restricted access Thomas More on Humor
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Thomas More on Humor

Thus, knowing that to move sport is lawful for an orator or anyone that shall talk in open assembly, good it were to know what compass he should keep that should thus be merry.

thomas wilson, the art of rhetoric(1560)

Thomas More married twice and both of his wives were short in stature. When asked the reason for this, More replied, “of two evils one should choose the less.”1 So reads a selection from the “witty sayings” of More, which Thomas Stapleton compiles in his 1588 biography. Though the quip could be apocryphal, it represents well enough what R. S. Sylvester calls More’s “sharp and ironic view of both himself and others,”2 a provocative deployment of wit, which More’s admirers often ignore and his critics frequently misunderstand.

Indeed, whether to celebrate or condemn More’s humor was a subject during his own life and in the immediate years following his death. Erasmus writes of More’s “rare courtesy and sweetness of disposition,” which is so great that there is no one “so melancholy by nature that More does not enliven him.” According to Erasmus, More takes such pleasure in jesting that he seems born for it and “any [End Page 13] remark with more wit in it than ordinary always gave him pleasure, even if directed against himself.”3 Stapleton elaborates upon that sense of wit, writing how More’s “keen humor” functions in tandem with his “never-broken serenity” of mind and “constant peace and joy of his conscience.”4 So, too, even though Thomas Wilson was tried and imprisoned for heresy during the reign of Queen Mary, in his The Art of Rhetoric (1560), he calls attention to More’s facility in “pleasant delights, whose wit even at this hour is a wonder to all the world and shall be undoubtedly even unto the world’s end.”5 Most famous, perhaps, is the Sir Thomas More play (c. 1593–1600), which was written, in part, by William Shakespeare. In this work, More appears as a “merry man,” who pull pranks, tells jokes, and performs in plays.6

Yet there were also early detractors. The Protestant martyrologist, John Foxe, admits in his Acts and Monuments of 1583 that More is “in wit and learning singular” but adds that More “dallieth out the matter, thinking to jest poor simple truth out of countenance.”7 More’s jests form part of his poetical and therefore imaginative vision of Catholic doctrine. Thus, of More’s defense of purgatory, Foxe wonders if More writes of another Utopia or no place.8 More, as “author and contriver” of “poetical” books, merely imagines purgatory exists, according to Foxe.9 Earlier, More had written against William Tyndale, “I marvel that Tyndale denies purgatory—except that he intends to go to hell.”10 And Tyndale, whose biography Foxe would write as the story of a “true servant and martyr of God,”11 first called More “a poet of shame” and the “the proctor of purgatory,” a protector of a nonexistent place, what Foxe later labels a nusquam.12

In this way, More’s mocking rejoinders and polemical style are said to dovetail with too vivid an imagination. By 1587, Edward Hall, a Gray’s Inn lawyer and a historian, records of More that his “wit was fine, and full of imaginations, by reason whereof he was too much given to mocking, which was to his gravity a great blemish.” So Hall wonders of More: “I cannot tell whether I should call him a foolish wise man, or a wise foolish man, for undoubtedly he, beside [End Page 14] his learning, had a great wit, but it was so mingled with taunting and mocking, that it seemed to them that best knew him, that he thought nothing to be well spoken except he had ministered some mock in the communication.”13

Hall’s charge, in effect, recycles and builds upon what More’s first interlocutors allege.14 “They reprove,” More remarks of them, “that I bring in, among the most earnest matters, fancies and sports and merry tales.” More cites the Roman poet Horace...