In the clip below Sir Ian McKellen performs a public address from Shakespeare, Anthony Munday, and Henry Chettle’s collaborative, late 16th century play, Thomas More. While the clip plays, consider the following questions, which we will discuss afterward:
1. What choices does McKellen make to engage his audience with the material?
2. How does McKellen allow the past to comment on the present?
3. What is the relationship between the written manuscript script and McKellen’s performance?
As McKellen explains, there are few performances of Thomas More, and his late 20th century productions is a touchtone. Thomas More is most famous as a manuscript because there is a general consensus among scholars that Shakespeare wrote some of the passages himself. Add the three pages from the Thomas More MS to six signatures and you have the sum total of extant manuscripts that record in Shakespeare’s handwriting. McKellen’s performance of the speech adds to the paleographic description’ questions of authorship, while connecting the speech to contemporary & emotionally charged brutality. More’s speech helps McKellen, and by extension his listeners, feel for and think through a tragic modern event and its possible outcomes.
Compare the lines in print from Sir Thomas More (Add.II.D) to McKellen’s Performance:
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England.
Image that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their back, with their poor luggage
Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silenced by your brawl
And you in ruff of you opinions clothed:
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled–and by this pattern
Not one of you should should live an aged man,
For other ruffians as their fancies wrought
With selfsame hand, self reasons, and self right
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
Before God, that’s as true as the gospel.
Nay, this’ a sound fellow, I tell you. Let’s mark him.
Let me set up before your thoughts, good friends,
One supposition, which if you will mark
You shall perceive how horrible a shape
Your innovation bears. First, ’tis a sin
Which oft th’apostle did forewarn us all
And ’twere no error if I told you all
You were in arms ‘gainst God.
Marry, God forbid us that!
Nay, certainly you are.
For to the King God hath his office lent
Of dread, of justice, power and command,
Hath bid him rule and willed you to obey;
And to add ample majesty to this,
He than not only lent the King but his figure,
His throne and sword, but given him his own name,
Calls him a god on earth. What do you then,
Rising ‘gainst God? What do you to your souls
In doing this? O desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands
That you like revels lift against the peace
Lift up for peace; and you unreverent knees,
Make them your fee. To kneel to be forgiven
Is safer wars than ever you can make,
Whose discipline is riot.