In Brief

Shakespeare’s Only Handwritten Manuscript Contains a Message of Empathy for Migrants

The First Folio from 1623 of Shakespeare's plays (courtesy British Library)
The First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays from 1623 (courtesy British Library)

Aside from a few signatures, only one example of William Shakespeare’s handwriting survives, a speech from around 1603 that imagines Sir Thomas More addressing the rage of an anti-migrant crowd in England. More asks the angry people, who are riled by strangers — French Protestants — seeking shelter in the country, to have empathy: “What would you think / To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case; / And this your mountanish inhumanity.

Shakespeare's handwriting in The Book of Sir Thomas More, The British Library - See more at: http://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2016/march/discovering-literature-shakespeare#sthash.eHyvPPhe.dpuf
Shakespeare’s handwriting in ‘The Book of Sir Thomas More’ (courtesy the British Library) (click to enlarge)

The manuscript is included in the British Library’s new online resource Discovering Literature: Shakespeare, launched this month with around 300 digitized items related to the Bard. They include a 16th-century pamphlet on witchcraft, a cast of a Michelangelo bust of Brutus, a self-portrait by Elizabethan magician John Dee, 19th-century costume recommendations for Hamlet, and even some illustrations of the “strangers” of Shakespeare’s day, like a painting of a “Virginian Indian” — one of the American Indians brought to England and exhibited as oddities in the 17th century. The objects are joined by essays exploring themes in Shakespeare’s writing, such as “Richard III and the staging of disability” by Katherine Schapp Williams and “Ophelia, gender and madness” by Elaine Showalter.

The physical copy of the More speech will be one of the objects on view in Shakespeare in Ten Acts, opening in April at the British Library. It’s currently on view in Washington, DC, through March 27 in Shakespeare, Life of an Icon at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Shakespeare didn’t write the whole Sir Thomas More play (it was a collaborative effort), but the statesman was a natural character to voice one of the calls for humanity that so often accent the Bard’s speeches and soliloquies. More was executed in 1535 for treason for his unwavering support of the Catholic Church over the rule of King Henry VIII (and his serial marriages), and was later canonized as a saint. In the play, More addresses the mob:

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. [Scene 6, 134–45]

The British Library explains that “proving that More’s words were indeed written by Shakespeare is not straightforward, [but] in their keen sympathy for the plight of the alienated and dispossessed they seem to prefigure the insights of great dramas of race such as The Merchant of Venice and Othello.” The library also notes that the play was never approved for performance by “Master of the Revels” — aka drama censor — Edmund Tilney, because, ironically, he might have been “worried about inciting unrest on the streets of London.”

With tensions about immigrants and refugees running high around the world, the speech’s plea against fear and hate still sounds relevant. As NPR reported, it wasn’t until 1964 that the play was performed in London, with Ian McKellen as Sir Thomas More. Here’s the actor reprising his performance at the 2012 “The People Speak” event in London:

The manuscript of Shakespeare’s handwritten Sir Thomas More speech is on view through March 27 in Shakespeare, Life of an Icon at the Folger Shakespeare Library (201 East Capitol Street, SE Washington, DC), and will be on view in Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library (96 Euston Road, London) from April 15 to September 6.

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