Monday, March 14, 2011

Sir Thomas More (The Arden Shakespeare). Edited by John Jowett.

The Arden Shakespeare’s rattling of the canonical cage continues with this enthralling publication of Sir Thomas More, the collaborative play for which only a few passages have critically been attributed to the bard and because of which, thanks to its extant manuscript at the British Library, we’re apparently able to see Shakespeare’s handwriting. Editor John Jowett offers sound reasoning for the imprint’s inclusion of what was for quite some time considered to be Apocrypha. That thanks to modern textual analysis, consensus seems to be moving towards the idea that sole authorship of most texts was anathema to Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights and that of Pericles nestles comfortably in most complete works why should this play be excluded just because Shakespeare’s contribution was considerably smaller?

As with similar Arden editions of collaborative texts, much of the introduction and appendices dedicate themselves to the business of attributing passages to particular authors and explaining the impact that has on the presentation of the included text. This play is unusual because unlike any of Shakespeare’s other works the only contemporaneous text available is the manuscript, which means that the analysis has as much basis in following the handwriting as the content of the words. Said manuscript is also a bit of a mongrel, comprising of an “original text”, a first version of the play written out for submission to Edmund Tilney the master of revels for approval, the Elizabethan BBFC, and then a series of later revisions and additions by a series of other hands including, the critical corpus generally agrees, Shakespeare.

As well as Shakespeare, the primary authors as best can be determined were chiefly anti-Catholic spy-hunter Anthony Munday plus Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood with addition emendations attributable to Edmund Tilney and the mysterious Hand C, an anonymous playwright who prepared the text for performance, if such a performance took place (no evidence exists but circumstantial evidence within the stage directions indicate they must represent a particular staging environment). Jowett offers biographies of varying complexities for them all and its in these passages that we most understand the world within which such a manuscript could be created with various acting groups competing against one another, manuscripts passed about and edited or amended to suite the needs of production.

The process is analogous the rewrite process most major films are subject to and it’s impossible not to think of Shakespeare in these circumstances as a kind of William Goldman or Emma Thompson figure, brought into punch up an important speech within the play. As the title suggests, Sir Thomas More dramatises the rise and fall of the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII and author of Utopia, the philosophical mediation on society. Shakespeare’s contribution is to a scene in which More persuades a group of apprentices unhappy because foreign workers are taking over their trades from taking violent action, a critical moment in the action of the play and development of More’s character in demonstrating his ability to combine intellectual rigour with an ability to communicate with the masses without patronising them.

In preparing the text, Jowett (who is series editor on Arden's new Early Modern Drama series) has followed the lead of previous editors of the Third Edition in employing extensive punctuation marks, diagrammatic components and multiple fonts to indicate the author of the particular section of text we’re reading with footnotes explaining editorial decisions. It is not complete. Words and lines are missing because they’re illegible in the original manuscript thanks to mistreatment and age and some areas have enough gaps that the action almost becomes incomprehensible. But it’s to Jowett’s credit that though in some cases he’s attempted some educated guesses of a few words (and indicated as such) he has left them blank to demonstrate that this is an organic document that more than any of Shakespeare’s plays needs the eye of a director and the capabilities of actors to make it comprehensible to audiences.

The production and editorial histories of the play are closely intertwined, with the former only really becoming viable when editorial copies of the plays first became available at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1956 BBC Radio presented the play as part of a series called ‘Shakespeare Apocrypha’ with Michael Horden in the title role and in general, despite prominent productions with Sir Ian McKellan, firstly in a 1964 Nottingham Playhouse production and twenty years later for BBC Radio, that’s generally how its been viewed both on stage and in print. There have been serious attempts recently to rehabilitate the play both at the RSC and the Globe however and this brilliant Arden edition will definitely help. It’ll be interesting to see if plays with even fringier claims to canonicity, like Arden of Faversham, will be championed in the future.

Sir Thomas More (The Arden Shakespeare) edited by John Jowett is published by Methuen Drama. £65.00 hardback, £16.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-1904271482. Review copy supplied.

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