10 December 2012

Twenty years ago I stood in an unprepossessing street behind Liverpool Street station in London. I knew I was probably only a few yards away from the site of the Elizabethan theatre, the Curtain, where the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and Henry V were thought to have taken place.

This summer developers came across the very site of that Romeo theatre. And this autumn the British Museum has had an exhibition about Shakespeare’s world and that included the play about Thomas More in which Shakespeare probably had a hand – indeed, the play in Harleian manuscript 7368 may contain the most extensive example of Shakespeare’s own handwriting that we have.

The price of herring and the strangers’ case
These matters lead me to my point. The exhibition reminded me that the More play contains a scene, probably by Shakespeare, that I think resonates today in Britain. In May 1517 there is a riot in London against aliens, incomers, migrants, what you will, and the play includes this. The rioters complain in the play that these “audacious strangers” and “outlandish fugitives” will push up prices – a herring will cost a groat, butter will be elevenpence a pound – and gain more privileges than the natives. The aliens’ houses are to be fired.

Against these arguments More puts the telling “strangers’ case”. Against the “mountainish inhumanity” of the English rioters, he paints an affecting picture of the aliens and goes on to argue that the desire of the rioters to expel the aliens and their riotous disrespect for law and order will work against them as in violent anarchy “other ruffians” will, in a striking metaphor, “shark on you”. If they find themselves strangers in a foreign land the natives there would, as they themselves wish to do now, “whet their detested knives against your throats, spurn you like dogs”. Do unto others, I think, and love you the stranger.

No one in Britain today wishes to fire the aliens’ houses or whet knives against their throats, though I think I there is spurning sometimes, but perhaps before we talk, legitimately and candidly, about “audacious strangers” – if you prick them, do they not bleed – we should read and reflect on More’s speech.

Edward Hall’s Chronicle is here. The account of discontent begins at page 586.

The Malone Society 1911 edition of the play is here. The riot and More scene is at pages 69-76. A more easily read transcript is here.

There is a modern account of the riot here: ‘Evil May Day: re-examining the race riot of 1517’ by Graham NOBLE.

“If you prick us”: Shylock in 1.1 of The merchant of Venice.

“John Cranmer Cambridge aged 23, a clerk in the London County Council who was drowned near Ostend whilst saving the life of a stranger and a foreigner, August 8 1901” Plaque on the Watts Memorial, Postman’s Park, London