Sunday, July 6, 2008

Thomas More and William Shakespeare

“a man of the most tender and delicate conscience that the world saw since Augustine ”— John Donne
“He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced.”—
Jonathan Swift
“Blessed Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years
time.” — G. K. Chesterton
“the best friend the poor ever had” — Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare et allia
More is a man of an angels wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.” — Robert Whittington in 1520

The sixth of July: Your loving friend, Benedick.

Nay, mock not, mock not. The body of your
discourse is sometime guarded with fragments, and
the guards are but slightly basted on neither: ere
you flout old ends any further, examine your
conscience: and so I leave you.

— William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, I. i.
One joke is particularly puzzling. If Benedick ever does fall in love, laugh his friends, he will sign a letter on "the sixth of July." Benedick is stung. "Mock not, mock not," he reproves, "ere you flout old ends any further, examine your consciences." Like the language of the liturgy, July 6 meant nothing to Protestants at the time, and nothing either to modern textual commentators. But to Elizabethan Catholics it was a highly significant date. It was on July 6 that Henry VIII executed Sir Thomas More, his former chancellor, for refusing to acknowledge the monarch as the supreme head of the church in England. More had become the model for "recusant" English Catholics, ready to face destitution, imprisonment, exile, or death for their religion. The significance of the date was deepened for Catholics when the young Edward VI, Henry VIII's fervently Protestant son, also died on July 6--clearly a judgment on his heretic father. This is why Benedick puts a stop to the banter. His friends have gone too far. Mock not old ends he says--the deaths of Thomas More and Edward are not a laughing matter--and his parting shot "examine your consciences" is a reminder of the case of conscience which drove More to the scaffold. From this moment on, Benedick's behavior--and the hidden identity of Beatrice--would have been of consuming interest to dissident audiences. — Clare Asquith, Shadowplay
Shakespeare does not write nonsense. He always says something, you may not understand it, but he is imparting information, albeit, sometimes, in obscured references. The sixth of July must refer to something! Shakespeare had worked on a play about Thomas More. In his hand survives the lines, that, a censor warned him of consequences. Art was political, and not less so in the elisabethan police state. The poet saints Campion and Southwell were horribly executed, Marlowe was assassinated and others were also silenced. Shakespeare was adept at veiling and surviving. So what in english history, before 1600 would an audience note about that day? Shakespeare came from a family of recusants. The recusants were quite aware of the 6th of July.

A tragedy, Sir Thomas More, was written by a team of playwrights in 1592. One of the group, was our friend from Stratford. The play was not known to have been performed. The censor wrote on the manuscript, “Perform this scene at your peril.” Shakespeare is ‘Hand D’ in the autograph. His contribution includes More, as London sheriff, in quieting the anti-foreign mob*, in the riot of 1517. Thomas More was a dangerous topic in Elisabethan England.

For centuries, english catholics held the 6th of July for Thomas More. When Saint Thomas More was officially canonised by Rome in 1935, his day was shared with Saint John Fisher, whom was also martyred by Henry, on the 22nd of June, the day Fisher was executed. Either day commemorates.

Robert Bolt’s play and the subsequent movie, A Man for All Seasons, paints a marvelous and heroic portrait of More. A man of conscience, a living embodiment of its exemplar, a man whose opinion was necessary to legitimatise government policy. Other such individuals, Fisher, Reynolds, Webster, Hale, Houghton, Middlemore, Exmew, Newdigate, Forest met cruel torments and hideous executions. This is why More is a patron of conscience for the edification and benefit of all who would touch on the law, its advocates, legislators, counselors and statesmen. He would not consent, when refusal meant death. He was a man, whom “No” meant “No”. He would not assent to error mandated by the state.

An interesting note, the bolsheviks, after they seized Russia, had Thomas More’s name inscribed on a monument, in Aleksandrovskij Garden, Moskva. Was it in regard to his Utopia ? or his conscience?
*If one accepts Shakespeare
’s catholic code, the foreign merchants being attacked can be identified with Catholic missionaries, whom were ministering to the faithful.

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