This is part of the only surviving play script to contain Shakespeare's handwriting. Three pages of the manuscript, ff. 8r, 8v and 9r, have been identified as Shakespeare’s, based on handwriting, spelling, vocabulary and the images and ideas expressed.
The play is about the life of Sir Thomas More, the Tudor lawyer and polymath who was sentenced to death for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England. The work was initially written by Anthony Munday between 1596 and 1601. The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, whose role included stage censorship, refused to allow Sir Thomas More to be performed, perhaps because he was worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest on the streets of London.
After the Queen’s death in 1603, Shakespeare was brought in to revise the script, along with three other playwrights. Shakespeare’s additions include 147 lines in the middle of the action, in which More is called on to address an anti-immigration riot on the streets of London. He delivers a gripping speech to the aggressive mob, who are baying for so-called ‘strangers’ to be banished:
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas, say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
More relies on human empathy to make his point: if the rioters were suddenly banished to a foreign land, they would become ‘wretched strangers’ too, and equally vulnerable to attack. In the words of critic Jonathan Bate: ‘More asks the on-stage crowd, and by extension the theatre audience, to imagine what it would be like to be an asylum-seeker undergoing forced repatriation.’ Though proving that More’s words were indeed written by Shakespeare is not straightforward, in their keen sympathy for the plight of the alienated and dispossessed they seem to prefigure the insights of great dramas of race such as The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Whoever wrote them had a fine ear for the way rhetoric can sway a crowd – it’s hard not to think of Julius Caesar, too – but also a sharp eye for the troubled relationship between ethnic minorities and majorities.
Tilney’s instructions to the authors can be seen in the margin of f. 3r (the first page shown here):
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.
As well as Shakespeare, there are additions in the hands of Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and an anonymous copyist. There is no evidence that the play was ever performed or published.
Label written by Andrew Dickson and British Library curators