Notes on *Sir Thomas More*

My classes begin Thursday, and with them my attempts to better infuse my teaching with intersectional thinking. I’ll have thoughts about successful forays and failed experiments as the semester goes along, but today I only have anticipation. As such, I’m taking the opportunity to post some program notes I wrote for a Resurgens Theatre production of Sir Thomas More in April. These are adapted from the epilogue of my book, Cognition, Mindreading, and Shakespeare’s Characters.

(If you need a refresher on Sir Thomas More, check out Sir Ian McKellen’s performance.)

“Scaling the Mountain of Inhumanity”

Augille du Midi, Summer, by Martin Janner
Augille du Midi, Summer, by Martin Janner:


Shakespeare’s “The Strangers’ Case” from Munday and Chettle’s Sir Thomas More illustrates the profound and surprising changes perspective-taking can make to spectators. Sir Thomas More is a collaborative text, originally written by Munday and Chettle, censored by Master of Revels Edmund Tilney, and then revised in pieces by Chettle, Dekker, Heywood, and Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare’s tasks in these revisions was to rewrite scene six, More’s success in quelling the 1517 riots. In this scene, More works from the broad, inferential knowledge he has: this crowd is made up of Londoners who are frightened by foreigners and incapable of ruling their own passions. Pitying their disorder, he concludes, “Alas, poor things! What is it you have got / Although we grant you get the thing you seek?” One of the citizens, Betts, takes the question at face value and answers More: “Marry, the removing of the strangers, which cannot choose but much advantage the poor [working men] of the City.” Betts and the other citizens do not follow More’s analogy between their current riot and a hypothetical destructive past. More underestimates the tenacity and single-mindedness of their self-interest. He thought their fears of a disordered world could balance their fears of strangers. Fortunately, Betts’s response gives More the chance to revise his reading of the citizens and, in turn, to encourage them to take on the perspectives of the strangers.

It would be easy for the citizens to brush off More’s description of the strangers’ plight, instead reveling in the image of a London emptied of foreigners. The bulk of More’s monologue in fact deals with the future the citizens will themselves experience if they exile the strangers. Their actions today will reinforce “insolence and strong hand,” and they themselves will become prey to “other ruffians…With selfsame hand, self reasons, and self right.” The imagery of sharks and “ravenous fishes” instills terror in the crowd, reminding them that their actions have ripple effects in the larger world and that self-interested violence creates a violent world: voicing the imaginative transport of the crowd, the citizen Doll replies, “Before God, that’s as true as the gospel.” There are no divisions of city or country in the future More envisions, only the sea of voracious humanity. More takes on Betts’s desire as a hypothetical and conjures up a future where “self right” rules the day. He reads the citizens’ desire, imagines its fruition, and invites the crowd to imagine that horror.

More continues to anticipate the citizens’ future, predicting that they may be mercifully exiled by the King. He is preparing his hearers for a juxtaposition of perspectives by conjuring up a horrible experience: the exile, wandering from shore to shore, victim of the “barbarous temper” and “hideous violence” of unknown others. More employs the citizens’ xenophobia against them. Since they seem incapable of imagining Europeans as friends to the English, More thrusts their future selves into an exile unmitigated by any hospitality. They will be denied their humanity—“spurn you like dogs”—denied their dignity as living creatures—“as if that God / Owed not nor made not you”—and even denied the comforts of physical bodies, of sunshine or a cool breeze—“nor that the elements / Were not all appropriate to your comforts / But chartered unto them?” More holds a mirror up to the citizens of their future: “What would you think / To be thus used?” Indignant? Victimized? Powerless? More spends the bulk of his lines asking the citizens to read themselves and what they might become, playing on their fears of exclusion and the unknown.

More then reverses his strategy in mid-line, shifting from imagination to inference: “This is the strangers’ case, / And this your mountanish inhumanity.” More does not encourage the citizens to imagine the strangers’ case as he did briefly at the start. Perhaps More judges a forthright call for sympathy to be a losing rhetorical move during a riot. Instead, More reframes the imaginative transport he has just taken the citizens through. “This”—this future, this horror, this feeling of abandonment and injustice—“is the strangers’ case.” More creates a perspective for the citizens to inhabit and then repackages it as an inference that the citizens can apply to others. “This” is what it is like to be an outsider. And “this” is the result of the citizens’ own behavior, their “mountanish inhumanity.”

More effects a conversion upon the rioting Londoners. As one the citizens say, “Faith, ’a says true. Let’s do as we may be done by.” A crowd that scenes earlier was threatening at their own peril to burn down strangers’ houses in London is now affirming the Golden Rule, implicitly recognizing the shared humanity of the strangers. More has changed their minds by engaging them as spectators: reading their present state of mind, guiding them on an imaginative transport, and then applying that transport to their present situation. He helps them craft a new (to them) inferential theory of human thought: if we desire hospitality and fair treatment, others desire those as well, even if those others do not share our class, race, religion, or nationality. If all humans are human, then my experience can be linked to yours. Not equated with, not substituted for, but connected in our shared experience of life.

Brit Lit I: the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries

As the start of the fall semester looms closer, my attention has been drawn away from syllabus construction and blogging and toward a lot of the nitty gritty details of teaching: course schedules, Blackboard shells, writing assignments, and of course scheduling service commitments. In the midst of all that, here’s what I currently have for my Brit Lit I syllabus (you’ll want to scroll down to the “Outline of Topics”:

Illustration credit:

I am not entirely happy with the course readings, though I am excited about a great deal of the new material I’ve been able to include. The middle third of the class, the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, features Elizabeth I, Sidney, Pembroke, Shakespeare, Wroth, Donne, Cavendish, and Milton. I’m also including “The Wider World” topic cluster from the Norton, which features selections of travel writing on Africa, the Arctic, the Americas, and the Ottoman Empire. The last third of the class features Bunyan, Behn, and Equiano, and Norton clusters on “Travel, Trade, and the Expansion of Empire,” “Debating Women: Arguments in Verse,” “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain,” and “Liberty.” The clusters on travel and slavery were only available online in Norton’s Instructor Resources, not in the anthology itself, but I can easily share the pdfs with my students.

I would love to be able to devote more full weeks to minoritized voices in Brit Lit I, as I’m doing with Equiano in our last week of class discussions. (I could certainly grant Cavendish a full week, courtesy of Liza Blake’s excellent online edition.) However, as I’ve mentioned before, the standard canonical anthology doesn’t allow for such an approach. Most of the full-length works in the Norton, for instance, are the soundly canonical ones. I could jettison the use of an anthology altogether, but then I’m tight-rope walking without the safety net of the historical period introductions and the special topics clusters.

For now, I’ll be sticking to the roadmap I’ve laid out above. Things may change drastically for Fall 2020, but that’s the point of these revisions. Decolonizing a syllabus isn’t a one and done affair, it’s an ongoing commitment to challenging social norms. As we move into the fall semester, I’ll continue blogging about my experiences teaching this new (to me) material.

Fall 2019: Twelfth Night and Paradise Regained

Just a quick announcement: this fall, Improbable Fictions will present staged readings of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Milton’s Paradise Regained!

Twelfth Night: Wed, Oct 2, 7:30 pm, in 30 ten Hoor Hall, UA Campus

Paradise Regained: Wed, Oct 16, 7:30 pm, in 30 ten Hoor Hall, UA Campus

As always, IF is sponsored by the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, UA Dept. of English. Stay tuned for further details!


(Sadly, Gustave Dore didn’t illustrate Paradise Regained, just Paradise Lost. You can find more of his work here: )