SHAKESPEARE, THE BOOK OF THOMAS MORE & THE REFUGEES
“If they banished you from your country, where would you go? Would you like to find a nation as barbarous as yours who would spurn you like dogs?”
This does not come from Amnesty International, nor from Unhcr. This is William Shakespeare 400 years ago, in a passage from the historical play “The Book of Thomas Moore”. The fragment has been digitalized by the British Library and is one of the few manuscripts we have in Shakespeare’s own hand. It is part of a play written by different authors based on the life of Henry VIII’s chancellor, Sir Thomas More . The play dates presumably back to around 1600 but it was censored and never staged for fear of further disorders in London due to the theme it dealt with.
|Sir Thomas More (1478 - 1535)|
It is not only a historical literary important discovery, but also a socially important message which comes right in a time when those words are relevant and painful. The tragedy of the migrants and refugees is an open wound in nowadays Europe, characterized by the fear of the foreigners and the misery of the newcomers.
In the play, set in 1517, Thomas More as the Sheriff of London, speaks to the crowd enraged against the migrants, merchants coming from the North of Italy, whom they accused of wanting to steal their jobs and money. Doesn’t this sound very familiar and contemporary? Haven’t you heard this refrain in the media?
The events described in the scene were called “the Evil May Day of 1517”. London was shaken by riots against the economic migrants arrived in England especially from Italy. But even in Shakespeare’s days England was inclined to xenophobic feelings toward the thousands of protestant Huguenots who left Catholic France and its persecutions, looking for a refuge and help in the protestant kingdom of Elizabeth I.
So the Bard highlighted that the unnecessary cruelty toward the refugees was due to the crisis their country was going through and the reference to the present situation was evident. That is why the play was never staged.
Shakespeare’s Thomas More answers the enraged Londoners with words inviting to reason and empathy and the images he evokes in his lines bring to our eyes the tragic images of our own present:
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail
Shakespeare meant to shake his contemporaries through an event from the past: the French Heugonots in Shakespeare’s time and the Italian merchants in More's London unleashed the fury and the protests of the English. Shakespeare tried to instill the ethics of reciprocity in the audience and to remind them that everyone is a stranger and a foreigner somewhere:
… Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
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, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.
via learnonline blog