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More than 400 years ago, Shakespeare decried the ‘mountainish inhumanity’ that refugees had to face

Shakespeare's handwriting in "The Book of Sir Thomas More." (Courtesy of the British Library)

LONDON — What if you suddenly had to flee your country and found yourself struggling to make sense of your new life in a foreign land as a refugee? And what if you were greeted by “mountainish inhumanity,” instead of an outstretched hand?

An unprecedented wave of refugees pouring into Europe is grappling with these questions, which were also posed by William Shakespeare in the last surviving play script handwritten by the Bard.

The manuscript of the Elizabethan play “The Book of Sir Thomas More” was digitized and published by the British Library on Tuesday before the opening of a major exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The original manuscript is on loan to the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. 

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In the play, Shakespeare penned a scene in which Thomas More, a councilor and lord chancellor for King Henry VIII, confronts a throng of rioters in central London who are calling for the banishment of immigrants — or “strangers.”

In an impassioned speech, More condemns their “mountainish inhumanity” and implores them to empathize with the plight of refugees.  

More says:

"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."

Here’s British actor Ian McKellen's moving performance of the speech (starting at 2.50 minutes):

“The reason it’s so fascinating is not only is it in Shakespeare’s hand, but it’s so poignant today to read about the early-17th-century attitudes to immigration,” Alex Whitfield, learning and digital programs manager at the British Library, told WorldViews.   

The manuscript is one of 300 newly digitized items published on the British Library’s website that shine a light on the historical context in which Britain's most famous playwright was working. Over the course of this year, numerous events in Shakespeare's honor will be held across the United Kingdom and the globe. The list includes a special performance of “Hamlet” at Shakespeare’s Globe theater on April 23, the day the Bard died.

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The original “The Book of Sir Thomas More” was not written by Shakespeare, but he was one of several writers who reworked scenes in the play. It was written at a time of rising tensions in France between Protestants and Catholics. (Many French Protestants fled to England after 1681, when King Charles II offered them sanctuary.)

On social media, many noted that although the play was written more than 400 years ago, it contained passages that remain timeless.

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