Column: ‘Your mountainish inhumanity’: Shakespeare’s ringing defense of immigrants and refugees still resonates today
In this season of peace, the country seems divided against itself as seldom before in living memory. The presidential campaign that just ended turned on a demagogic stoking of fear of immigrants and refugees of rare ferocity.
As he did of so many aspects of human character, William Shakespeare subjected this very occurrence to his incisive eye. The evidence comes from a unique artifact of Shakespeareana, a sheaf of three handwritten pages from “The Book of Sir Thomas More,” a never-produced play of about 1600 by Anthony Munday in which Shakespeare was brought in as a sort of play doctor. His contribution was the emotional summit of the play, the “insurrection scene” in which More quells a mob of riotous Londoners intent on a massacre of immigrants. Scholars have concluded that the pages are in Shakespeare’s handwriting, making them the only known literary manuscript in his hand.
What country... should give you harbor?
— William Shakespeare, “The Book of Sir Thomas More”
The topical context of this scene was an outbreak of anti-immigrant riots in the 1590s, which replicated a fever sweeping London in 1517, during More’s time as a sheriff of the city. In Shakespeare’s version, More’s words to the mob come as a response to a townsman’s declaration that by removing competition, evicting the “strangers” could not but be an advantage to the poor artisans of the city.
More turns the argument back upon the mob. What if you were the refugees, he asks them. Where would you go? As strangers yourselves, “Would you be pleased/To find a nation of such barbarous temper/That, breaking out in hideous violence,/Would not afford you an abode on earth,/Whet their detested knives against your throats?”
By exposing “this your mountainish inhumanity,” More persuades the mob to back down. Reading it today we are forced to ask, where is our Thomas More to expose as cynical opportunists those who would attack immigrants and refugees for their own political ends?
Here is the speech, modernized and slightly abridged:
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silenced by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to 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 harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.