Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Sir Thomas More ~ By Just About Every Jacobethan Writer Going.

I went over to Stratford last week to hear John Jowett, one of the Professors at the Shakespeare Institute, talk about his new edition of the Jacobethan play Sir Thomas More.  Jacobethan because in this instance the most recent dating evidence suggests that while it was originally written around 1599 in Elizabeth's reign, it was then completely revised in 1604 after James had come to the throne.

For all sorts of technical reasons (such as there are large chunks of the original version missing!) it is the revised text that John has been working with.  And anyway, it is the revised text that is the really interesting one.  There is evidence in it of the hands (quite literally, the only existing copy is a hand-written manuscript) of at least four playwrights we can identify, plus A N Other whom we cannot, but who is probably not a recognised playwright, who is coyly know as Hand C.  And of course, the truly remarkable fact is that one of those playwrights is William Shakespeare.

Have you worked out what that means?  The manuscript is hand-written.  Shakespeare's scenes are in his own hand.  He touched those very pages.  Which is more than you or I can do, because this treasure of English Literature is stored in the British Library never to be seen by the likes of you or me and even if you're the likes of John, you only get to see a bit of it at a time and you definitely don't get to touch it at all. John likened working with it to being in the presence of a holy relic.  Oh yes!

As far as I can gather the story goes something like this.  The play must have been commissioned by one of the Elizabethan theatre companies.  We don't have any evidence as to which one it was, although there is no reference to it in Henslowe's diaries so it most likely wasn't The Admiral's Men.  It was probably written in the first instance by Anthony Munday, one of those contemporaries of Shakespeare you don't come across very often.  However, like all plays at this time, before it could be played or printed it had to be licensed by The Master of the Revels, the Sixteenth Century equivalent of the modern day censure.

From what evidence we have Sir Edmund Tilney was good at his job.  He doesn't appear to have taken the red pencil to scripts willy-nilly.  He would ask for a couple of lines to be altered rather than cutting whole scenes.  So, there must have been real problems with this text for him to have demanded the wholesale re-write that appears to have taken place.

Leave out the insurrection wholly and the cause thereof, he writes at the beginning of the copy that was sent to him, and begin with Sir Thomas More at the Mayor's sessions, with a report afterwards of his good service done being Sheriff of London upon a mutiny against the Lombards - only a short report, and not otherwise, at your own perils.

Sections of the play were parcelled out to different writers, possibly by Hand C, whoever he may have been.  Those people who are really good at this sort of thing can detect the work of Henry Chettle, Thomas Haywood, Thomas Dekker and, of course, William Shakespeare.  They appear to have worked independently of each other, which causes problems when you try and put the whole thing together, problems that Hand C seems to have tried to eliminate by adding his own occasional links.  The whole thing must have been a nightmare to edit and it would take someone of John's patience and scholarship to come anywhere near a satisfactory text.

His edition has just been published by Arden and I for one am going to put a weekend aside as soon as possible to get really into all the intricacies of the play and its history.  I am also going to try and access the on-line facsimile of the manuscript, although at the moment I'm having difficulty locating it.  I want to see Shakespeare's hand for myself.

Eureka!  I found it, or at least part of it.  You can access a 'pop-up' of one of the pages Shakespeare wrote here

and get access to a facsimile of parts of the manuscript in an edition prepared in 1911 by W W Greg here.  

You can actually download the Greg edition onto your Kindle, but if you do be prepared for the fact that the images of the original manuscript give a whole new meaning to the word illegible!


  1. I've not heard of this play before. What an interesting talk Jowett's must have been and how cool that Shakespeare is one of the contributors to the play. That British Library pop-up is pretty cruddy though. I couldn't see the writing any better than in the little image. They need a viewer with zoom so we can all get a good look!

  2. I read this after reading your Black Friday post and was tickled by the fact that you've dealt with two academic mysteries in a row! I love your posts on academic rsearch - you wirte them with enough deatil to keep us reading but not so much that we have to lock into another brain besides our blog reading one!

    I love the fact that digitisation lets us see something of the original so reasonably easily. Not as good as the original but better than nothing.

    (PS Please excuse my rare apprearances here while travelling. This am we have a little time before catching a train that we can't use for anything else so thought I'd catch up a little.

  3. WG, yes I saw you were on your travels. I'm very jealous and my godson, who spent last year teaching in Tokyo and who loves Japan is even more envious. As you say the digitisation is better than nothing. I was hoping to be able to get access to something rather better, but John tells me that it is only available on a CD that you have to read in the British Library and then only if you are as academically worthy as he is. (He didn't say that last bit. He is a very modest man. But that is actually the case.