Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter

The playhouse manuscript, Sir Thomas More, has been called “an immensely complex palimpsest of composition, scribal transcription, rewriting, censorship and further additions that features multiple hands” (Van Es 2019). One of those hands was Shakespeare–and that has contemporary relevance.

The authoritative Arden Shakespeare text (edited by John Jowett 2011) renders a passage from Shakespeare’s Scene 6 as follows (this being Thomas More speaking to a crowd of insurrectionists in opposition to Henry VIII):

What do you, then,

Rising ’gainst him that God Himself installs,

But rise ’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 rebels, lift against the peace,

Lift up for peace; and your unreverent knees,

Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven.

Tell me but this: what rebel captain…

But the last two lines had been edited by another of the play’s writers (“Hand C”), deleting the bolded lines Shakespeare had originally written,

Make them your feet. To kneel to be forgiven

Is safer wars than ever you can make

Whose discipline is riot.

In, in to your obedience. While even your hurly

Cannot proceed but by obedience.

What rebel captain….

What has been effaced away by the deletion is, first, the notion that contrition is itself a kind of war and a safer war, at that.

According to the Arden Shakespeare, “The act of contrition might be described as wars because the former rebels would enlist themselves in the struggle of good and evil, and would fight against their own sin of rebellion.” However, in either case—contrition or rebellion—obedience is required. In fact, nothing was less safe than rebellion whose “discipline is riot”. What has also been effaced, in other words, from Shakespeare’s original passage is a clear accent on contrition and peace over continued upheaval.

But lack of contrition by those involved in the formulation and implementation of highly criticized policies is precisely what we have seen and are seeing today.

No global leader is contrite about their woeful handling of the pandemic (speaking of “Wash…those same hands”). No US president has been contrite about the 2002 Bush Doctrine and its entailed Iraqi War. For to prioritize contrition in these matters would mean refocusing obedience from battle to a very different struggle in securing peace and security, a mission in which our ministries of interior and defence are notably inferior.

Principal sources

Sir Thomas More (2011), ed. John Jowett (Arden Shakespeare, third series. Bloomsbury, London)

Van Es, B. (2019). Troubles of a glorious breath. TLS (March 22)

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