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: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aiguille-du-Midi-summer.jpg

 

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.

Early Modern Strangers, April 3

Early Modern Strangers poster final

On April 3, 7:30 pm, at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center (620 Greensboro Ave, Tuscaloosa), Improbable Fictions will stage a selection of readings around the theme of strangers. Pre-show music begins at 7:00 pm. As always, IF events are free and open to the public.

Our inspiration piece for this event is Shakespeare’s monologue about immigration and empathy from the many-authored play Sir Thomas More. The play has gained a lot of attention in recent years, thanks in part to Sir Ian Mckellen, and we wanted to place this powerful passage in its early modern context, staging it alongside excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, The Tempest, and Titus Andronicus, as well as selections from medieval folklore, Mandeville,  and Brecht. Our hope is to start a conversation about what it means to be treated as a stranger in a strange land both then and now, and UA’s own Dr. Cordelia Ross will kick off a post-show Q&A with some thoughts from her own research on the subject.

We’re still gathering together readers for this event, so if you’re interested in taking part in an IF production, shoot me an email at nrhelms@ua.edu, or reach out to me on Twitter @nrhelms.

As always, IF productions are sponsored by the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, part of The University of Alabama Dept. of English.