March 16, 2016
Read William Shakespeare’s handwritten plea for refugees
by Liam O’Brien
This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare‘s death, and that means it’s time to revisit his work. Anyone looking to hear the Bard’s greatest hits in their original arrangements can check out any of the stops of his US tour, but if you’re looking to hear the deep cuts, you’re also in luck.
The British Library is set to premiere a large exhibit of “over 200 unique and rare items,” including the only surviving play-script written by Shakespeare himself—and it’s a shockingly apt piece of writing for the modern political climate. The Library has also digitized all of the items in the exhibit, and they are currently available to view online.
Mark Brown reported for The Guardian:
The last surviving play script handwritten by William Shakespeare, in which he imagines Sir Thomas More making an impassioned plea for the humane treatment of refugees, is to be made available online by the British Library.
[…]The Book of Sir Thomas More script is particularly poignant given the current European migration crisis.
The powerful scene, featuring More challenging anti-immigration rioters in London, was written at a time when there were heightened tensions over the number of French Protestants (Huguenots) seeking asylum in the capital.
“It is a really stirring piece of rhetoric,” said the library’s curator, Zoe Wilcox. “At its heart it is really about empathy. More is calling on the crowds to empathise with the immigrants or strangers as they are called in the text. He is asking them to imagine what it would be like if they went to Europe, if they went to Spain or Portugal, they would then be strangers. He is pleading with them against what he calls their ‘mountainous inhumanity’.
The Book Of Sir Thomas More is decidedly one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, mostly because he didn’t actually write the play. Shakespeare was brought in to punch up Anthony Munday’s script, the original of which had raised the ire of the Master of Revels and censor Edmund Tilney, who decreed that the play would provoke unrest and could not legally be performed.
Despite Shakespeare’s contributions, there is no evidence that the play was ever performed in his or Munday’s lifetime. The salient Shakespeare selection, in which the fictionalized More addresses an angry mob, is just as relevant now during the modern migrant crisis as it would have been over 400 years ago.
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, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England:
Why, you must needs be strangers. (Scene 6, 134–45)
The three-page digitized document can be viewed here.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.