Understanding Thomas More Through His Texts

Utopia by Thomas More

by Adam White, dramaturg

The written word is so ubiquitous in our media-drenched culture today that I, personally, do not stop to consider the gravity of texts of the past nearly as often as I think I should. How can one be so contemplative on the historical function of writing if the pressure is on to keep up with what is being written right now as to stay relevant?

Perhaps this is why I am drawn to the dramaturg’s role; the dramaturg is often called upon to look back and dig deep, and it’s in the looking and the digging that I gain insight into the world of whatever project it is I am working on (Now, how to constructively contribute that insight to a project is a whole other issue…).

In looking and digging for A Man for All Seasons, I have found that Thomas More was quite a prolific author (For a full list of works attributed to More, start here). While Thomas More would become best known for his trial, he also wrote many influential documents. Arguably, the most notable of his works is Utopia, a fictional work about an island society whose form of governance and culture is a striking critique of More’s England. This work would not only introduce the word ‘utopia’ to the English language, but would also open up a whole new genre of Utopian fiction in Europe!

To get a quick taste of More’s writing style, I’ve included quotes from his works below. Maybe this is obvious, but I think its important to note that these words and works point to the man Thomas More was, or at least who he aspired to be. Honestly, after being so immersed in the play A Man For All Seasons, I find his words to be refreshingly sincere.

How do the following quotes influence your understanding of Thomas More?

From History of King Richard III:

“Men use, if they have an evil turn, to write it in marble;

and whoso doth us a good turn, we write it in dust.”

From More’s Utopia:

“What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can.”

“Extreme justice is an extreme injury: for we ought not to approve of those terrible laws that make the smallest offences capital… as if there were no difference to be made between the killing a man and the taking his purse, between which, if we examine things impartially, there is no likeness nor proportion.”

“Man’s folly hath enhanced the value of gold and silver because of their scarcity; whereas nature, like a kind parent, hath freely given us the best things, such as air, earth, and water, but hath hidden from us those which are vain and useless.”

From Debellation of Salem and Bizance (1533):

“Heretics be they that obstinately hold any self-minded opinion contrary to the doctrine that the common known Catholic Church teacheth and holdeth for necessary to salvation.”

From A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, which More wrote while in jail (1534):

“I never saw fool yet that thought himself other than wise.”

“Many a man buyeth hell with so much pain, that he might have heaven with less than the one half.”

Some of these quotes are statements you may see embedded on the marvelous set designed by Eric Fielding. I’m writing this as dress rehearsals are beginning, and let me tell you: It’s almost chilling to see Bolt’s play come to life out on an stage informed by More’s own words.

*****

Bibliography:

Duerden, Richard. “A Man for All Seasons.” Telephone interview. 31 Jan. 2014.

“Sir Thomas More Quotes and Quotations.” Sir Thomas More Quotes and Quotations. Luminarium. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *