The Only Surviving Script Written by Shakespeare Is Now Online

Four years ago, when the world com­mem­o­rat­ed the 400th anniver­sary of William Shakespeare’s death, some marked the event with ref­er­ence to a dra­mat­ic work hard­ly anyone’s ever read, and few­er have ever seen per­formed. Called The Booke of Sir Thomas More, “this late 16th or ear­ly 17th-cen­tu­ry play,” the British Library notes, “is not always includ­ed among the Shake­speare­an canon, and it was not until the 1800s that it was even asso­ci­at­ed with the Bard of Avon.”

Since then, Sir Thomas More has become famous, at least among lit­er­ary schol­ars, as the only sur­viv­ing exam­ple of Shakespeare’s hand­writ­ing next to his will. It also became briefly inter­net famous in 2016 when Sir Ian McK­ellen reprised the title role he first played in 1964 for a dra­mat­ic read­ing in Lon­don that spoke elo­quent­ly, cen­turies lat­er, to the moment. The play itself is the work of sev­er­al drama­tists, and the orig­i­nal text, from some­time between 1590 and 1605, is a patch­work of pages of inser­tions and six dif­fer­ent scrib­al hands, Shakespeare’s very like­ly among them.

That same year, the British Library put a scan of the Shake­speare-penned pages of the play online and put the phys­i­cal man­u­script on dis­play in an exhib­it called Shake­speare in Ten Acts. Now, they have uploaded the full, scanned man­u­script to their Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts page and you can view it here. “In these pages we can per­haps see the mas­ter play­wright at work, mus­ing, com­pos­ing and cor­rect­ing his text: a win­dow into Shake­speare’s dra­mat­ic art, as it were.” We can hear what McK­ellen calls the “human empa­thy” in a speech “sym­bol­ic and won­der­ful… so much at the heart of Shakespeare’s human­i­ty.”

The speech, which McK­ellen dis­cuss­es above, has the human­ist More pas­sion­ate­ly address­ing a mob who are attempt­ing to vio­lent­ly deport French protes­tant refugees. More did indeed address a riot­ing mob on May 1, 1517, what came to be known as “Evil May Day” (he was lat­er exe­cut­ed in 1535 for trea­son when he refused to back Hen­ry VIII against the Catholic Church). The play, which shows his actions as espe­cial­ly hero­ic, was cen­sored by Edwin Tilney, Mas­ter of the Rev­els, and nev­er per­formed until McK­ellen took the role. (He has joked that he may be “the last actor who can say ‘I cre­at­ed a part writ­ten by William Shake­speare.’”)

Read a tran­scrip­tion of the full, 147-line More speech thought to be by Shake­speare, and writ­ten in his own hand, at Quartz. “Prov­ing that More’s words were indeed writ­ten by Shake­speare is not straight­for­ward,” the British Library notes, though schol­ars have gen­er­al­ly agreed on the author­ship since the late 19th cen­tu­ry, based on evi­dence you can read about here. But “in their keen sym­pa­thy for the plight of the alien­at­ed and dis­pos­sessed,” these lines “seem to pre­fig­ure the insights of great dra­mas of race such as The Mer­chant of Venice and Oth­el­lo.”

One can see, giv­en Shake­speare’s sym­pa­thy for social out­siders, why he would be drawn to More’s speech, or why he might have been hand­picked among oth­er drama­tists at the time to write the philosopher’s broad-mind­ed plea for tol­er­ance. See the full man­u­script of The Booke of Sir Thomas More here at the British Library’s Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ian McK­ellen Reads a Pas­sion­ate Speech by William Shake­speare, Writ­ten in Defense of Immi­grants

What Shakespeare’s Hand­writ­ing Looked Like

What Shake­speare Sound­ed Like to Shake­speare: Recon­struct­ing the Bard’s Orig­i­nal Pro­nun­ci­a­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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