Radically Different Victims

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The Artistic Links between William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More: Radically Different Richards by Charles A. Hallett and Elaine S. Hallett (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

In one of St. Thomas More's Latin epigrams concerning the nature of tyranny, the poet describes the good king as the watchdog who protects the flock under his care from the threat of the wolf. The bad kina on the other hand, is the wolf himself.

It no secret that More's early works demonstrate a concern for kingship and a criticism of tyrants. Moreover, with the five-hundredth anniversary (so far as we can estimate) of More's History of King Richard III upon us, it is no secret that the humanist's artistic criticism of the alleged tyrant had a direct influence on Shakespeare's drama. Yet in The Artistic Links between William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More: Radically Different Richards, Charles A. Hallett and Elaine S. Hallett question the nature of that influence, boldly opposing what they call the "dogmas" of the "More Myth," the assumption that "More virtually does Shakespeare's work for him."

Indeed, ever since scholars such as E. M. W. Tillyard and R. W. Chambers took notice of More's unfinished history embedded within the sixteenth-century Chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, they have acknowledged Shakespeare's indebtedness to it for the structure, characters, and vividness of Richard III. Some such as George M. Logan have suggested that the dramatist merely "took the wit at and caustic irony of More's narrator and transferred them to Richard," recasting "scenes that More had already made highly dramatic." Peter Holland likewise suggests that Shakespeare had seen in More's biography that "Richard's life was history already teetering on the brink of drama."

Whereas Artistic Links in some ways strengthens the connection between the two artists, it argues against a simplistic understanding of More as the mentor who would eventually be surpassed by his genius apprentice, a distortion that does a disservice to both craftsmen. In terms of More, it leads many such as Arthur Noel Kincaid and Alison Hanham to interpret his History retrospectively as a drama. As for Shakespeare, it nullifies the "mind-bending exertions" he willingly underwent in the task of "re-configuring the whole of the History" with a different set of priorities. These priorities, the authors argue, ultimately provide More and Shakespeare with "radically different Richards."

Fundamentally, however, Artistic Links does not argue for different Richards but for different story tellers, "a radically different attitude toward the character's abilities" that lead them to "differing interpretations of the same man." Specifically, the authors propose, "More had the obligations of a historian and Shakespeare had the liberties of a dramatist." More was confined by "his obligation to truth" not only in a historical sense but also in a moral one; he "wanted each incident to serve as a moral exemplum." Shakespeare, on the other hand, was writing "finely crafted scenes ... as showcase pieces of a radically new art form," scenes that "transform narrative into action."

The authors argue that, in his encounter with More's Richard and all the opportunistic theatrics of which the author was explicitly critical, Shakespeare saw a playwright within a play and determined to write not biography but autobiography: Richard III is the protagonist's attempt to defend himself from More's narrator who understood him so well yet censured him so severely. Shakespeare gives his pen to the villain, allowing him to cast a spell over the audience and other players alike until he ultimately overreaches himself in Act 4 after the murder of his nephews, at which point Shakespeare becomes dramatist again and concludes the play and the terralogy alike with a detached, moralizing finish that many critics have found out of place in a drama of this caliber. "Shakespeare arrives," the authors argue, "though by an alternate route, at More's side," although he himself has been transformed as a dramatist, with More's Richard as his tutor. …