Shakespeare intervenes in refugee crisis

Whither would you go? This is the only known script in Shakespeare’s hand. © British Library

The British Library has digitised a powerful speech in Shakespeare’s own handwriting: a heartfelt plea for the humane treatment of refugees. Does the bard have an answer to Europe’s crisis?

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is sticking by her welcoming policy for refugees, despite the mounting resistance from EU citizens. And yesterday she found support from an unexpected source: England’s most famous writer and beloved bard, William Shakespeare.

A powerful speech appealing to the humanity of a xenophobic crowd has surfaced as if from beyond the grave — or rather, the British Library has digitised the handwritten document in time for this year’s anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Scholars believe that the speech was inserted by Shakespeare into a play about Sir Thomas More by less interesting writers, and commentators were quick to point out that it has a spooky affinity with today’s refugee crisis.

The scene takes place on 1 May 1517 — a day which later became known as ‘Evil May Day’. French, Belgian and Italian immigrants had travelled to London to escape various religious and political wars in Europe. Inflamed by an angry speech calling on ‘Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves,’ a violent mob of working-class apprentices marched through central London, where many of the foreigners were living.

More, who at the time was under-sheriff of London, was sent to calm them. He asks them to imagine the ‘wretched strangers’ with ‘babies at their backs’, ‘plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation’. It is a description that could be taken straight from today’s shores in Europe, which saw hundreds of thousands cross the Mediterranean in search of asylum last year.

More then asks the crowds to put themselves in the strangers’ shoes. How would you like to be treated in their place? he asks. And he finishes with a scornful summary of the crowd’s ‘mountainish inhumanity’.

‘It is striking and sad just how relevant it seems to us now considering what is happening in Europe,’ said the British Library’s curator, Zoe Wilcox. ‘At its heart it is really about empathy.’

'Your great trespass'

This a powerful speech, say some, but let’s not get carried away. The circumstances of 16th-century England were strikingly different to Europe today. There was no European Union, no Daesh targeting civilians. There are 50 million more people in England and Wales now than in 1500. Political decisions should not be dictated by a long-dead writer from Warwickshire.

This is wilfully missing the point, argue others. Of course Shakespeare is not directly addressing Nigel Farage. But his words prove that this is an issue that returns throughout history. It is easy to fear outsiders, but xenophobia is always proved wrong as a culture adjusts to its new arrivals. We must remember our common humanity — and no one is better at reminding us than Shakespeare.

You Decide

  1. Is Shakespeare’s speech about 16th-century refugees relevant to Europe’s crisis today?
  2. What role should drama and poetry play in political discussion?

Activities

  1. Write a poem about Europe’s refugee crisis in the 21st century.
  2. Read The Day’s modern translation of the speech, found under Become An Expert. Take it turns to read lines from the two versions aloud, and discuss the differences you find.

Some People Say...

“Art is the antidote to politics.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I listen to a fictional speech about something that happened 500 years ago?
Once you unlock Shakespeare’s tricky language, he has a knack for capturing the universal emotions and experiences of humanity. This is true of his stories about romance and revenge — and despite the historical differences, it can occasionally be true of his politics. The real question is: why wouldn’t you listen?
Why haven’t I heard of this play?
For one thing, it was left unfinished, and its Catholic hero meant that it was not performed until recently. But it has also stayed out of the limelight because Shakespeare’s contribution is technically unconfirmed. Several writers worked on the script, and while scholars are confident that ‘Hand D’ belongs to Shakespeare, it is impossible to be certain.

Word Watch

Angela Merkel
Last year Germany’s chancellor said there would be ‘no limit’ to the number of refugees offered asylum in Germany. She is now hoping for a ‘sustainable’ and Europe-wide solution.
British Library
The library is putting around 300 documents online before an exhibition about Shakespeare’s life and works later in 2016.
Sir Thomas More
A Catholic lawyer, scholar and politician during the reign of Henry VIII. He was executed for opposing the king’s break with Rome. Within the Catholic faith, he is considered a martyr and even a saint — which is why it took so long for the play to be performed in Protestant England.
Hundreds of thousands
Over 1 million migrants arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, according to the UNHCR.
Daesh
Some have expressed fears that extremist militants from Daesh, also known as Islamic State, could use the refugee crisis to enter Europe.
50 million
In 1500, the population of England and Wales was around 3.6 million. In 2011, it was 53 million.
Nigel Farage
The leader of the UK Independence Party, who has called the EU ‘mad’ for accepting so many refugees.

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