Shakespeare has relevant words for how the world should be responding to refugees and migrants
by William Shakespeare
Since the world has just celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, that’s a good excuse for Werewolf to feature this timely extract. It comes from the play Sir Thomas More, and the speech is delivered by the title character. Shakespeare’s cameo contribution to this play was the early 17th century equivalent of a guest slot on someone else’s album, or one of those occasions where Hollywood script doctors are brought in to knock an original idea into shape. Shakespeare’s main contribution was a virtuoso passage where More delivers to quell a riot taking place in 1517 in St Martin-In-The-Fields, on roughly the same patch of ground that we know today as Trafalgar Square.
The rioters were rebelling against an influx of refugees and migrants, who are copping the blame for a whole range of social problems. Obviously, it is this theme that makes the speech so timely. Sir Thomas – then only the local Sheriff – asks the crowd to consider the inhumanity of their attitudes and actions. Interestingly, it is a plea for compassion to God’s less fortunate fellow creatures, but also a pitch to naked self interest. The message that More delivers is very much one of “Do unto others as you yourselves could well need to be treated in future ”…if say, you became a refugee, or fell afoul of powerful people, and had to seek political asylum.
We’re lucky to be so comfortable, More is saying, but good luck will run out, sometime. Are we ready to be judged tomorrow on the basis of how we responded to the needs of others, today? – Gordon Campbell.
Here’s Sir Thomas, in Shakespeare’s words:
…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 [to be] 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..
O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you like rebels lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace, and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven!
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses…
Say now the king… should…banish you, whether 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….
Here’s Sir Ian McKellen delivering this great speech. McKellen appeared as Sir Thomas More in the first proper production of the play that was ever staged in England (in 1964!). His preamble puts the speech in another modern context, as a protest against the violence that’s still being routinely inflicted against gays, another group of the vulnerable ‘strangers’ in our midst.