All over the world the problems created by asylum seekers, and the hostility aroused by legal and illegal immigrants, grow more acute. Shakespeare dramatized these problems – the anti-alien feeling that flared up at various times in London, and a wonderfully compassionate statement on behalf of refugees, in a scene of three pages that he added to the play of Sir Thomas More. As a former asylum seeker, some of whose relatives perished in concentration camps, I would like to comment on the originality of a scene that is sometimes described as hastily written, ‘with the remaining ink of a pen otherwise employed’, to explain why Shakespeare wrote it and why no one else could have written it.
Let us consider first how Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas rebukes the anti-alien rioters in London, remembering that his speech ‘was intended to reflect the crisis over aliens that was troubling the City’ at the very time (1593) when the play is thought to have been composed.
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, Their babies at their backs, with 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 selfsame hand, self reasons and self right Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes Would feed on one another.
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