More and Tudor Drama. An unsigned review of Early Tudor Drama: Medwall, the Rastells, Heywood, and the More Circle, by A. W. Reed
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856 ] More and Tudor Drama An unsigned review of Early Tudor Drama: Medwall, the Rastells, Heywood, and the More Circle, by A.W. Reed London: Methuen, 1926. Pp. xvi + 246. Times Literary Supplement, 1296 (2 Dec 1926) 880 The only reproach to be laid against this curiously interesting book is that its title is misleading. It should have been called “The Influence of Sir Thomas More upon Early Tudor Drama.” The book is a mine of detailed information, extracted from innumerable documents of the period in which Dr. Reed has specialized, and is evidently the fruit of many years of patient labour.1 The result is something which should be of great interest to the student of social history. It is valuable also to the student of the literature of the period who is himself engaged in historical or critical work; it is not the book for the general student of English literature which its title seems to imply. On the other hand, besides the particular questions of authorship of the Interludes,2 the book supplies new information about one of the two most interesting literary circles of the sixteenth century. The second important circle was, of course, that of the Countess of Pembroke, which was more in thenatureofasalonpresidedoverbyagreatlady;3 thecircleand“household” of Sir Thomas More, presided over by a great man, was a loose association of relatives and friends. The only point of resemblance between the two is the interest in Senecan drama. Of the two, Sir Thomas More’s circle has the larger importance and the more curious connexions. More was, of course, intimate with the politicians and the humanists of his time; with Erasmus, and with Sir Thomas Elyot, whose association with More laid him for a time undersuspicionofexcessiveorthodoxy.4 TheinfluenceofMoreandhiscircle extends even to John Donne, nephew of More’s Jasper Heywood who translated two plays of Seneca and who ended his career with distinction in the Jesuit Order.5 The circle of More is one of the most important knots for any student of sixteenth and early seventeenth century culture to unravel. Dr. Reed’s contribution to the study of the More household includes an immense amount of marginalia. Part of the book consists in a collection of [ 857 More and Tudor Drama all the material available concerning John Rastell, the printer, and his part in the dramatic activity of the time. An important part of the book is occupied with a study of the canon of John Heywood’s plays. One chapter is devoted to an amusing picaresque book, The Merry Jests of the Widow Edyth, written by a servant of Sir Thomas More, one Walter Smyth. This Smyth was considerably superior in education to a Yellowplush, and seems to have been on friendly terms with the family, for we learn later of his leaving in his will his copies of Chaucer and Boccaccio to Sir Thomas’s son.6 Dr. Reed is able to show, after considerable research, that the merry jests are founded on fact, and that many persons of prominence, including some of the More acquaintance, were involved as dupes of the merry widow. From his study of this book Dr. Reed draws an interesting and unexpected conclusion . He believes that the book not only had the approval, but reflects some of the spirit of Sir Thomas himself: It is good to feel the catholicity of mind and the saving sanity of natural humour that fostered the mingling of piety, scholarship, and unabashed free fun within the More household. . . . I believe that not a little of More’s hostility to Lutheranism arose out of his conviction of the danger to national sanity of the withering influence of the precisians upon the comic spirit. [155-56] The main thesis in a book of curious and entertaining variety is contained in the fourth and fifth chapters: it is this, that all of the important plays of the period, numbering eleven, were produced under the influence of More. The first dramatist is the newly revived Medwall, a member of the household of Morton, the author of Nature and Fulgens and Lucres.7 The second is Rastell, whom Dr. Reed has good evidence for believing to be the author of Gentleness and Nobility and The Four Elements and translator and adaptor of Calisto and Meliboea.8 The third and last is Heywood, with the six plays usually assigned to him. (Dr. Reed expends some labour in showing – and we think he is right – that there is...