Sir Thomas More, by Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare and others. Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, May 2005.

Chris Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Hopkins, Chris. "Review of Sir Thomas More, by Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare and others". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.2 (September, 2005) 13.1-6 <URL:>.

Directed by Robert Delamire; designed by Simon Highlett, lighting designed by Wayne Dowdeswell; music composed by Ilona Sekacz, sound designed by Mike Compton; fight direction, Terry King; assistant director, Richard Twyman; costume supervisor, Christopher; music director, Michael Trubbs; casting director, John Cannon; company voice work, Jeanette Nelson; production manager, Simon Ash; Stage manager, Paul Sawtell; season consultant, Professor Martin White.
Cast (in order of appearance): Doll Williamson, Williamson’s wife, Michelle Butterfly; De Bard, a Lombard, Kevin Harvey; Cavaler, a Lombard, Mark Springer; Williamson, a carpenter, Barry Aird; Sherwin, a goldsmith, David Hinton; John Lincoln, Ian Drysdale; George Betts, Nigel Betts;  Clown Betts, Fred Ridgeway; Lord Mayor, Ewen Cummings; Suresby, Keith Osborne; Lifter, Peter Bramhill; Smart, Julian Stolzenberg; Recorder, Jon Foster; the Earl of Shrewsbury; Tim Treloar; the Earl of Surrey, Michael Jenn; Sir Thomas Palmer. James Hayes; Sir Roger Cholmley, Geoffrey Freshwater; Harry, a prentice, Jon Foster; Robin, a prentice, Julian Stolzenberg; Kit, a prentice, Peter Bramhill; Sir John Munday, Keith Osborn; A Sheriff of London, Jon Foster, Crofts, a King’s Messenger, Kevin Harvey; Randall, More’s servant, Nigel Betts; Morris, James Hayes; Jack Faulkner, David Hinton; Erasmus, Geoffrey Freshwater; Master Roper, Julian  Stolzenberg; Lady More, Teresa Banham; Lady Roper, Vinette Robinson; More’s second daughter, Miranda Colchester; Lady Mayoress, Evelyn Duah, Player (Prologue), Fred Ridgeway, Inclination, Geoffrey Freshwater, Wit, Nigel Betts; Lady Vanity, Peter Bramhill; Luggins, Ian Drysdale; John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Keith Osborn; Clerk of the Council; Jon Foster; Catesby, Jon Foster; Gough, Kevin Harvey; Downes, Peter Bramhill; Poor Woman, Michelle Butterly; Gentleman Porter of the Tower, James Hayes; Lieutenant of the Tower, mark Springer; Ned, Ian Drysdale; Robin, Fred Ridgeway; Rafe, Peter Bramhill; Giles, Ewen Cummins; Hangman, Fred Ridgeway; Messengers, David Hinton, Mark Springer, Jon Foster, Kevin Harvey.

Musicians: Ian Davidson, Ian Watson, Michael Tubbs.
  1. As the Revels edition starts by telling us, the first mention of the manuscript of Sir Thomas More is in the diary of the Oxford antiquarian, Thomas Hearne, who writes on 17th January 1728 that:
    Mr. Murray lent me a thin folio Paper MS. . . . on which it is intitled, The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore. . .  It is wrote in the nature of a Play or Interlude. Soon after his death, I believe. Tho’ it appears from thence plainly, what a great, wise, good and charitable man Sir Thomas More was, yet there is no particular of History in it, but what we know already. It is the original, being in many places strangely scored & in others so altered that ‘tis hard to make some things out.[1]
    For audiences of this rare production of the play, it is likely to be quite the opposite case: though probably aware of More as great, wise and good in general terms, they will probably see many particulars of Sir Thomas More presented here which are not at all familiar, and, in a less literal sense than Hearne intended, may indeed find some aspects of the narrative and mood of the play hard to make out. The kind of ‘Play or interlude’ they are watching may also be puzzling, for while they may be expecting something like a Shakespearian history play, what they get is a narrative in which the King is offstage throughout (and brought into things as little as possible, given the final events of More’s life) and there is a focus on London’s citizens, rather than on the leaders of the nation. Thus the population of the play ranges from cutpurses, to more honest but troubled and troubling citizens, and thence up to sheriffs, justices, knights, the Lord Mayor of London and finally to the Bishop of Rochester and the Earls of Surrey and Shrewsbury as representatives of the higher echelons of Church and State.

  2. The Revels introduction argues that most modern audiences / readers are liable to compare the play unfavourably with Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960) or with the film version of the play directed by Fred Zinneman (1966). One of the purposes of the Revels edition is:
    to show that when the play in its final version is approached not as a literary curio but as the result of the collective efforts of some of the most gifted practitioners in the greatest age of the English theatre, More can hold its own. (p.34)

    Certainly, this production does its best to make the play work in its own right and in its own manner, and the More we see is not exactly the sophisticated, witty scholar and martyr of Bolt’s play, and certainly not very evidently the King’s friend, but a citizen who rises in difficult times to eminence through his broad humour and understanding of the people, as well as of their rulers.

  3. The action takes place largely in a run-down, nineteen-forties cinema, with its grimy plush seats facing the Swan audience’s rows of stripped pine, and otherwise in an unidentifiable and dark area representing the city streets. Indeed, the whole production is dark in terms of both light levels and the sombre browns and greys of the costuming and set. The cinema set has a projection booth in its rear wall, from which a projector shines out a narrow beam of light into the general gloom. Perhaps this implies that what we are to see is a popular biopic, the story of how an ordinary man emerges as the people’s hero (for this production the play is noticeably titled simply Thomas More, rather than Sir Thomas More). The cast (very large, despite intensive doubling) admirably gives a sense of the capital’s varied population.

  4. The play opens with considerable confusion as first two musicians, playing fiddle and piano-accordion, and then a crowd of undifferentiated characters drift into the dark cinema. Once this onstage audience is established facing the off-stage audience, the first two individuals emerge from the crowd onto the dark front stage, as De Bard violently drags Doll Williamson across the stage. De Bard and Cavaler are played by black actors (Kevin Harvey and Mark Springer), so that the popular resentment against the ‘strangers’ of the first scene has a palpably uncomfortable edge for a contemporary audience. This edge is sharpened further by the ordinary people’s familiar willingness in the play to believe that government supports the rights of ‘aliens’ above native citizens: ‘I am ashamed’, says Doll, playing on patriotism and fear of loss of manhood, ‘that Freeborn Englishmen, having beaten strangers within their own bounds, should thus be braved and abused by them at home’ (1.1).

  5. From this street scene in which popular resentment is stirred into speech, we return to the cinema auditorium where Justices, Sheriffs and the Lord Mayor are assembled. Here we see not the expected consideration of the people’s wrongs which have been aired in the Spital sermons at Lincoln’s behest, but a Sessions Court to try the cutpurse Lifter. More, in his role as sheriff, makes his first appearance, and both gets Lifter off the death penalty and teaches the over-confident Justice Suresby a lesson. Nigel Cooke plays More as someone who lives on his wits, quickly seeing opportunities and instantly improvising a script to play each scene the way he wishes, bringing common sense and compromise to bear. Here, More deflates Suresby’s pompous certainty that the victim of the theft is as much to blame as the thief by showing, with the help of Lifter’s professional skills, that even a Justice can have their purse lifted. Similar abilities allow him to triumph in the scene for which his behaviour at the Sessions has prepared us: his calming of the riot against the Lombards. The Lord Mayor, earls and knights are visibly panicking and preparing for battle as the rioters run through the streets with flaming torches, and gratefully receive More’s suggestion that he speak to the crowd. More’s view that the people are misled by a discourse which they have seized upon rather than really understood seems very much relevant to the way the plays works, with its interest in a political world where confusion and improvisation reign:
    Lets to these simple men, for many sweat
    Under this act that knows not the law’s debt
    Which hangs upon their lives. For silly men
    Plod on they know not how, like a fool’s pen
    That ending shows not any sentence writ,
    Linked but to common reason or slightest wit[.]
    Cooke’s performance of the next scene, in which More plays on the very sense of common justice that the protesters have used to inflame themselves, showed how powerful this excellent speech (by Hand D, Shakespeare, of course) can be for both on-stage crowd and off-stage audience:
    Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
    Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage
    Plodding to th’ ports and coasts for transportation,
    And that you sit as kings in your desires,
    Authority quite silenced 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 the pattern
    Not one of you should live an aged man,
    For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
    With selfsame hand, self reasons and self right
    Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
    Would feed on one another. 
  6. When knighted and made  Privy Councillor in one go, as a reward for his intervention, Cooke’s More seems genuinely surprised but utterly delighted with his good fortune. Nevertheless, at the opening of Act III, he reminds himself with some (in the original sense) sententious lines that to fall is a common as to rise, recalling perhaps the chance death of Lincoln and the chance reprieve for the other rioters which has just occurred:
    And let this be thy maxim: to be great
    Is, when the thread of hazard is once spun,
    A bottom greatly wound up, greatly undone
    Moving on without pause from the casual, brutal and moving hanging of Lincoln, the production catches the play’s change of tone; the following scenes where More is at the height of his powers show him in high spirits, playing jokes and acting impromptu in an interlude (a particular highlight of the performance). The humour here shifts between broader and more sophisticated modes, with the intertwined (as it were) scenes of Faulkner’s haircut and the servant-who-imitates-Sir-Thomas-More-so-as-to-fool-Erasmus-of Rotterdam followed by the wittier, meta-theatrical jokes of the interlude of The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom. Just as Lincoln’s hanging is followed swiftly by More’s jokes, so the jokes segue into the King’s apparently low- key off-stage request that all subscribe to ‘these articles enclosed’(4.I.70). The production showed the witty and determined martyr More approach his fate bravely, but the last scenes of Act IV and the four scenes of Act V did sometimes seem to be labouring the point.

  7. Overall, this was an excellent, well thought-through production which took the play very seriously, and did its utmost to make sense of its shifts from one genre to another. The episodic (or anecdotal) structure and the focus on popular genres makes sense in terms of the argument presented in the programme notes by Ann Pasternak Slater that the play is
    Based on a resilient popular tradition . . .[in which] More is seen as the champion of the city’s mercantile and working class, not the nobility . . . The play celebrates the ‘merry madcap More’ of folk tradition. In most of its dramatised anecdotes More turns the tables against complacent authority.
    Whether those shifts make any deep sense of More’s psychology and career in terms which a modern audience can follow is another question (the play is clearly haunted by all the things which it cannot approach openly, as well as by perhaps inappropriately Shakespearian expectations and by Robert Bolt’s More). However, this was rare chance to see a historically fascinating play which has only been performed professionally once or so a decade in the twentieth century, and the seriousness and flexibility of both direction and acting was impressive, with Nigel Cooke’s More deserving particular praise for his impression of spontaneous adaptation to the production’s rapid sequence of situations: court case, riot, promotion, practical joke, interlude, fall, resistance to authority, imprisonment,  and political murder.


[1] Cited in Sir Thomas More, by Anthony Munday and others, ed. Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori (Manchester: MUP, 1990): 1. All subsequent quotations from the play are from this edition.


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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).