NOTES (2) “Shakespeare and Migration”

Posted by


By Ralph Berry

[Ralph Berry’s “Caliban Our Contemporary” appeared in issue no. 3 of C.20]

Shakespeare is with us, as always. He deals with a migration crisis in the scenes he wrote for Sir Thomas More, a chronicle play written by several hands and never performed in its own time. We have the MS though, and the experts have no doubt that Hand D is Shakespeare’s. We have six authentic Shakespearean signatures to go on, plus ‘by me’ in his will. Then there is the style and imagery of the 147 lines of Hand D. They are, to any sensibility, authentically Shakespearean. His voice comes powerfully through.

The play’s issue is the anti-migrant riots of 1592-3, transposed by the authors of Sir Thomas More into early Tudor times. They too saw the relevance of the past to their present condition. London merchants and shopkeepers made trouble for ‘strangers’ — Flemings, French, Dutch — who were said to pose a threat to native English business. They were economic migrants (‘which cannot choose but much advantage the poor handicrafts of the City’) attracted to the success of the London economy. Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor — in today’s terms Prime Minister — addresses the angry London mob. What if the foreigners were driven out of the country?

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage

Ploddding to th’ports and coasts for transportation,

And that you sit as kings in your desires,

Authority quite silenc’d by your brawl

It is a familiar picture, known to us from our TV screens today. The picture painted by Sir Thomas More is recognizably humanitarian in quality. And he extends the argument, for if the immigrant vigilantes were successful in driving out the strangers,

What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught

How insolence and strong hand should prevail,

How order should be quell’d, 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.

And if the King were to punish the rioters

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, to any where that not adheres to England,

Why, you must needs be strangers…


The reciprocal rights of peoples have to be considered. What is good for the English must be good for others. The English too must travel and work abroad.

All these are contemporary arguments, well known to us. But the issues are not simple humanitarianism. More’s big speech invites easy moralizing, which it gets from Stanley Wells in Shakespeare and Co. (2007).Wells, whom Private Eye designates ‘the Stakhanovite Shakespearian’, remarks that More ‘subdues the rioters with powerful and humane pleas for tolerance in the face of racial bigotry and jingoistic exclusiveness which were topical in their own time and continue to be so today.’ That will teach the immigration vigilantes: down with economic migrants (‘which cannot choose but much advantage the poor handicrafts of the City’). Shakespeare unsurprisingly turns out to be on the same side as today’s liberals. But was Sir Thomas? Had Wells extended his quotation to the next speech he would have glimpsed a view-point that rebuts the strenuous side-taking of his commentary.

More’s is the voice of Government, of authority. ‘You shall perceive how horrible a shape/Your innovation bears…’ His true enemy is rebellion, here called ‘innovation’ — a word that has changed its meaning over the centuries, from pejorative to positive. When Sicinius calls Coriolanus ‘a traitorous innovator’ he means ‘revolutionary’. (Coriolanus, 3.1.176) Sir Thomas is for Government against the mob, and ‘obedience to authority’ is his prime doctrine. He is not a noble liberal, at ease with the open-doors policy of Wells’s selective fancy. It is for Government to decide who comes, and who stays. That is a position dramatized across our TV screens. It is now deemed unacceptable for migrants to take a kayak and venture across the mill-pond that is the summer Channel. The resources of the State are being deployed to arrest the numbers arriving on Dover Beach. On that, Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover beach’ comes aptly for today’s world. It ends

‘And we are here as on a darkling plain,

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.’

And Shakespeare, with his eternal ambivalence, gives us both sides. Our own ambivalence is now being sorely tested.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s