The Artistic Links between William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More:
Radically Different Richards

by Charles A. Hallett and Elaine S. Hallett
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

In one of St. Thomas More’s Latin epigrams concerning the nature of tyranny, the poet describes the good king as the watchdog who protects the flock under his care from the threat of the wolf. The bad king, on the other hand, is the wolf himself.

It no secret that More’s early works demonstrate a concern for kingship and a criticism of tyrants. Moreover, with the five-hundredth anniversary (so far as we can estimate) of More’s History of King Richard III upon us, it is no secret that the humanist’s artistic criticism of the alleged tyrant had a direct influence on Shakespeare’s drama. Yet in The Artistic Links between William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More: Radically Different Richards, Charles A. Hallett and Elaine S. Hallett question the nature of that influence, boldly opposing what they call the “dogmas” of the “More Myth,” the assumption that “More virtually does Shakespeare’s work for him.”

Indeed, ever since scholars such as E. M. W. Tillyard and R. W. Chambers took notice of More’s unfinished history embedded within the sixteenth-century Chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, they have acknowledged Shakespeare’s indebtedness to it for the structure, characters, and vividness of Richard III. Some such as George M. Logan have suggested that the dramatist merely “took the wit at and caustic irony of More’s narrator and transferred them to Richard,” recasting “scenes that More had already made highly dramatic.” Peter Holland likewise suggests that Shakespeare had seen in More’s biography that “Richard’s life was history already teetering on the brink of drama.”

 Whereas Artistic Links in some ways strengthens the connection between the two artists, it argues against a simplistic understanding of More as the mentor who would eventually be surpassed by his genius apprentice, a distortion that does a disservice to both craftsmen. In terms of More, it leads many such as Arthur Noel Kincaid and Alison Hanham to interpret his History retrospectively as a drama. As for Shakespeare, it nullifies the “mind-bending exertions” he willingly underwent in the task of “re-configuring the whole of the History” with a different set of priorities. These priorities, the authors argue, ultimately provide More and Shakespeare with “radically different Richards.”

Fundamentally, however, Artistic Links does not argue for different Richards but for different story tellers, “a radically different attitude toward the character’s abilities” that lead them to “differing interpretations of the same man.” Specifically, the authors propose, “More had the obligations of a historian and Shakespeare had the liberties of a dramatist.” More was confined by “his obligation to truth” not only in a historical sense but also in a moral one; he “wanted each incident to serve as a moral exemplum.” Shakespeare, on the other hand, was writing “finely crafted scenes . . . as showcase pieces of a radically new art form,” scenes that “transform narrative into action.”

The authors argue that, in his encounter with More’s Richard and all the opportunistic theatrics of which the author was explicitly critical, Shakespeare saw a playwright within a play and determined to write not biography but autobiography: Richard III is the protagonist’s attempt to defend himself from More’s narrator who understood him so well yet censured him so severely. Shakespeare gives his pen to the villain, allowing him to cast a spell over the audience and other players alike until he ultimately overreaches himself in Act 4 after the murder of his nephews, at which point Shakespeare becomes dramatist again and concludes the play and the tetralogy alike with a detached, moralizing finish that many critics have found out of place in a drama of this caliber. “Shakespeare arrives,” the authors argue, “though by an alternate route, at More’s side,” although he himself has been transformed as a dramatist, with More’s Richard as his tutor. Ultimately, the authors conclude, “Shakespeare’s interaction with Thomas More’s Richard should be heralded as the making of Shakespeare.”

To defend this somewhat dramatic argument, the authors employ some minor theatrics of their own, which makes the book an engaging and refreshing though somewhat far-fetched read. They begin in the middle, with Richard’s betrayal of Hastings, represented vividly in both More and Shakespeare. Hallett and Hallett portray Shakespeare as a “young apprentice, setting his sights on writing a spectacular scene for the first act of his play,” suggesting that this scene was the one that initially arrested Shakespeare’s attention. More’s more moralizing narrator places the buildup—Lord Stanley’s fearful dream the night before, which Hastings blithely ignores, the repeated stumbling of Hastings’s horse as he rides to the counsel on the morning of his death—after the event itself, drawing the focus away from Richard’s cleverness to Hastings’s blindness.

After shifting the center of attention back to the villain, Shakespeare saw a way to shape the events of a scene “in accordance with the demands of the will,” effecting a 180-degree reversal that he would replicate in scenes with Clarence, Edward, and Buckingham. Each scene would culminate not with More’s exemplum but with Richard’s “caustic climactic line that terminates the victim’s illusions” and his very life. Thus, after encountering the craftiness of More’s Richard and allowing his villainy to direct the scene, Shakespeare discovers not only a structure for other scenes of betrayal but also a master playwright—one who can woo a woman who hates him and deceive the crowds at Baynard Castle with a staged coronation drama, only losing his audience when the princes’ murderer is allowed to play the critic. By conflating dramatist with protagonist (even suggesting that some of this Richard’s actions “might have astonished Shakespeare”), the authors argue that it was in this play under the tutelage of More’s Richard that Shakespeare emerged “as the uncontested Will.”

While the explicit argument of Artistic Links remains confined to Shakespeare’s development as an artist, some implicit questions surround its presentation of his encounter with Thomas More. As More’s narrator interprets his infamous scene of Richard’s theatrics at Baynard castle in which Buckingham repeatedly offers him the crown until the ostensibly reluctant Duke is forced to take it, the crowd is never deceived by the performance. Though “there was no man so dul that heard them, but he perceiued well inough” that they were watching a staged performance, they understood that in such “Kynges games” they were all but “lokers on,” and that “thei that wise be, wil medle no farther.” More’s Baynard Castle scene is another moral exemplum like that of Hastings’s downfall: it depicts the wiles of the tyrant at the beginning but climaxes with the willful blindness required to make it successful.

In contrast, the Halletts’ interpretation of Shakespeare’s scene with Richard as playwright rather than mere actor depicts the onlookers as entirely fooled by his crafty staging, and only after the murder of the innocent princes does the audience realize the consequences of this seductive deception. Beyond the question of Shakespeare’s development as an artist, this argument ventures into the realm of the moral obligation of the audience, not only Shakespeare’s audience but also Richard’s. Have they been placed under the spell of an enchanting playwright, or are they willfully lulled into a moral stupor by their own self-deception? Have they been blinded, or are they merely closing their eyes?

The question is of great significance to More, in his early writings as much as in his later martyrdom. His epigrams, interestingly, depict rustics who are not taken in by the showiness of men in fancy costumes, and kings in all their pomp are revealed to be equal to slaves in death and in its near cousin sleep. In those cases at least, kingly theatrics are not as deceptive as they are transparent. Furthermore, in book 1 of Utopia, his persona argues for philosophy’s place at court, not an impractical philosophia scholastica but rather one that knows “her own stage, and thereafter, ordering and behaving herself in the play that she hath in hand, playeth her part accordingly with comliness.” Perhaps by that argument, as the anonymous author of The True Tragedy of Richard III suggests, Truth herself must step onto the stage to become a player to combat the dramatics of court. In any case, just as all suffer under the ravages of tyranny, all are implicated in its mechanics.

By questioning the conventional wisdom of the “More Myth,” Artistic Links not only provides a compelling though somewhat imaginative portrayal of More’s direct function in the making of William Shakespeare; it also draws attention to what is distinctive in More’s History when it is not read retrospectively through its influence on Shakespeare’s drama. As this is not the purpose of the book, it is the point at which the argument is weakest, and a reader who is not already familiar with the earlier work may come away with an unintended impression that its rendering of Richard is simplistically critical, or that moral direction and artistic imagination are diametrically opposed.

On the contrary, More’s surprising choices that Shakespeare opted not to replicate—the reordering of background events post factum, the attention to long speeches that are ultimately unsuccessful, the vivid characterization of insignificant characters like Jane Shore and Sir Robert Brackenbury—indicate a moral focus that is no less artistic for its being wider. By challenging us to notice not only the similarities but also the differences between More and Shakespeare, Hallett and Hallett draw attention to the defects in viewing either artist through the lens of the other. If Shakespeare does indeed hand his pen to Richard to write his own drama of overreaching chicanery, perhaps More hands his to the willful victims. Half a millennium later, it is still a perspective worthy of consideration. ♦


Emily Ransom is a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests include Thomas More and early humanism, and she has published on More, Milton, and sixteenth-century popular poetry.