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Friday, October 21, 2016

Banned Shakespearean Speech Advocates for Refugees


Because of the war in Syria and because of the election in the United States, immigration is very much in the news.  Canada has welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, but in the U.S. there is a lot of opposition to allowing Muslims into the country.  I was therefore interested in how a Shakespearean speech is being used to advocate for refugees.  Those unwilling to help refugees are found guilty of “mountainish inhumanity.”

Image result for the book of st thomas more “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation”
                                The Book of Sir Thomas More (Act II, scene iv)

Xenophobia swept through England as 64,000 foreigners arrived in the country between 1330 and 1550 in search of better lives.  Locals blamed them for taking their jobs and distorting their culture.  Tensions reached a zenith on May 1, 1517, when riots broke out in London and a mob attacked the immigrants and looted their homes.  Thomas More, then the city’s deputy sheriff, tried to reason with the crowd.

This day, known as Evil May Day, is portrayed in a play titled The Book of Sir Thomas More written by Anthony Munday between 1596 and 1601.  Then Shakespeare, along with three other playwrights, was brought in to revise the script.  Shakespeare’s additions include 147 lines in the middle of the action, in which More addresses the anti-immigration rioters.  The Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, whose role included stage censorship, refused to allow the play to be performed because he was worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest especially since England was experiencing another immigrant crisis with the arrival of French-speaking Protestant asylum seekers from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Interestingly, this is the only surviving play script to contain Shakespeare's handwriting. The manuscript can be seen at the British Library.