Since we are suddenly in the worst moment of racism in Britain since the 1970s, I thought it was worth a reminder that defending migrants is not new in British culture. Shakespeare lodged for several years in a house in Silver Street owned by a Huguenot, and was in London when the apprentices threatened to kill foreigners they saw on the streets.
Perhaps as a result of this, one of his contributions to the probably unperformed play Sir Thomas More is one of the great appeals to humanity.
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas, say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
The history: the original play, according to the British Library, was written by Anthony Munday in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, but the censor, the Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney, refused permission for it to be staged. He may have been “worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest on the streets of London.”
After Elizabeth’s death, a number of writers were brought in to rework it, including Shakespeare, and his contribution is 147 lines in the middle of the play, which includes the speech above, when More addresses an anti-immigration riot in London.
Shakespeare turns the plight of the “strangers” back on to the rioters: what if they were to be banished from England? They would find themselves as strangers in a strange land with the anger and violence of the locals turned on them. The British Library note, written by Andrew Dickson and its curators, quotes the critic Johathan Bate:
More asks the on-stage crowd, and by extension the theatre audience, to imagine what it would be like to be an asylum-seeker undergoing forced repatriation.
The video belowhas Harriet Walter performing the speech on Newsnight earlier this year, slightly out of sync.
The speech is also interesting because it is the only surviving script in Shakespeare’s own hand, as seen at the top of the post.
The marginal notes, top left are from the censor, Tilney:
Leave out the insurrection wholly and the cause thereof, and begin with Sir Thomas More at the Mayor’s sessions, with a report afterwards of his good service done being Sheriff of London upon a mutiny against the Lombards – only by a short report, and not otherwise, at your own perils. E. Tilney.