Archive for September 7th, 2015

“Mountainish inhumanity”: Thomas More, Shakespeare, and the refugee crisis

Monday, September 7th, 2015
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The flood of desperate refugees pouring out of Syria dominates the news this Labor Day weekend. It’s said to be the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

shakespeare-moreWhat have Thomas More and William Shakespeare got to do with it?

Shakespeare’s unfinished play Sir Thomas More was not accepted as the Bard’s until relatively recently. It’s now generally conceded to be his handiwork – in fact, it’s the only play to exist in his own hand (apparently the scholarly consensus seems to agree that it is indeed his handwriting).

Apparently, England had its own refugee crisis, with over 64,000 arriving on English shores between the 1330 and 1550, not all of them upper crust emigrés fleeing angry monarchs, and many arriving from many far-flung lands. The story is told over here, at England’s Medieval Immigrants.

Shakespeare’s play portrays the May Day riots of 1517, when Londoners protested the refugees from Lombardy who were entering the country. It is the most powerful scenes of this little-known play.

The matchless Ian McKellen had the distinction of being the first to perform the role of England’s beheaded Lord Chancellor way back in 1964, when the play was produced professionally for the first time. See film clip above. The speech begins about two minutes in, but the preamble is good, too. (He makes one curious error, however: Shakespeare never lived under a Catholic monarch; he was born in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and died under King James, both Protestants – he was never around for the brief reign of Queen Mary.)

Here’s Shakespeare’s words on the subject – but I very much recommend watching the McKellen clip above. It will make your day. Really. (And many, many thanks to “The Shakespeare Blog” here for bringing this to our attention.)

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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….
Say now the king
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
more
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.