This is the Strangers’ Case
This speech, delivered by Sir Ian McKellen at the Cambridge Union a couple of years ago, is from the play Sir Thomas More and is widely attributed to William Shakespeare. It’s from Act 2 Scene 4, at which point in the drama Thomas More (who was then London’s Deputy Sheriff) is called upon to put down an anti-immigration riot in the Parish of St Martin Le Grand, that took place on 1st May 1517. In reality More’s intevention wasn’t effective, and it took the arrival of 5000 troops to disperse the mob.
As well as being powerful for many other reasons, this speech especially fascinating because a hand-written manuscript (thought to be by Shakespeare himself) survives and is kept in the British Library.
The backdrop to this story is that, between 1330 and 1550 about 64,000 immigrants from all across Europe came to England in search of better lives. Locals blamed them for taking their jobs and threatening their culture. Tensions reached breaking point in 1517 and a mob armed with stones, bricks, bats, boots and boiling water attacked the immigrants and looted their homes. Five hundred years on, and we still haven’t learned.
Here is the text of the speech. As you will see, it basically amounts to the argument “do as you would be done by”, but it is much more powerful when performed by an actor, so do watch the clip too!
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; 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….
Say now the king
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, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.