There’s a play called Sir Thomas More. It is never performed, despite having bits in it written by Shakespeare. Every Shakespeare play is performed. Even the rubbish ones. Except Sir Thomas More. Sir Thomas More is never performed, ever. Not any more.
Actually, in academia and the theatre world, it is well known how the play spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in its wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in Sir Thomas More, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.
Basically, anyone who has ever seen Sir Thomas More performed has gone insane. (I’m not sure how the actors managed to stage it, but there you go. Perhaps actors are immune for some reason.)
But it’s worse than that. Anyone who has even read the whole thing in its entirety has gone insane.
There are asylums stuffed with academics, Shakespeare scholars, students of Early Modern drama… all slavering and gibbering and banging their heads against their rubber-padded walls, chewing off their own fingers, sitting in their own faeces and happily eating it, because of this play. There are multiple known cases of people slaughtered (usually with screwdrivers for some unfathomable reason) by people who have seen or read Sir Thomas More and immediately gone on wild-eyed killing sprees.
Most people, of course, have only read the Shakespeare bits. Because no other dramatist of his time was any good at all. But even reading a part of this play can drive one partially insane. For instance, there are many who will attempt to claim that Shakespeare’s scenes in the play constitute a message of humanistic tolerance for refugees. In the scene, More attempts to reason with a xenophobic crowd who are hellbent on driving back some asylum seekers. More asks the crowd to imagine themselves in the position of the refugees and… shit I nearly did it myself there. This insanity in insidious. The mere iteration of the intact Shakespearean contribution integrated into the play instantly insinuates itself into my interiority and instigates incipient irrationality which instantiates itself into the imagination and iii iiiiiiii iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii…….
Sorry. I’m back now.
Yeah, as I was saying. Otherwise sensible people will i-i-imagine that Shakespeare is making a humanistic plea for tolerance of strangers, which can then be adopted sentimentally by modern liberals. Actually, what he’s doing is demonstrating the shit ignorance and fuck selfishness of ordinary people, the mob, who need to be lectured on basic Christian morals by Sir Thomas fucking More… who was, in the real world, a religious bigot and fanatic who persecuted and tortured people he disagreed with. But no, to Shakespeare, mindless hate is the province of the poor. The point More makes to the baying crowd of vicious, swinish, hateful and hate-filled Tudor Daily Mail readers is that they, by assembling and protesting and speaking their minds, are themselves doing evil by rebelling against the sacred law and rule of the king. Imagine, he says to them, if the king banished you for your treacherous disobedience – as well he might justly do. Then you’d be in the same position as the refugees. Ah-ha! Gotcha, you oiks!
This isn’t a modern liberal plea for tolerance. This is sanctimonious propaganda for an absolute monarchy based on utter contempt for ordinary working people.
I say this as a fan: STFU Shakespeare.
Just thinking about it makes me mad. But madder still do I get when I think about little snatches of it – which sound terribly humane when consciously and cynically ripped out of context – being embossed on tatty notebooks for sale as part of the Shakespeare industry, all part of the bullshit attempt to sell Shakespeare as sage and saint and precursor of everything that we today egotistically think of as our advanced widsom. Of course, the irony is that, when we flatter ourselves that Shakespeare was just like us because he foresaw so much of our liberal tolerance, we’re actually getting something right for the wrong reasons. We are very much like Shakespeare. We’re still producing drama that reflects the dominant ideology of our age, the ideology of the ruling class, just as he did.
I personally think that most dementias associated with Shakespeare – and there are so many specifically Shakespeare-related forms of mental illness that there really should be more serious psychiatric work done on the subject – stem, fundamentally, from the play Sir Thomas More. It would be easy to blame Shakespeare – the fountainhead of so many psychotic delusions – for adding the insanity to Sir Thomas More via his contribution. I think it’s the other way round. I think Shakespeare is infected with contagious insanity via his association with that play. Even his early plays are retroactively infected with the virus. (This, incidentally, is also the root cause of both anti-Stratfordianism and the Ricardian Society.)
This peculiar effect is key to understanding why and how Sir Thomas More came to be written in the way it was. It is a collaboration between various dramatists. This was extremely unusual for the time. Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle appear to be the main authors but, in addition to Shakespeare, the play was also partially written by Thomas Heywood and Thomas Dekker. Remember that Monty Python sketch about the world’s funniest joke? It killed anyone who heard it? So in order to translate it into German and thus turn it into a weapon usable against the Third Reich, the British Army had to break it up into bits and get it translated in fragments? Even seeing more than one word would land you, screaming and suffocating on your own guffaws, in the field hospital? That’s actually an encoded secret clue – given to us by Terry Jones, who is a direct descendant of Thomas Dekker, probably – about what happened with Sir Thomas More. They tried to write a play about More and it gradually became apparent to them that doing so would drive them insane, so they split the play up into bits and asked different writers to tackle a bit each. Even so, the overall effect was still enough to make them think they could get the play past the Tudor censors. (I believe it came back to them with “Thou hast gotteth to beeth fucking kiddingeth, thou naughty knaves!” scrawled on it in the Master of the Revels’ handwriting.)
Even today, anybody who tries to write anything about Thomas More goes mad. Peter Ackroyd went mad after he wrote a biography of More. (I mean, have you read Thames – Sacred River??? That could only have been written by a mad person.) Even Hilary Mantel went mad simply as a result of including More as a character in the Wolf Hall novels. (Then she went sane again, admittedly.) Robert Bolt went mad too, I expect. I can’t be bothered to look it up and check. But I know that the people who made the movie of A Man For All Seasons went mad. They must’ve done because they later came to think it would be a worthwhile thing to do to remake it with Charlton Heston instead of Paul Scofield.
Also, it’s a shit play.
August 3, 2015 @ 6:40 pm
Actors are already insane, therefore immune. We just have to remember to stick to our superstitions, and we're safe from whatever we're performing.
The audience, on the other hand, is at our mercy.
August 3, 2015 @ 7:49 pm
R. A. Lafferty went mad while writing 'Past Master'…