’t too impressed with rising prices of food, and then he has a great line:
Our country is a great eating country, ergo, they eat more in our country than they do in their own.
What cheek, taking even our reputation for being a country of eating away from us! Not only that they bring all their weird foreign food with them, putting us out of jibs and a decent slap up meal and parsnips and pumpkins are the main culprits, their angry discussions are interrupted by the Mayor, a few Lords and More. More urges them to imagine they’d got what they had wanted and where would that get them in society, it would advocate violence and greed, and soon would come a time when they would be overrun but violence because of their greed and the vicious circle would continue, destroying society in its wake, ‘men like ravenous fishes/Would feed on one another’. And the mob begins to listen, he then cites biblical sins and prophecies, suggesting they were fighting against God himself. He banishes them as ‘strangers’ the very same folk who they hasd risen up against, but urging more to pardon them Lincoln asks that he be their new leader. He says they will be granted it if they go first to prison. Shrewsbury is duly impressed with More’s quelling of the riots (perhaps if he’d been around during those London riots a few years ago..) and says:
your breath/Hath ransomed many a subject from sad death
Gravity hit them hard and fast, but blades laid aside, the rioters urge More to stay true to his word as they are led away.
Shrewbury knights More for his act (hence the Sir in the eponymous title of the play) and this is only one instance of the favours yet to come to More, or so claims Shrewsbury. And capturing the spirit of the new year in which this post is being written, are the parting words of More in this scene: ‘new days begets new tides:/Life whirls ’bout fate then to a grave it slides’ (cheery stuff!).
At the opening of the next act the prisoners are marched in, complete with hangman, Lincoln is up first, and in true martyr style utters the lines:
I knew the first, sir, did belong to me:
This the old proverb now complete doth make,
That Lincoln should be hanged for London’s sake
Doll declares he lived and died as a man, and he dies. Doll begs to die next before her husband, a wish she is granted. As she’s speaking to her husband Surrey enters urging them to stop execution proceedings at once. More has begged for the pardoning of all the prisoners and the King has granted it, as well as making More Lord High Chancellor of England, Doll and others all very happy.
More is in awe of his position, since he came from ‘humble bench of birth’, he’s got More than he ever expected. His man, Randall enters and More asks him to play his part. Faulkner is brought in and More demands to know what the problem is, turns out there’s been a broil and the sheriff reckons this an is behind it. Faulkner appeals More’s decision to send him to Newgate, and More begins to question Faulkner and his hair which he hasn’t had cut for three years. This is shameful say’s More and for that you must go to Newgate for 3 years (the hair cutting thing is related o a vow, so it’s not quite so strange as it may appear on a first reading).
Erasmus enters and Randall is playing the part of More, Surrey gives a fine introduction of More, and Randall is quick to defend his feigned identity ‘I am neither more nor less than merry Sir Thomas always’. More enters and they realised they’ve been duped. Highlighting the falseness of ceremony and pomp, and making Erasmus chuckle at the same time. Faulkner re-enters having had a haircut and More lets him go free, Faulkner is not happy he thinks his lost his job thanks to a haircut but Morris says he can keep it and to stop being such a cry-baby, Faulkner puns on his name and the scene ends with his promise to leave (or perhaps die) so as to avoid becoming ‘a hair-monger’ or a ‘whoremonger’.
In the next scene we meet More’s wife (#2) she’s to sort out the women and he’ll deal with the men at the banquet, but first there’s a player who wants to see him. More requests they perform The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom and all seated and awaiting the play there is a kerfuffle as the boy in the players has run off to search for a beard, with some punning on wit (more wit than hair etc.), the players enters and the play begins (with a beardless Wit). As the play continues, More is summoned to court by the King. He has played the players but some of the money has gone walkabouts and he is unimpressed at their taking advantage of his generosity. The scene ends with plenty of punning on More’s name.
Surrey, Shrewsbury, Rochester, Clerk and shortly after More open this scene, the council meets and it seems France is strong once again. Palmer enters with articles from the King. Rochester refuses saying if he does so he would be a hypocrite (I can’t help but think of the oaths sworn at the beginning of Love’s Labour’s Lost at this point). He must now appear before the King to explain himself. More also refuses, and retires to his home in Chelsea. Surrey agrees to sign, and Shrewsbury reckons they can persuade More otherwise.
Next scene and Lady More has been troubled by her dreams (cough Julius Caesar cough), Roper assures her it was only a dream but she’s concerned it might be prophetic. Roper brings in his wife (Lady More’s eldest daughter) who’s also had a funny dream. Roper says what they’re all thinking: ‘Our dreams all meet in one conclusion,/Fatal, I fear’. She shields such things from her younger daughter. More approaches and tells them all the news of his retirement.
Rochester is sent to the tower for his refusal, the scene switches to More’s house in Chelsea, More is fairly sure of what the king will do, but is ready to greet his king in heaven. the second martyr of the play! His wife is worried about their kids but he knows he’s brought them up to be self-sufficient even if they are stripped of everything.
Shrewsbury and Surrey come to speak with More but his wife is on edge. They’ve come from the King to try and force him to sign the articles or else worse punishment than house arrest will follow. He is to go to the tower arrested under the charge of high treason. He agrees to subscribe… to go to the tower, ‘Grave More thus lightly walks to a quick grave’. He is, in all senses ready to die.
Crowds of people are grieving at the news, More was certainly loved by the people so the King’s decision to kill him is controversial to say the least. Let’s hope it doesn’t spark another riot! Servants, poor people, the lot, are saddened at the news.
More spends his last hours discussing urinals (among other things) and remaining merry to the last, he’s glad of the free time unlike when he was in position and had to deal with people at every hour of the day (or at least he’s making the best of the situation). Visited by his family who say there is yet hope, he refuses to submit to the King. and so he bids them goodnight.
Thus with Jesus like sacrifice More goes to meet his fate, decreed not by the people but the king (a sort of crucifixion in reverse). As he says goodbye to Shrewsbury he is ready to ‘act this last scene of [his] tragedy’. More discusses with the hangman how he ought to be hanged, pays him for the privilege and then prepares himself, exiting with the hangman to death, More ‘tends progress to the state of states’. And thus endeath the play.
More (sorry) next time when I tackle The London Prodigal – number seven of the ten plays in the collection.