Sunday, 29 October 2017

Shakespeare, Riots, Refugees and Sir Thomas More

Shakespeare's handwriting in the Book of Sir Thomas Moore

Nothing changes. Immigration and refugees were as unwelcome in the time of Shakespeare as they are today. 

The above is part of the only surviving script to contain Shakespeare's writing. Three pages of the manuscript, ff. 8r, 8v and 9r, have been positively identified as Shakespeare’s, based on handwriting, spelling, vocabulary and the ideas and imagery expressed.

The play is about the life of Sir Thomas More, the Tudor polymath and lawyer who was put to death for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England. The work was initially written by Anthony Munday between 1596 and 1601, but The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, whose role included stage censorship, refused to allow Sir Thomas More to be performed, most probably because he was worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest on the streets of London.

After the Queen’s death in 1603, Shakespeare was brought in to revise the script, along with three other playwrights. Shakespeare’s additions include 147 lines in the middle of the action, in which More is called on to address an anti-immigration riot on the streets of London. 

He delivers a gripping speech to the aggressive mob, who are baying for so-called ‘strangers’ to be banished:

"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."

It is no major stretch of imagination to see these words being addressed at the riots in Charlottesville, in Virginia USA in August 2017; the Dover riots in England in February 2016; the Pretoria riots in South Africa in February 2017; in Stockholm; in Calais ... I could go on... and on...

More relies on human empathy to make his point: if the rioters were suddenly banished to a foreign land, they would become ‘wretched strangers’ too, and equally vulnerable to attack. In an article under the name of the British Library, critic Jonathan Bate is cited as saying: ‘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.’ 

Though proving that ''More’s'' words were indeed written by Shakespeare is no sinecure, in their empathy for the plight of the alienated and dispossessed they seem to show a similarity to the insights of great dramas of race such as The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Whoever wrote them had a fine understanding for the way rhetoric can sway a crowd and also a sharp eye for the troubled relationship between ethnic minorities and majorities.

From various sources including: 

© Diana Milne 22/10/17

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