Monday, November 18, 2013

Immigration riots and the hand of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

It begins on the street, nastily. An immigrant has got his hands on an English woman. Trouble is brewing. Then there is a dispute about money, involving a “Lombard” – the identification originally applied to immigrants from Lombardy in northern Italy, famous for its banking, but it had gradually become a term of abuse for all foreigners engaged in trade or banking, a word bandied around in the same way as “Jew”. Doll, the lusty London woman who has been hauled by the arm, sums up the popular sentiment of the day: “I am ashamed that freeborn Englishmen, having beaten strangers within their own homes, should thus be braved and abused by them at home.” In other words: we won the war overseas, but now the foreigners (“strangers”) are coming over here, taking our jobs and our women.
Before long, London is burning. Order has broken down and the people have taken the law into their own hands. The mob mentality calls it rough justice… On May Day 1517 London witnessed the worst race riot of the age. A mob of over a thousand angry young men and women gathered near St Paul’s and tore through the City, destroying property and assaulting anyone who stood in their path. Most were poor labourers or apprentices. They broke into Newgate Prison, freeing inmates who had been detained for attacking foreigners. The riot was brought to a temporary halt when the charismatic Under-sheriff of London, Sir Thomas More, confronted the crowd. But soon they went on the rampage again, trashing foreign-owned small businesses and demanding the deportation of immigrants.
In the final years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Shakespeare dramatised the encounter between More and the crowd as his contribution to this multi-authored comi-tragedy, which has a complicated history of collaboration and revision. He gave More a powerful speech asking the crowd to put themselves into the position of the outsider, to imagine what it would be like to be “the wretched strangers, / Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage / Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation”. But even with More’s subsequent lines about the king as God’s representative on earth and the need for the people to show absolute obedience, the subject matter was too hot to handle.

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