William Shakespeare’s last surviving script makes a great case for immigration reform

A telling tale.
A telling tale.
Image: Courtesy of the British Library.
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The last surviving piece of a script by William Shakespeare was written hundreds of years ago, but its substance—the humane treatment of migrants—is strikingly relevant in Europe today.

The British Library has put the historic item online in honor of the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. The script features Sir Thomas More addressing a mob of angry protesters in London who were clamoring about “strangers,” refugees that have been allowed into the city by King Henry VIII. More implores the crowd to think of what would happen if they were forced to leave home and venture to places unknown for their safety. He asks them to think of what they would do in France or Germany or Spain and realize they, too, would be considered outsiders there.

The script reads: “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.”

Image for article titled William Shakespeare’s last surviving script makes a great case for immigration reform
Image: British Library

It’s worth nothing that Shakespeare was writing during a time of upheaval in Europe, when religious conflicts across the continent were displacing people out of their homes.

The script wasn’t in fact written for one of Shakespeare’s plays—the playwright wrote it as a revision of another work called The Book of Sir Thomas More. Although many other playwrights penned their own revisions, the play was never produced during Shakespeare’s lifetime—NPR notes that it was feared the production might exacerbate already-high tensions.

What’s resonant about Shakespeare’s script is how the debate over the treatment of migrants mirrors the same conversation happening in Europe today amid the ongoing refugee crisis. It’s even poignant considering how the United States (particularly its Republican state governors) have responded to the idea of taking in refugees themselves.

The British Library has digitized this and hundreds of other texts for an upcoming exhibition in London. And those who want to see the handwritten script for themselves still can—the original script is currently on loan at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.