Fancy's Images: Contexts, Settings, and Perspectives in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

By Charles R. Forker | Go to book overview

4 Wit, Wisdom, and Theatricality in The Book of Sir Thomas More

I

Ever since Richard Simpson suggested over a century ago that two scenes of the manuscript play Sir Thomas More (c. 1596-1600) are in Shakespeare's handwriting, the twin issues of the play's authorship and date have aroused the interest, and occasionally the spleen, of numerous scholars. 1 Paleographers, textual specialists, and theatre historians have tried for years to pluck out the heart of the play's authorial mystery, while, for the most part, literary critics, perhaps suspicious of the artistic integrity of an "unfinished" manuscript play that bears the marks of seven different hands, 2 have tended to avoid discussion of its merits. The neglect is unfortunate, for not only does Sir Thomas More contain some of the best verse (even excluding those passages ascribed to Shakespeare) in all the plays of its biographical type,3 it also possesses, despite its apparently garbled state and multiple authorship, a coherence of design uncommon among such plays. 4

Scott McMillin, one of the few scholars to approach the work from an aesthetictheatrical point of view, makes this point persuasively. 5 He notices that the manuscript of the play reflects a carefully wrought dramaturgy built around a pattern of "visual repetitions" and "visual contrasts" ( "Theatrical View," pp. 22-23). The drama presents a series of "interior scenes," all set indoors, which by their simple "contrast in stage furnishings give a visual delineation to the de casibus theme of the play" (p. 22). McMillin explains: "The objects [of scenery] change in accordance with More's disgrace.... More's achievement in the play is entirely personal, a retaining of spiritual integrity in the condition of public disgrace, and as the interior scenes increase the sense of withdrawal in the action, they also give visual unity to the dramatization of More's personal consistency in the face of outward change" (p. 22). In addition to these "interior scenes," however, the play also includes two major "public" episodes that likewise invite similar comparison and contrast. McMillin suggests convincingly that the very place at which More ascends the scaffold to meet his death in act V is the same stage space as

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Originally written in collaboration with Joseph Candido and reprinted here (in revised form) with his permission.

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