William Shakespeare (1564–1616), long considered the greatest of the English writers, left few traces of his handwriting. Because of this, Shakespeare’s possible contribution to the handwritten manuscript of the play Sir Thomas More has been hotly debated over the centuries since it was written in 1595. Believed to have been scripted and revised by five different playwrights, the play was heavily censored and even banned when it was released and is believed to have never been performed during its time. However, in later years the scene depicting More quieting a riot has become quite notable for its possible connection to Shakespeare, leading to a resurgence of interest in the collaborative Elizabethan play.
Sir Thomas More tells the story of the life and death of More, a Catholic martyr. Originally only credited to Anthony Munday, the discovery of the original manuscript in the 1700s has led handwriting scholars to note the contribution of at least five distinct authors. With no other significant pieces of writing in Shakespeare’s own hand left behind, the process of connecting the great playwright to the work has been arduous and contested, at best. Evidence such as Shakespeare’s characteristic choices of spelling, turns of phrase and other stylistic elements has been studied and today it is generally accepted that the three pages written by “Hand D” did indeed come from Shakespeare himself.
In today’s geopolitical landscape it is especially interesting to note the contents of Shakespeare’s contribution, in which he mounts a passionate defence of refugees and displaced people. The first known performance of the play was in 1964 at the Nottingham Playhouse with the part of Thomas More originated by none other than Sir Ian McKellen.
Despite the persistence of some dissenters, the play has been recognized as part of the Shakespearean canon since the mid-twentieth century and was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005 with the actor Nigel Cooke playing the role of More. We are thrilled to be able to present this legendary dramatic piece, in the hand of one of the greatest writers of all time, as part of our Embellished Manuscripts Collection.