For World Refugee Day in June of 2018, Shakespeare’s Globe posted a video of world-renowned actors and refugees from Syria, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan performing Shakespeare’s lines from the little-known play manuscript The Book of Sir Thomas More. The passage is about migrants, and directly addresses the refugee experience in England. In his interpretation of the speech, Sir Ian McKellen explains how it occurs as Sir Thomas More addresses a crowd of people pushing for “strangers” to be driven out, a scene that bears an uncanny resemblance to manifestations of modern xenophobic attitudes in Europe.
Shakespeare’s England was also full of migrants, many refugees from the European wars of religion. He lived near and worked with people of many different backgrounds, and maybe this is why he asked his audience to “imagine that you see the wretched strangers, their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation,” and to consider whether they’d be “pleased to find a nation… that, breaking out in hideous violence, would not afford you an abode.”
While The Book of Sir Thomas More was never produced, it resonates today in a particularly poignant way: it reveals that Shakespeare was thinking about migration while he was an active playwright. His works prove that migration has always been central to European society.
Like Shakespeare, many of us think about migration often. In the past decade, it has become normal to wake up and scroll through the morning briefings of various news outlets and almost immediately come across headlines that refer to the tension at the southern border of the U.S., or the boats floating across the Mediterranean that are overfilled with people trying to seek out a better life. Social and political preoccupation with migration has increased as the international discourse becomes more and more contentious. In Europe especially, the influx of refugees traveling across the mediterranean (referred to as the “migration crisis”) has become one of the most important issues at the forefront of EU politics today. Right-wing populist parties in Europe have adopted an anti-immigration stance in their party platforms, and xenophobic propaganda has generated a snowball effect that has increased conservative party membership.
Far-right populists stress the migration problem as a new, negative phenomenon. However, what many Europeans on both sides of the political spectrum fail to recognize is that the movement of peoples across Europe has been a part of wider European society for centuries. Powerful far-right propaganda machines mask this truth underneath a web of xenophobic rhetoric. Is there a way that this rhetoric can brought to its knees in a world of fake news and cultural contention? Frustratingly, the purely political route to undermining this far-right dialogue is complicated, and progress made to fight xenophobia is not increasing faster than the far-right’s support base, which creates a net value of no decisive tilt in the political scale. So, perhaps the way to resist increasing anti-immigrant sentiment is not to directly attack the politics of migration, but to instead turn to a less obvious mode of protest: the theatre. Specifically, we can use the words of Shakespeare, a quintessentially European figure who symbolizes the cultural achievements of Europe, to fight xenophobic rhetoric. Using the words of a celebrated British author forces people to see how the stories of the migrants in his works are both those the migrants of the past and those of migrants today.
It’s not just one speech in an obscure play, however, that demonstrates Shakespeare’s familiarity with migration and the presence of refugees. His play As You Like It practically throws around examples of the migrant’s plight. Duke Senior is banished from his home, and addresses his “co-mates and brothers in exile.” Adam vocalizes the struggle of a migrant, exclaiming “I can go no further. O, I die for food. Here I lie down and measure out my grave.” In Shakespeare’s time, migrants arrived on the English isle just as the stranded characters in The Tempest arrived on the play’s magical island. Othello in Othello as a migrant and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice as a Jewish man are subjected to serious persecution in a Christian Venice. Now, refugees cross the mediterranean on boats and face similar persecution and alienation once they arrive in a Europe that is becoming more hostile to migrants.
While Adam in As You Like It expresses the refugee’s difficult journey, he is actually surrounded by company, in a forest where he could hunt or scavenge for food. In the height of the migration crisis in 2015, refugees perished on boats in the middle of the sea, and their stories, unlike Adam’s, tend to go untold. This is why it is important to adapt Shakespeare’s words to express the reality that the migrant experience has been central to Europe, and convince the European community that refugees cannot be excluded from European society. Recent productions such as Twelfth Night by the Questors Theatre, which used the shipwreck to move into a story of refugees coming to the shores of Europe, and The Tempest by the Sea Change Theatre, which focused on Sycorax’s status as an immigrant from Algeria and Miranda’s status as a banished refugee, take a stand against the backdrop of a Europe fraught with xenophobic rhetoric. To prove that migration has been a lasting, fundamental aspect of European history, Shakespeare Shorts, a Shakespeare festival held in London in 2017, put together scenes from Shakespeare with contemporary refugee stories to raise money for the UN Refugee Agency.
However, we must be aware of the implications of this mode of resistance against the far-right, as it reflects the more well-off in society’s tendency to speak for the marginalized without recognizing that the stories they are sharing belong to those with real, first-hand experience. It is dangerous and incorrect to imply that pieces written by a white male author provide the best way to tell the stories of a diverse population of refugees of the past, so the best way to move forward and use Shakespeare’s works effectively is to adapt his plays in a way that helps create a platform for migrants to express their own realities, as the stories must come from refugees themselves. This platform can be ultimately built by pushing people, who have become desensitized to social and political problems by the constant and rapid spread of information through mainstream media, to understand the historically enduring truths of the migrant experience, through well known works of the past like Shakespeare’s.
Mercedes Sapuppo is a Sophomore at Harvard University majoring in Social Studies.