The last surviving play script handwritten by William Shakespeare, in which he imagines Sir Thomas More making an impassioned plea for the humane treatment of refugees, is to be made available online by the British Library.
The manuscript is one of 300 newly digitised treasures shining a light on the wider society and culture that helped shape Shakespeare’s imagination. All will be available to view on a new website before an extensive exhibition on the playwright at the library next month.
The Book of Sir Thomas More script is particularly poignant given the current European migration crisis.
The powerful scene, featuring More challenging anti-immigration rioters in London, was written at a time when there were heightened tensions over the number of French Protestants (Huguenots) seeking asylum in the capital.
“It is a really stirring piece of rhetoric,” said the library’s curator, Zoe Wilcox. “At its heart it is really about empathy. More is calling on the crowds to empathise with the immigrants or strangers as they are called in the text. He is asking them to imagine what it would be like if they went to Europe, if they went to Spain or Portugal, they would then be strangers. He is pleading with them against what he calls their ‘mountainous inhumanity’.
“It is striking and sad just how relevant it seems to us now considering what is happening in Europe.”
The original play, written in approximately 1600 about the life of Henry VIII’s councillor and lord chancellor, was not by Shakespeare and was not staged because of fears it might incite unrest.
Shakespeare was one of several writers brought in to rework the piece, and it is his contribution which remains the most remarkable.
He writes: “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.”
Wilcox said all the evidence suggested the writing was by the hand of Shakespeare, making it a unique manuscript. “All we have other than that are the six authentic Shakespeare signatures, so this is really amazing. It is not even a fair copy, it is something he was drafting as he was mid-composition.”
The manuscript has been conserved and digitised and will also be on display at the library’s Shakespeare in 10 Acts exhibition, which opens on 15 April.
Other highlights on the Discovering Literature: Shakespeare website include:
• Some of the earliest images of Native Americans brought back by the first European settlers.
• Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s personal copy of The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, which includes extensive annotations and his famous comments on Iago’s “motiveless malignity”.
• A self-portrait by John Dee, the Elizabethan polymath thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s Prospero.
There will also be essays and films as part of an effort by the library to bring to life the world in which Shakespeare was writing. “We are trying to help students understand the context of Shakespeare’s time because many English teachers tell us that students struggle to understand him and the world he came from,” Wilcox said.
• This article was amended on 5 April 2017. An earlier version said the John Dee picture was the only surviving portrait of him.
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