Sir Thomas More Synopsis
Period written: 1592-1593
Known first performance: 1964 (Nottingham Playhouse; Ian McKellen as More)
Sir Thomas More is a play with multiple authors that was heavily censored by the Master of the Revels and is believed to have never been performed at the time. One scene and one monologue are believed to have been written by Shakespeare. The one scene – More quieting a riot – is particularly notable as it is the only example of a manuscript by Shakespeare that we have.
The play tells the story of Henry VIII’s chancellor, who fell from favor for failing to arrange a divorce for his master from his first queen, Katherine of Aragon (see Henry VIII) and was later executed for refusing to concede that the king’s authority superseded the pope’s.
Caveler and Barde attempt to ravish Doll, but are sent on their way by a group of angry Londoners; they promise to complain to their ambassador. The citizens resolve to complain to the Mayor and aldermen, and swear that on May Day they shall go out a make it a bad day for foreigners.
In court, More promises to save the life of a pickpocket if he manages to steal the judge’s wallet, as he thinks it would be a fine joke. Lifter does so, and More saves his life.
The Earls of Shrewsbury and Surrey, along with Palmer and Cholmley, discuss the matter of Barde, only to be told that there is rioting in the city and that the Mayor is threatened. They think of More, whom the people like, as someone who might help.
The apprentices riot in earnest, looking forward to cudgeling heads; Doll and Lincoln lead a discussion as to what to do. Hearing that all the Frenchmen have fled, they leave to burn their houses down.
More and the Lord Mayor learn that the rioters are breaking open the prisoners and letting out even dangerous murderers. Shrewsbury, Surrey, Palmer and Cholmley arrive, and they decide to go and speak to the rioters.
The rioters refuse to listen to anyone other than More, shouting down the others as they try to speak. After painting a picture of how wretched the foreigners would be when forced to leave England, with their children on their backs, More asks them what the result of the riot’s success would be. He convinces them that it would mean the end of authority, and mere anarchy; and that the king would therefore be in his right to banish all of them just as they banished the foreigners. The rabble is convinced and promise to cease, so long as More will plead for their pardon with the king. Shrewsbury leaves to tell the king, but soon returns and announces that More has been knighted for his success, and has been called to join the privy council.
The Sherriff is impatiently waiting for a gallows to be erected so he can start hanging the leaders of the riot. Lincoln makes a dying speech and jumps off the ladder of his own accord. Doll begs to be the next to hang, but just as she is about to be, Surrey arrives with news that the rioters have all been pardoned, including Lincoln. The crowd cheer More and the king.
More meditates on how he has come up in the world. He hears that Erasmus has arrived. Faulkner is brought in, accused of having started a brawl; More attempts to convince him to cut his hair, promising that if he does, he’ll only go to jail for a month, instead of three years. Faulkner, who claims he has vowed not to cut his hair, refuses and is taken away.
Erasmus arrives. More has Surrey try to convince Erasmus that Randall is More. Faulkner is brought back in, having accepted to cut his hair, and is set free. He bemoans his fate. More waits for the Lord Mayor to come to dinner, a fact that reconciles him to Erasmus’s departure.
Some players arrive at More’s house, and he plans to have them act for the Lord Mayor and his Lady at dinner. The Mayor and his wife arrive, and soon the play begins; More interjects with comments, and when one of the players cannot be in his scene he begins to act in the play himself until the real actor arrives. He is called away to court before the play can be started again, but sends the actors 8 angels, a substantial sum, in thanks. The actors leave, singing More’s praises.
The royal council debates whether to join in an alliance with the German emperor. More suggests that they do. Palmer arrives with articles from the king that all the councilors must sign; More calls for time to judge with conscience. Rochester refuses to sign and is summoned to explain himself to the king. More asks for more time, and resigns as chancellor in the meantime. He is told to remain in his house at Chelsea. The others all sign.
Lady More tells Roper about a strange dream she had, in which she and More drowned. Roper and his wife admit to each other that they too have had foreboding dreams. More enters in merry spirits, and refuses to let anyone be downcast at his change of fortune. At the Tower, Rochester surrenders himself to prison.
More and his family discuss matters; when his wife begins to harp on being banished the court, he starts to speak Latin to discourage her. More reflects on how he has his family and friends around him, and how all the glories of the world they now lack were only decorations.
Surrey and Shrewsbury arrive, with orders from the king to see that More sign the articles; when he refuses, he is arrested for high treason.
A woman arrives at the Tower hoping to speak to More, to whom she had come for help; he tells her to ask the king. More enters the prison, thanking God that he has a clean conscience.
More’s servants discuss the case, and discover that he has been condemned to death, though he will live as long as the king pleases.
More is informed that he is to die in the morning, but still manages to make jokes. The Lieutenant is astonished to discover that More is not rich, not having been corrupt. More’s family arrives and attempt to convince him to give in, but he will not. He gives them his last advice.
More is brought to the block, chatting and gossiping with his old friends and colleagues, who are all crestfallen. He forgives the hangman and exits with him.