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

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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sir Ian McK­ellen Puts on a Daz­zling One-Man Shake­speare Show

Sir Ian McK­ellen Releas­es New Apps to Make Shakespeare’s Plays More Enjoy­able & Acces­si­ble

A 68 Hour Playlist of Shakespeare’s Plays Being Per­formed by Great Actors: Giel­gud, McK­ellen & More

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

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Comments (18)
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  • Bill W. says:

    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.

  • Jonathan Collins says:

    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!

  • Chucky says:

    @ 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

  • Don says:

    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.

  • Lamin Badjie says:

    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.

  • Bill W. says:

    …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!

  • Randy says:

    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?

  • E says:

    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?

  • Dana C. says:

    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.

  • William says:

    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.

  • Jonathan Collins says:

    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?

  • Camilla Cracchiolo says:

    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.

  • 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 :)

  • Francois says:

    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?

  • Francois says:

    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?

  • Stan says:

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

  • Jaime Ruben Lopez Marines says:

    The fact of the mat­ter is that the world is
    Head­ing towards glob­al inte­gra­tion
    Of its pop­u­la­tion, whether we like it or
    Not. That fact can­not be changed. The best
    we can do is act on it in a pos­i­tive, humane
    way, look­ing for a bet­ter future for us all.

  • Robert Laurie says:

    This is typ­i­cal­ly NOT the case; as is hap­pen­ing in Europe at present.

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