Saturday, February 6, 2021

Thomas of Woodstock - Whisperers and Flatterers

I've chalked off another apocrypha play. This time Thomas of Woodstock, sometimes referred to as Richard II, Part One. I'll try to refrain from offering too much in the way of opinion on this one as the only full text I could find online was a modern print.

The original play only survives as an untitled and incomplete manuscript - the title page and ending both being missing. The above linked-to version has a new modern ending added (Act V, Scene 6). More about this, and the play in general can be found on the following site;

The original manuscript survives as part of the Egerton MS 1994 collection, now held by the British Library. The Wikipedia page states that this collection was "probably prepared by the actor William Cartwright around 1642". That "probably" not inspiring much confidence that there's solid evidence for this. The Wikipedia page for the play itself then also notes that this collection "was discovered by James Halliwell-Phillipps".

Halliwell-Phillipps was a 19th century antiquarian. The word "discovered" suggests that the work was unknown before this date. Likewise there is no record of the play being performed in Shakespeare's lifetime.

Incidentally, the surviving manuscript for the play Edmund Ironside also comes from this same collection.

My Thoughts

Having read the play my opinion is that it feels nothing like a work by Shakespeare. It's a little too formal and stilted. Again though, as I'm not totally sure how true the version I read is to the original manuscript I should probably hold fire a little.
It was another play that had a more modern feel. Much like the other two plays I've recently read, Edmund Ironside and Sir Thomas More. It was very easy to read, feeling much closer in time to me than the works of Shakespeare. Which sometimes feel foreign and difficult to comprehend, owing to how far removed from our era they are.

So this, combined with the lack of provenance, makes me wonder if the play was written much later. Perhaps a misdating, or even a forgery. Though I'm maybe heading out on a limb here. (Aren't I supposed to be refraining from "offering too much in the way of opinion" xD).


Attributions aside the play was quite enjoyable though. The character of Woodstock is presented as a 'man of the people' type figure. Nicknamed "plain Thomas" he dresses in simple clothes and eschews the pomp and frivolity of court. Pleading to his nephew King Richard II that he should govern more stoic and frugally.

Richard however, under the influence of "flatterers", ignores this sage counsel and ruins the kingdom. Taxing his people in order to lavishly spend money on clothes and banquets. The ensuing conflict then resulting in Woodstock being apprehended and eventually murdered.

The play is quite moral in tone, and it sets out (with little subtlety) the way a realm should be governed. The commoner sort of people in the play very much the victims of the king's profligacy and tyrannous behaviour.

SHRIEVE OF KENT: My lord: I plead our ancient liberties,
Recorded and enroll’d in the king’s crown office,
Wherein the men of Kent are clear discharg’d
Of fines, fifteens, or any other taxes
For ever given them by the conqueror.


We are freeborn, my lord, yet do confess
Our lives and goods are at the king’s dispose.
But how, my lord? Like to a gentle prince
To take or borrow what we best may spare,
And not, like bondslaves, force it from our hands


Well, God forgive both you and us, my lord;
Your hard oppressions have undone the state
And made all England poor and desolate.

I love all this ancient liberty stuff. However, at the same time reading some of these more politicised works does make you appreciate the genius of Shakespeare. In his plays any moral lessons or observations are much more subtle and nuanced. Whereas with these it's a little bit like you're being given a sermon.

It's a bit like how rock songs that are overtly political tend to be a bit rubbish and preachy. It takes real talent to make a point, but at the same time be genuinely aesthetic and entertaining.

Also I liked how in this play the people who were disgruntled with the king were labelled "whisperers". As in conspirators. Their private and hushed conversations spied upon and taken as evidence of sedition. It's quite a good word. In fact, I think I'll subtitle this post "whisperers and flatterers".

There's a section in the play where normal folk (simply labelled farmer, butcher, schoolmaster, etc) are overheard badmouthing the king and his advisors. Following which they are then apprehended. This had a slight 1984 type vibe to it, so I couldn't help but think of how it mirrors today's politics slightly. Some things never change I guess.

Finally, another name I found quite aesthetically pleasing was that of Richard's queen (who dies of despair in the play as she watches the kingdom go to ruin). In the real world we know her as Anne of Bohemia, however in the play she's called Anne O'Beame, which I think has quite a charming quaintness to it.

(An illustration of Anne of Bohemia, or Anne O'Beame,
from 1906, by the artist Percy Anderson)

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