Ian McKellen Reads a Passionate Speech by William Shakespeare, Written in Defense of Immigrants

in Literature | January 27th, 2017

The identity of William Shakespeare has been a literary mystery for four hundred years, inspiring theory after theory, book after book. There has been, indeed, little biographical evidence to work with, though paleographer and “literary detective” Heather Wolfe has very recently filled in some critical gaps. It was long thought that Shakespeare’s will, in which he bequeaths to his wife his “second best bed,” was the only document in his hand, aside from a few signatures here and there.

Since around the turn of the 20th century, however, scholars have come to agree that three pages of a manuscript in an Elizabethan play called Sir Thomas More contain Shakespeare’s handwriting. The play, writes the British Library—who house the physical pages and have digital scans at their site—tells the story of “the Tudor lawyer and polymath who was sentenced to death for refusing to recognise Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church in England.”



Best known from A Man for All Seasons and for writing the philosophical novel Utopia, More was a humanist and a diplomat, and in this excerpt, he “delivers a gripping speech” to a rioting mob, “who are baying for so-called ‘strangers’ to be banished.” In the video above, you can see Ian McKellen give a passionate reading of More’s speech, in which he “relies on human empathy to make his point that if the rioters were suddenly banished to a foreign land, they would become ‘wretched strangers’ too, and equally vulnerable to attack.”

The speech, McKellen says, “is symbolic and wonderful… so much at the heart of Shakespeare’s humanity.” Read an excerpt below and more of the text at Quartz.

Say now the king
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, 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.

This scene refers to an actual event in English history, writes Anne Quito at Quartz, when “feverish xenophobia swept through the population.” In a period between 1330 and 1550, “64,000 foreigners, from wealthy Lombard bankers to Flemish laborers, arrived on English shores… in search of better lives.”

The tension came to head on May 1, 1517, when “riots broke out in London and a mob armed with stones, bricks, bats, boots and boiling water attacked the immigrants and looted their homes. Thomas More, then the city’s deputy sheriff, tried to reason with the crowd.”

The day became known as “Evil May Day” and cast a grim shadow several decades later when the play was believed to have been written, between 1596 and 1601. Shakespeare was not its only author, though the 147 lines of More’s speech are his. Sir Thomas More was immediately banned and never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The queen’s censor Edmund Tilney “thought it might incite riots during a time when England was once again besieged by another immigrant crisis.” McKellen’s reading has become a “clarion call,” writes Quito for refugee advocates in the midst of Europe’s current crisis.

Americans might take this to heart as well, as victims of war and terror in countries all over the Middle East may soon be banned from finding refuge in the U.S. See a shorter reading of an excerpt from the speech just above by Harriet Walters.

via Quartz

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (16)

  1. Bill W. says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 7:36 am

    The difference is, immigrants voluntarily come to a country, and typically assimilate into that culture out of love for their new country’s values and ways. Refugees on the other hand, are forced to leave due to unfortunate circumstances at home, and tend to love their home country, it’s culture, and values more than that of their host country. They typically want the new countries they’re staying in to conform to THEIR values and beliefs (ex. Sharia Law), as is happening in Europe in the present.

  2. Jonathan Collins says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 11:47 am

    Gotta love the open borders crowd. The people coming to Europe and America want no part of western democracy. They want to impose the same rules and laws of their failed homelands. And God help you if you disagree!

  3. Chucky says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 11:57 am

    @ Bill W and Jonathan Collins

    “The people coming to Europe and America want no part of western democracy. They want to impose the same rules and laws of their failed homelands”

    Yeah, just like the Jews in WW2 right? smh

  4. Don says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 12:55 pm

    It is hard to believe that Shakespeare was speaking in simplistic terms as it relates to immigration druing 1350-1500. They were in numerous wars with France and others. The flemish were part of uproar because it was basically allowing your enemy come in and take you from the inside. There is no different here. Dems have allowed the trojan horse to come in millions of times and the. They use them to destroy the country within.

  5. Lamin Badjie says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 1:27 pm

    I am benefiting a lot from the wonderful writings of shakespear as an art student ,i wish you all the goodluck in your publications so as i will also keep enjoying and reading your work here.

  6. Bill W. says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 3:33 pm

    …except the Jews weren’t murdering, raping, or blowing/shooting-up people and things. These people are, and the Europeans (and us) are getting SICK of their antics!

  7. Randy says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 3:51 pm

    Not exactly.

    First, it’s is about banishment. These people have already been kicked out of one country. They aren’t people who sought out a country, but ones who were forced into it. This might inspire great patriotism. Or it might equally inspire resentment in the refugee.

    Second, even with people who seek out a country, the question is their motivation. Are they seeking to conform to its values they hold dear as well? Or are they seeking to set up an enclave of counter-values? Indeed, are they seeking to disrupt and overthrow a system that the citizens have spent lifetimes building together?

    Third, what sort of values DO these refugees hold? Is there such a hatred of life that they will send even their own children to blow things up? If given the chance, would they imprison a good chunk of your population, just for loving wrong? Would they make all other groups pay a tax to them?

  8. E says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 3:51 pm

    Bill W. and Jonathan Collins are right: the foundation of our great democratic tradition is the suppression of dissension, so that we can all be free. From Plymouth Rock to the post-WWII era, America has never experienced much by way of refugee immigration, and has since its founding been a culturally homogeneous country with widely agreed upon values and beliefs; such is, proverbially, the source of our success. The very foundation of our identity as Americans would be rocked if we were to take in not just wealthy immigrants who had other options, but those tired, poor, huddled masses of homeless refugees, who America has historically shunned. What would Lady Liberty think if we opened such a door?

  9. Dana C. says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 5:44 pm

    I get really tired of all the anti-immigrant attitudes – wherever they are. It is just an opinion that immigrants want their new country to conform to their values…it is not based on fact. I live in the US..lived in Texas, California and the DC area..all of which have strong immigrant populations. All embraced American values; spoke our language (even if amongst themselves they spoke their own language), and ultimately they came to America for was a better life. It is the pioneer spirit. People have moved from place to place for years. The real truth is the anti-immigrant issue is about racial hatred and scapegoating them, when their problems stem other things…like corporate greed.

  10. William says . . .
    January 25, 2017 / 8:55 pm

    You just have to love those in the comments who, despite the subject matter and the eloquence of its delivery, can’t take even a single moment to quiet their own opinions and ponder, for an instant, the plight of others. Were your forebears not strangers to this land once? You would have seen them treated thus? “Mountainish inhumanity” indeed.

  11. Jonathan Collins says . . .
    January 26, 2017 / 7:27 am

    Funny. Try emigrating to Saudi Arabia and opening up a Catholic Church and see how that goes! There are nine so blind as those who will not see! Western Europe is falling before our eyes because politicians are too scared to enforce the laws ALREADY ON THE BOOKS! But what do I know. I’m just an anti immigrant racist right?

  12. Camilla Cracchiolo says . . .
    January 27, 2017 / 1:51 am

    There’s not such a huge difference as you imply between refugees and immigrants. Many, many immigrants have arrived on our shores desperate and broke. The Irish of the Potato Famine, among my own ancestors, were scarcely “wealthy immigrants who had other options.” Nor were my Sicilian grandparents. The great Viaggio of around 1895 to 1915 was driven by the collapse of the world economy in the Long Depression of the 1890s. My grandfather broke his health pounding steel into railroad ties for years, not the action of a wealthy person with other options.

    And the thing that has made us America, and not simply a copy of Britain, has been the contributions of immigrants, black people, indiginous people, Hispanic and now the latest wave of new immigrants. It’s our great strength and it’s what makes us unique.

  13. January 27, 2017 / 5:45 am

    It’s a fantastic speech and interesting that the play was not performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, due to the deemed “controversial” nature of the work. This is our take on it – we set it in a parliamentary committee meeting, because the mob these days seem more in line with this speech’s sentiments, but our politicians seem to need a reminder of their humanity! https://youtu.be/bl7STrktRzk :)

  14. Francois says . . .
    January 29, 2017 / 11:01 am

    This is wonderful but caveat emptor! All the eloquence in the world can not defeat as sound argument. Facts matter Context matters. Think before you swallow spoon-fed propaganda that compares apple to pears. The cases here are distinguishable: be circumspect about how propaganda works! Distinctions with a difference become muddled: smoke and mirrors conflation. This is precisely why propaganda is effective. Therein lies the trick.

    Take this with a huge grain of salt. Do not conflate wealthy Lombard bankers, Flemish laborers and religiously persecuted French Protestants fleeing Catholic France with fundamentalist Muslim refugees who are identified with a rebel religious faction attempting to overthrow a secular dictatorship – a rebel faction so risky that not even the left-leaning politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clifton were willing to give them weapons to defend themselves because they did not know who they were arming. If you won’t hand out weapons to religious fundamentalists who have become refugees in a religion driven war should you not be especially cautious about inviting them into America where assault weapons are easy to buy at a local gun shop?

  15. Francois says . . .
    January 29, 2017 / 11:11 am

    Witness the death of skepticism and the insidious nature of propaganda.

    First ask, if handwritten manuscript is the only example of a script written in Shakespeare’s penmanship then how do we know it’s authentic. Second, presuming, purely for sake of argument it is, on what rational basis can one argue Shakespeare in those circumstances would be of the same opinion centuries later in a vastly different set of circumstances. Unless one is a fool one knows that facts matter, contest matters. And who understood the role of fools better than Shakespeare?

  16. Stan says . . .
    January 30, 2017 / 8:43 pm

    Carefully manicured propaganda designed to keep fear of strangers alive, and mindless citizens slaves to their government.

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