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Shakespeare’s handwritten plea for refugees

21 March 20160 comments

The last surviving play script handwritten by William Shakespeare showed his empathy for refugees, a new exhibition has revealed.

‘The Book of Sir Thomas More’ play script is particularly poignant given the current European migration crisis and is to be made available online by the British Library.

Shakespeare's last surviving play reveals his empathy for the plight of refugees

Shakespeare’s last surviving play reveals his empathy for the plight of refugees

In the 400-year-old play, Shakespeare imagines social philosopher and Lord High Chancellor to Henry VIII Sir Thomas More making an impassioned plea for the humane treatment of refugees.

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 Protestant Huguenots seeking asylum in the capital.

He writes: “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.”

British Library curator Zoe Wilcox described the piece said it is a really stirring piece of rhetoric.

“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,” she said.

“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’.”

Mr Wilcox added, “It is striking and sad just how relevant it seems to us now considering what is happening in Europe.”

Talking about refugees crisis, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than one million people, mostly refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have now crossed into Greece since the start of 2015.

The UN Refugees Agency also revealed latest figures showed that up to March 14 more than 143,634 people had travelled to Greece from Turkey this year, taking the total of land and sea arrivals into Greece since January 1, 2015 to 1,000,357.

So far 448 people have drowned or gone missing trying to reach safety in Europe this year compared to a total of 3,771 for last year.

The original play, written in approximately 1600 about the life of Henry VIII’s councillor chancellor, was not staged because of fears it might incite unrest.

The play was never performed professionally until 1971, when Sir Ian McKellen played the part of Sir Thomas More.

The manuscript is one of 300 newly digitised treasures shining a light on the wider society and culture that helped shape Shakespeare’s imagination.

It has been conserved and digitised and will also be on display at the library’s ‘Shakespeare in 10 Acts’ exhibition, which opens on 15 April.

It is also available on line here.


Albertina Calemens
AMES Australia Staff Writer