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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

X. Plays of Uncertain Authorship Attributed to Shakespeare

§ 7. Sir Thomas More: its scholarly character and political tone

In every respect, Sir Thomas More is superior to Cromwell. There is nothing to show that this play was ever published in Elizabethan times; but the original manuscript is preserved in the British Museum and was edited by Dyce for the Shakespeare Society in 1844. The sources of the play, indicated by Dyce, are Hall’s Chronicle, and the biographies of More by his son-in-law, William Roper, and his great-grandson, Cresacre More. The dramatist shows considerable skill in the use of his materials, and the plot, though episodic, approaches much nearer to dramatic unity than that of Cramwell, The interest of the play lies chiefly in the masterly and sympathetic portraiture of the great lord chancellor. The idealism, the winning grace and fine sense of humour, the large humanity and the courage under affliction, which we associate with the name of Sir Thomas More, are admirably brought out. The quotations from Seneca and other Latin writers show that the author was a scholar, and the burden of some of More’s speeches reveals a political thinker of no mean calibre. The introduction of the play within the play, together with More’s speeches to the actors and his insertion into their scenes of an extempore speech of his own, is a curious anticipation of Hamlet. But those who attribute portions of the play to Shakespeare base their arguments not upon this, but upon the view that certain scenes are in his handwriting, and that the thought and diction of these scenes is unmistakably Shakespearean. As our knowledge of Shakespeare’s handwriting is limited to five autograph signatures, it is difficult to attach great weight to the theory of Simpson and Spedding that “hand D” in the More MS. is the hand of Shakespeare; and there is also a good deal of difference of opinion among the experts as to how far “hand D” extends. Simpson claimed for it act II, sc. 3 and 4, 1–172; act III, sc. 2 and 3. Subsequent investigators have detached some of these scenes, and the latest opinion—that of G. F. Warner, the keeper of MSS. in the British Museum—is that only act II, sc. 4, 1–172 are in this hand. Since this passage is also that on which the literary claim for Shakespearean authorship mainly rests, a close examination of it is necessary. It tells the story of the insurrection of London citizens against the Lombard merchants settled in their midst, and contains the long and spirited speech with which More quells the riot. The talk of the rioters in the opening lines of the scene resembles, but is inferior to, that of Jack Cade’s followers in Part II of Henry VI (act IV, sc. 2 and 3, and 6–8), and there was more than one dramatist in the last decade of the sixteenth century who, having the Jack Cade episode in mind, might have written these lines. The speech of More which follows is full of vigour, and is of peculiar interest as giving expression to the theory of the divinity of kings, which, in the late Tudor period, had come to be a widely accepted tenet of political faith. “God,” says More,

  • hath not only lent the king his figure,
  • His throne and sword, but giv’n him his own name,
  • Calls him a god on earth. What do you, then,
  • Rising gainst him that God himself installs,
  • But rise gainst God?…
  • It may be said that a similar view as to the divinity of the royal office is put forward by the aged bishop of Carlisle in Richard II; but can it seriously be contended that this was Shakespeare’s own view? A scorner of democracy, he was far from being a believer in the divinity of kings. He treats the theory with mordant irony in Richard II, placing it on the lips of the hapless king and proving its insufficiency by the remorseless logic of subsequent events. In Henry V, he returns to the same theme, and, in words which give forth no uncertain sound, makes his hero declare: “I think the king is but a man as I am … all his senses have but human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.”

    The fact that Sir Thomas More was probably written about the same time as Richard II, and only a few years before Henry V, makes it hard to believe that such varying views as to the nature of the kingly office could have been held by the same man. Nor can escape from the difficulty be found by regarding More’s speech as merely dramatic. It is more than this: it is lyrical in tone and doctrinaire in purpose; and was probably intended to appease the master of the revels, who, when the first draft of the MS. had been submitted to him, had demanded the excision of the whole of the insurrection scene.