On Shakespeare and refugees

The Economist’s Prospero blog notes Sir Ian McKellen’s ongoing performance of a monologue from ‘Sir Thomas More‘ —

The scene is based on a real historical event, the “Ill May Day” of May 1st 1517. A mob of working-class apprentices had gathered in London’s Cheapside district, planning to burn the houses of the city’s growing immigrant community. Many of these immigrants were political and religious refugees from France, Belgium and Italy. At the time, Thomas More was under-sheriff of London. (He later became Chancellor*, and was executed by his erstwhile friend King Henry VIII for his principled resistance to the latter’s desire to break with the Catholic church in order to take a new wife.) On Ill May Day the widely respected More was brought in to enforce the sovereign’s protection of the foreigners and calm the crowd. In the play, More asks one of the rioters what he hopes to accomplish; the rioter replies “Marry, the removing of the strangers, which cannot choose but much advantage the poor handicrafts of the city.” More responds witheringly.

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
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.

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