Friday, July 14, 2017

The Garden of History: In Shakespeare's Own Hand, the "Mountainish Inhumanity" of Denying Refuge to "Strangers"


          Imagine  that you see the wretched strangers,

           Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,

           Plodding to th' ports and coast. -- William Shakespeare


           Published in 2008, a work of scholarship called "The Lodger Shakespeare," by Charles Nicholl, tells us what can be drawn from official records pertaining to Shakespeare's life as a 'lodger,' that is one who lives in the household of the house's owner, in London during the early years of the 17th century.
           The house on Silver Street in which Shakespeare lodged, beginning 1602 or 1603, for a few years (exact dates unknown)
is the playwright's only London residence for which we have any record at all. What that record tells us is teased out at length in Nicholl's remarkable book. We know the name of the family he lodged with, Mountjoy, because he was later called on to give testimony in a financial dispute between his former landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, and the man (Stephen Belott) who married Montjoy's daughter and who contended that his father-in-law reneged on a promised dowry. As this family name suggests, the Mountjoys who lived on Silver Street in the Cripplegate district of London, were French.
             What caught my eye in this fascinating glimpse of Jacobean history is the author's shrewd speculations on the effect living in a household owned by French immigrants might have had on Shakespeare's work. French characters, Nicholl points out, show up in a few of his plays. The most 'French' of his plays, the early romantic comedy "Love's Labors Lost," centers on four aristocratic young men who 'retreat' from the world to devote themselves to study, but are somehow distracted by the arrival of four noble French women. 
             Here's the telling part. The author states:

            "One of the enigmatic jokes which litter 'Love's Labors Lost' refers to a 'French brawl,' and given the probable date of the play it has been suggested that this alludes to London's anti-immigrant riots of April-May 1593... [when] gangs of apprentices marched the streets chanting murderous anti-French slogans

            Weele curt your throates in your temples praying

                  Not Paris massacre so much blood did spill.


Against this topical background, the author suggests, the French milieu imagined in Shakespeare's play (philosophical nobleman, elaborate courtesies, elegant picnics) stands as "a kind of riposte to current anti-French hysteria."

            Even more interesting to me is learning something I do not remember ever reading before, namely that Shakespeare had a hand -- literally -- in a little known, possibly unproduced Elizabethan play titled the "Booke of Sir Thomas More." Based on expert historical handwriting analysis, one of this play's six authors is William Shakespeare. Even more remarkably, this little known work is the only surviving manuscript -- that is literary writing, rather than say an official document such as a will or other legal filing -- in which Shakespeare's handwriting has been detected. And in the entire six-handed play, only one scene is written by Shakespeare. 
          And that that scene happens to one in which More, the hero of a 20th century play "A Man of All Seasons," is depicted shaming anti-French rioters in a 1517 event known as the "Ill May Day" riots. Those disturbances, Nicholl tells us, "are parallel with the riots of 1593," the period during which Shakespeare contributed a scene to a play about Thomas More. (Collaboratively written plays, by the way, were very common in both the Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters.)

            Shakespeare's scene pictures an aggrieved mob leader blaming rising prices for foodstuffs on the presence of the 'strangers' -- French refugees from the troubled continent across the English Channel. Besides, the anti-immigrant spokesman complains, the French eat strange vegetables, which are bad for the locals, such as vegetables grown in "dung." Nicholl terms these complaints "the invented grievances of racism."

            Shakespeare is particularly eloquent in his invention of a speech in which More asks the rioters to confront the actuality of 'deporting' the French immigrants:

           Imagine  that you see the wretched strangers,

           Their babies at their backs, with their poor luggage,

           Plodding to th' ports and coast.



Then More asks the rioters to imagine what would it feel like "to be rejected by a nation of such barbarous temper... that would not afford you an abode on earth."
           What would you think
           To be thus used? This the strangers' case
           And this your mountainish inhumanity.
 
So, as it happens, this one scene, the only piece of manuscript identified as written by Shakespeare's hand, deals with his nation's  treatment of immigrants. The author states: "The only surviving literary manuscript by Shakespeare contains a passionate speech on behalf of London's immigrants." Nicholl's book suggests the possibility of a connection between the words and Shakespeare's experience of living in the home of an immigrant family in London. 
         All this leaves me with a question: Where is the Shakespeare who can show us to ourselves and confront the anti-immigrant racists of our own day -- those "of such barbarous temper" who wish to close the door on Syrians, for instance, among other Muslim-majority nations, even while our leader's Russian friends bomb their cities and hospitals?
          Our leader, that is, who wishes to build a wall to 'defend our borders' -- against 'strangers' such as Central American teenagers fleeing murderous criminal gangs in their own unhappy nations.
           Where is the poet who can show us to our 'barbarous,' un-Christian selves when we set tiny quotas for refugees from war in the Middle East and drug violence in Central America, scared to death that some foreign-born 'terrorist' will infiltrate among them and do us harm? And yet entirely careless of the danger of handing semi-automatic weapons to good old native-born domestic abusers? 
            Are we so lacking in eloquent voices? Or is it simply that we've become a people lacking in both compassion and shame?