Arts, Culture & Media

Read a scene from Shakespeare calling on the English to accept refugees

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Experts have identified three pages of the manuscript as Shakespeare's, based on the handwriting, spelling, vocabulary and even the ideas expressed.

Credit:

Courtesy of The British Library

A mob of rioters calling for refugees to be kicked out, and a lone voice in the crowd pleading for empathy and compassion.

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Sounds like something you might see today, right? But it’s actually from a 400-year-old play. And the dialogue was written by none other than William Shakespeare.

“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.”

The British Library is releasing 300 manuscripts, books, maps, paintings, illustrations, pamphlets, ballads, playbills and photos relating to Shakespeare.

One highlight of the collection is this scene from The Book of Sir Thomas More, in which the title character attempts to quell a mob of people calling for French and Italian refugees to be banished from England.

It's written in Shakespeare’s original handwriting.

Can you find the quote above?

Credit:

Courtesy of The British Library

The Book of Sir Thomas More was originally written by Anthony Munday between 1596 and 1601, and is about the life of Henry VIII’s chancellor, Sir Thomas More.

However, plays at the time were put through a censor, and The Book of Sir Thomas More was deemed too controversial, because it includes scenes of civil unrest and shows More as a subversive martyr.

Later, Shakespeare was commissioned to write the scene above.

In it, More asks: How would the rioters feel if they were banished from their homeland? If they found themselves in the position of being an alien in a strange and hostile place? In the scene, More asks the mob to overcome their "mountainish inhumanity."

It’s impossible to read the scene and not imagine similar crowds around the world today. 

And that’s no accident, says Anna Lobbenberg, the project manager of the Discovering Literature website, the new house for this collection.

“It was very deliberate,” she says. “We’re really trying to find material that young students of Shakespeare’s works will be able to relate to the present day.”

So while this scene deals with the issue of refugees, other examples grapple with subjects of gender, sexuality, mental health and ethnicity.

The play was never performed professionally until 1971, when Sir Ian McKellen's played the part of Sir Thomas More. If you're more the listening type, you can hear the full monologue here: