I’m re-blogging this item from Open Culture because it deserves wide circulation in these times when migrants are told they’re unwelcome, when borders are manned and walls are being built, when the Dutch prime minister says, ‘Behave normally or go away‘, and when outsiders are attacked or vilified. And because today is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Little Englanders, Brexiters, Daily Mail keep them out and send them home types: these are the words of Shakespeare, our national poet and treasure. Worth a listen?

The identity of William Shakespeare has been a literary mystery for four hundred years, inspiring theory after theory, book after book. There has been, indeed, little biographical evidence to work with, though paleographer and ‘literary detective’ Heather Wolfe has very recently filled in some critical gaps. It was long thought that Shakespeare’s will, in which he bequeaths to his wife his ‘second best bed,’ was the only document in his hand, aside from a few signatures here and there.

Since around the turn of the 20th century, however, scholars have come to agree that three pages of a manuscript in an Elizabethan play called Sir Thomas More contain Shakespeare’s handwriting. The play, writes the British Library – who house the physical pages and have digital scans at their site – tells the story of ‘the Tudor lawyer and polymath who was sentenced to death for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England.’

The strangers' case from Sir Thomas More in Shakespeare's handwriting (British Library)
The strangers’ case from Sir Thomas More in Shakespeare’s handwriting (British Library)

Best known from A Man for All Seasons and for writing the philosophical novel Utopia, More was a humanist and a diplomat, and in this excerpt, he ‘delivers a gripping speech’ to a rioting mob, ‘who are baying for so-called ‘strangers’ to be banished.’ In the video below, you can see Ian McKellen give a passionate reading of More’s speech, in which he ‘relies on human empathy to make his point that if the rioters were suddenly banished to a foreign land, they would become ‘wretched strangers’ too, and equally vulnerable to attack.’

The speech, McKellen says, ‘is symbolic and wonderful… so much at the heart of Shakespeare’s humanity.’

The Book of Sir Thomas More, Act 2, Scene 4

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts 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,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

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, 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 mountainish inhumanity.

Note: ‘lyam’=leash

This scene refers to an actual event in English history, writes Anne Quito at Quartz, when ‘feverish xenophobia swept through the population.’ In a period between 1330 and 1550, ‘64,000 foreigners, from wealthy Lombard bankers to Flemish laborers, arrived on English shores… in search of better lives.’ The tension came to head on May 1, 1517, when ‘riots broke out in London and a mob armed with stones, bricks, bats, boots and boiling water attacked the immigrants and looted their homes. Thomas More, then the city’s deputy sheriff, tried to reason with the crowd.’

The day became known as Evil May Day and cast a grim shadow several decades later when the play was believed to have been written, between 1596 and 1601. Shakespeare was not its only author, though the 147 lines of More’s speech are his. Sir Thomas More was immediately banned and never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The queen’s censor Edmund Tilney ‘thought it might incite riots during a time when England was once again besieged by another immigrant crisis.’ McKellen’s reading has become a ‘clarion call,’ writes Quito for refugee advocates in the midst of Europe’s current crisis.

Americans might take this to heart as well, as victims of war and terror in countries all over the Middle East may soon be banned from finding refuge in the United States.

Watch a shorter reading of an excerpt from the speech below by Harriet Walters.

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One thought on “Ian McKellen reads a passionate speech by Shakespeare, written in defence of immigrants (reblog)

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