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c. 1603: William Shakespeare & a plea for refugees

William Shakespeare, Thomas More & a plea for refugees

The only surviving copy of a scene written in Shakespeare's own hand is of a play entitled, Sir Thomas More. In this work, Shakespeare imagines a scenario where More stands to deliver a passionate speech/plea for the humane treatment of refugees.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), was born 29 years after the death of Sir Thomas More and yet More's famously tragic end clearly impacted him. It is said that the execution of Sir Thomas More shocked all of Europe. He had friends far and wide and the 'Traitorship' slur that the English Royal Court tried to pin on him never held true in the hearts of the people.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) was considered a good man, a man of concience and faith who fell foul of the whims of his King, Henry VIII, when he refused to accept him as Head of the Church of England. Henry locked him up in the Tower of London, hoping he would eventually relent but he would not and the King ordered his execution.

More was an educated man. He studied long and hard, learning latin, formal logic and common law. He excelled in his studies and earned the respect of his peers, progressing to become a valued advisor to the King.

In 1501 More became an “utter barrister,” a full member of the profession. Thanks to his boundless curiosity and a prodigious capacity for work, he managed, along with the law, to keep up his literary pursuits. He read avidly from Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the classics and tried his hand at all literary genres ... Although bowing to his father’s decision that he should become a lawyer, More was prepared to be disowned rather than disobey God’s will. To test his vocation to the priesthood, he resided for about four years in the Carthusian monastery adjoining Lincoln’s Inn and shared as much of the monks’ way of life as was practicable. (Britannica).

More was also an author, famous for many works but especially for Utopia, which was well received... especially by those he had written it for: the humanists and an elite group of public officials.

Among the topics discussed by More in Utopia were penology, state-controlled education, religious pluralism, divorce, euthanasia, and women’s rights. The resulting demonstration of his learning, invention, and wit established his reputation as one of the foremost humanists (Britannica).

He also wrote History of King Richard III, in the early 16th century. Years later this work informed and inspired William Shakespeare when he penned his own Richard III tragedy, replete with evil, violence and murder.

In May 1517 an event occurred that is now known as the Evil May Day or Ill May Day. A xenophobic riot where angry protestors failed against the foreigners (strangers), living in London.

Around 2% of London's population of approximately 50,000 were apparently foreign-born but a speech given by a preacher known as Dr Bell, two weeks prior to this had stirred unrest:

Bell had accused immigrants of stealing jobs from English workers and of eating the bread from poor fatherless children

He called on all Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.

Over the following two weeks there were sporadic attacks on foreigners and rumors suggesting that "on May Day next the city would rebel and slay all aliens (wikipedia).

Sir Thomas More had a central role in stopping this riot and it is believed that the scene Shakespeare attributed to him in the Sir Thomas More play, was inspired by this event.

The Book of Sir Thomas More was initially written by Anthony Munday towards the end of the 16th century but permission to performed it was withheld, lest it incite people to riot. Authorities believed the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest on the streets of London.

When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, Shakespeare and three other writers were asked to revise the script.

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 baying for so-called ‘strangers’ to be banished (British Library).

The Speech:

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.

Comment: These words appeal to empathy. If the rioters succeeded in banishing 'the strangers' to a foreign land they would, as a consequence, make themselves vulnerable to the same treatment. More pleads with listeners to imagine themselves in the same situation of those they defame and revile. He asks them to think about a world where people are not allowed to find safety and refuge - a peaceful place to live on earth. He considers their behaviour to be 'mountainous inhumanity.'

Ian McKellen reciting Sir Thomas More's Speech by Shakespeare

The Strangers' Case is Shakespeare's rallying cry for humanity.

The International Rescue Committee and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre have brought it to life to ask the world: will you stand with refugees?


And lead the majesty of law in lyam, To slip him like a hound

Definition: a line or rope used to walk or control a dog or other animal; lead ... to control or secure by or as if by a leash (Collins Dictionary).

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