Sir Thomas More (Act 2 Scene 4, by William Shakespeare)

Roughly in the right place for my reading of Shakespeare is this curiosity, a single scene from a play about Sir Thomas More, written in the early 1590s but first published in 1844 (and apparently first performed in 1964, with Ian McKellen in the title role). The play survives only in manuscript, and six different writers are identifiable, of which this scene is the sole contribution of “Hand D”, generally reckoned to be none other than William Shakespeare.

It’s rather good. We are in London in 1517; anti-immigrant riots are about to break out; Thomas More, the sheriff of London, succeeds where his aristocratic superiors fail and quells the mob, shaming them into submission to lawful authority; as a reward, he is knighted and appointed to the Privy Council. More has a particularly good set of speeches; you can go to the link I put at the top of the post, but this extract, telling the crowd that by using unlawful force against the immigrants (“strangers”) they risk destroying the basis for the stability of their own society, gives the flavour (also that it needed a bit more editing):

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got?  I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

The play was heavily censored – there had been more anti-immigrant riots in 1593, so it was perhaps too topical – and the production company eventually dropped it. But by a quirk of fate, the manuscript survived. Good.

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One thought on “Sir Thomas More (Act 2 Scene 4, by William Shakespeare)

  1. The referendum was run over two days, but more crucially the registration process only caught people who wanted to vote, a tricky problem in a nomadic society (which is also why some areas recorded turnout slightly over 100%).

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