Sir Thomas More Than We Could Ever Wish

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In the past year, the Arden Shakespeare series added two plays to its canon that extend themselves to the fascinating textual conversation for which the Arden Shakespeare takes responsibility to bring to the fore. These plays, never before included in a major Shakespeare series – Double Falsehood and Sir Thomas More – contribute to the Arden’s goal of clearly presenting all of the evidence surrounding a potentially controversial set of textual or authorial questions. Rather than ignoring those issues, the general editors of Arden have embraced the critical storm, and present those data in luminescent, modern-spelling, critical editions, prepared by the best textual editors in the world. John Jowett’s edition of Sir Thomas More is no exception. In fact, it is a lucid re-construction of as complicated of a textual event as one can imagine.

In his editorial procedures, John Jowett states that “[t]he challenge of editing Sir Thomas More begins in the circumstance that here, in contrast with other Shakespeare plays, the base text is not a printed book but a manuscript. It is a complex document, and the text contained in it is intrinsically multilayered and incomplete.” A challenge for the editor; a challenge for the reader. In the edition we are presented with a playtext decorated by notation and marginalia that indicate which hand wrote any given section (often accompanied by the unavoidable question mark), lacunae, missing leaves, and Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney’s censorship. On the first leaf, Tilney famously notates: “Leave out the insurrection wholly and the cause thereof, 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 by a short report, and not otherwise, at your own perils. E. Tilney”. But, Jowett’s notations are unobtrusive, and aided in my understanding of the complexity of the textual narrative that Harley MS 7368 offers. The play is one of the finest examples that we have of the way in which collaboration, censorship, and revision worked in the period.

Setting aside the questions that surround the play, the revised text as a piece of early Jacobean drama is compelling at worst. The old saying goes, ‘a donkey is nothing but a horse designed by a committee,’ but Sir Thomas More nevertheless might be the exception to this rule insofar as its several authors tell the captivating story of the rise and fall of one of the most influential figures in one of the most turbulent periods in English political history with an effervescent flair.

I have to be a bit shameless because, after all, we are a bookshop! You can have your own edition of the play for £16.99. E-mail us at or call us on 01789 292176, and we’ll ship you your copy anywhere in the world.

  • Barry Harkison

    I thought that the horse designed by a committee turned out to be rather camel-like rather than donkey-like.
    Would it be possible to have the reviews signed by the writer?
    I think that it is probably rather brave of Arden to publish plays which are marginal in relation to the main (more certain) body of Shakespeare’s work. Yes, there are lots of questions “begged” here.

  • Anonymous

    After reading this, I couldn’t help but note that DOUBLE FALSEHOOD is currently playing at the Classical Stage Company in New York, and that it’s opening there at Stratford (under its other title, CARDENIO) next month. Also, both DOUBLE FALSEHOOD and SIR THOMAS MORE figure prominently in a wonderful new novel THE SHAKESPEARE MANUSCRIPT.

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