Multiculturalism in Shakespeare's plays

Andrew Dickson describes the position of racial and religious minorities in Renaissance England, and considers how this might have influenced Shakespeare's depiction of immigrants, outsiders and exiles.

One of the frustrating things about studying Shakespeare is that we have so little access to his working methods: nothing in the way of rehearsal or director’s notes, and only patchwork evidence as to the way he revised his scripts.

But there is one incalculably precious document. Located deep in the bowels of the British Library is the manuscript of a late 16th-century playtext entitled ‘The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore’, written collaboratively by a number of authors, including the playwrights Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. Their star subject was the scholar and politician Thomas More, author of Utopia, who resisted Henry VIII’s separation from Rome and died a Catholic martyr.

The Book of Sir Thomas More: Shakespeare's only surviving literary manuscript

Shakespeare's handwriting in The Book of Sir Thomas More

In this handwritten play by several writers, Shakespeare has inserted a scene in which Thomas More suppresses an anti-French riot in London.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

In 1871, scholars discovered that this scrappy and unglamorous document also contained the handwriting of another author, altogether more famous: William Shakespeare.[1] Shakespeare, it was proposed, added a scene to the middle of the play, 164 lines long, in which the heroic More courageously and single-handedly puts down an anti-French race riot on the streets of London. The Lord Chancellor delivers a gripping speech to the aggressive mob, who are baying for so-called ‘strangers’ to be banished:

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. (Scene 6, ll. 134–45)[2]

More relies on human empathy to make his point: if the rioters were suddenly banished to a foreign land, they would become ‘wretched strangers’ too, and equally vulnerable to attack. In the words of critic Jonathan Bate: ‘More asks the on-stage crowd, and by extension the theatre audience, to imagine what it would be like to be an asylum-seeker undergoing forced repatriation.’[3]

In their keen sympathy for the plight of the alienated and dispossessed, Shakespeare's words seem to prefigure the insights of great dramas of race such as The Merchant of Venice and Othello.[4] Whoever wrote them had a fine ear for the way rhetoric can sway a crowd – it’s hard not to think of Julius Caesar, too – but also a sharp eye for the troubled relationship between ethnic minorities and majorities.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

The ‘warlike Moor, Othello’ amongst white faces in Cyprus. Othello, Act 2, Scene 1 by Thomas Stothard.

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An immigrant city

When Shakespeare arrived in London at some point in the late 1580s or early 1590s, the capital was expanding faster than anyone could remember: from 50,000 inhabitants in 1500, it had swelled to some 200,000 people, four times that number, a century later. Hungrily absorbing people from across the British Isles and overseas – one of whom, of course, was an aspiring actor/playwright from Warwickshire – London was pre-eminently a city of immigrants, both first- and second-generation.

A cramped medieval town that had somehow become a cosmopolitan metropolis, London also had the stretch-marks to prove it, particularly as the economic picture worsened during the 1590s. If Sir Thomas More was staged during Shakespeare’s lifetime (theatre historians think not), audiences would have recognised with a shudder its scenes of people out on the streets, calling for ‘strangers’ to be thrown out.[5] On 5 May 1593, a handbill appeared on the wall of the Dutch churchyard in Broad Street, warning immigrants to ‘fly, fly, & never returne’. Soon after the handbill was posted, gangs of apprentices were out in force, chanting bloodthirsty anti-foreigner slogans.[6]

Later in the decade, as inflation rocketed and taxes soared, disturbances became a weary reality. The price of flour more than tripled between 1593 and 1597, and London saw a huge surge in homelessness and vagrancy. A series of riots by apprentices culminated in 1595, when over 1,000 young men massed near Tower Hill and were violently put down. Afterwards, an obviously shaken Elizabeth I issued a proclamation condemning ‘sundry great disorders ... by unlawful great assemblies of multitudes’.[7]

Rebellion by London apprentices in 1595

Rebellion by London apprentices in 1595

Around 1,000 apprentices rioted on Tower Hill to protest the appalling conditions in London. This woodcut from A Students Lamentation (1595) shows how they were punished by being hanged, drawn and quartered.

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Though tensions were never quite so strained as in the troubled days of the mid-1590s, London was, as so often in its history, a city of conspicuous contrasts – between poverty and obscene wealth, between rivalrous social classes, and above all between different racial groups. On the one hand inhabitants of different ethnicities and beliefs were accepted, and more openly than anywhere else in England; on the other, the line of acceptance was thin. Woe betide anyone who overstepped it.

Discussion of Venice and London in Florio's Italian language manual

Discussion of Venice and London in Italian-English language manual

John Florio, the son of an Italian Protestant refugee, notes the many ‘strangers’ who attend foreign churches in London.

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Sharing the Protestant religion with their English hosts, French Huguenots and other religious refugees from continental Europe were perhaps luckiest. Despite arriving in large numbers, perhaps as many as 15,000 during the 1590s, they assimilated quickly and found work, many in the textile or fashion industries, and formed close-knit communities. Small Jewish populations were also resident in London and Bristol, perhaps 150-strong, mainly Iberian ‘Marranos’, in addition to famous and well-rewarded court musician families such as the Bassanos, Comys and the Lupos. Many Jews practised their faith undisturbed, despite tough legislation to the contrary; yet, like recusant Catholics, they were forced to do so in secret, lest they become scapegoats and be forced to convert.[8]

Doctor Lopez is accused of poisoning Elizabeth I

Doctor Lopez is accused of poisoning Elizabeth I

One Marrano, Roderigo Lopez, had the trusted role of physician to the Queen, but was later accused of trying to poison her.

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The status of black people in Jacobethan England was hazier. Though England had no official slave trade, black Africans had been shipped to England during the 16th century, mainly from West and North Africa, and by the century’s end perhaps a thousand people were resident across the country. Most were employed in domestic work; Elizabeth I even had a black maidservant. Yet when racial tensions rose, they were among the first groups to be targeted; Queen Elizabeth may have been content to be served by people of colour, but she issued numerous edicts ordering the expulsion of a group of black men captured from a Spanish colony in the West Indies, proclaiming in 1596 that ‘there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are allready here to manie’.[9] The call was repeated in 1601. For anyone of immigrant heritage in Jacobethan England, the situation appears to have been similar: you are tolerated here, but only just. It is a situation with which many migrants in present-day Europe will be only too familiar.

Draft proclamation on the expulsion of 'Negroes and Blackamoors', 1601

Draft proclamation on the expulsion of 'Negroes and Blackamoors', 1601

This manuscript asks for the deportation of black people from England, on the grounds that they are draining resources needed by the Queen’s ‘natural subjects’.

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Continental connections

As both resident and playwright – and, technically, yet another kind of immigrant – Shakespeare must have faced such questions about immigration daily. Literally so in the case of London’s Huguenot population: from around 1602 he rented a room on Silver Street in Bishopsgate from a French wigmaker, Christopher Mountjoy, and his wife Marie, and seems to have become close to the family, judging by the fact that he testified in a court case regarding their daughter Mary long after he moved out.[10]

Shakespeare will also have rubbed shoulders with other people of French birth, notably Jacqueline Field, the French wife of his printer and possible schoolmate Richard Field (many Huguenots also found work in the publishing industry). While there is no proof, it is tempting to imagine Jacqueline or one of her compatriots at the Fields’ Blackfriars printshop helping the playwright with his grammar for the script of Henry V, which features a scene largely in French.[11] It also might not be accidental that three plays Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s and early 1600s, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well, are set in that country – though judging by the heavy comic accent he gives the French Dr Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he was not above making a joke out of ‘funny’ Frenchmen. The lighthearted tone of these plays is even more striking when one considers the racial tensions of London in 1593, the year Love’s Labour’s Lost may well have been composed.

Shakespeare’s connections with other immigrants and visitors are more speculative. It’s possible he knew the musician Bassanos (there is a hoary legend that the ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets is the writer Emelia Lanier, née Bassano), and he may also have been acquainted with John/Giovanni Florio, the Italian-born linguist and translator of Montaigne.[12] The city was changing around him, too: simply by walking around London’s docks or the Royal Exchange, he could have heard half the languages of Europe. Once James I took the throne and the East India and Virginia Companies were founded to develop colonial settlements in America and capitalise on the spice trade to the ‘Indies’ (Indonesia and east Asia as well as the present-day subcontinent), London’s horizons expanded still further. In the summer of 1603, remarkably, a group of Native Americans were shipped across from Chesapeake Bay and instructed to paddle their canoe up the Thames for the amusement of spectators.[13]

Paintings of London in the friendship album of Michael van Meer, c. 1614-1615

A Virginian Indian in St James's Park, from the Friendship Album of Michael van Meer

This intriguing miniature painting shows another Native American in London. The Virginian man in the picture was exhibited in St James’s Park around 1615.

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Held by© The University of Edinburgh

Certainly many visitors from abroad came to see Shakespeare’s plays. A tourist from Switzerland, Thomas Platter, visited the newly opened Globe in summer 1599 and saw ‘an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first emperor Julius Caesar’, and was especially impressed by the cast’s dancing.[14] Eight years later, the Venetian ambassador witnessed an early performance of Pericles at the same venue.

Shakespeare’s outsiders

How this changing city – and world – inflected Shakespeare’s writing is a tantalising question. Most obviously, it is there in his fascination with setting plays in worlds other than his own, whether in those early French comedies or his passion for locations in Italy (Venice, Verona, Padua, Sicily). Travel is a propulsive driver of Shakespearean action, as are its numerous hazards, as witnessed by the catastrophic shipwrecks that dominate The Comedy of Errors, Pericles, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. So too is exile, a theme that crops up in texts as different as Sonnet 109 (‘O never say that I was false of heart / Though absence seemed my flame to qualify’) and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Julia is the first of many Shakespearean heroines to don disguise and set out on a journey of self-discovery.

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The frontispiece for The Tempest showing the shipwreck in the first scene, from Rowe’s illustrated Shakespeare.

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It is surely not accidental that Shakespeare is at his most geographically exploratory in the final phase of his career, from around 1608 to 1613, whether in the Levantine wanderings that fill his late romance Pericles or the colonial shadows that fall across The Tempest (the jester Trinculo’s casual reference to ‘dead Indian[s]’ (2.2.33) on the streets of London must have reminded audiences of sights they had seen themselves).[15] The Jacobean world was expanding faster than ever before; it is perhaps inevitable that Shakespeare’s plays expanded too.

Yet he kept an eye on tensions between different urban communities, and despite his manifest sympathy for outsiders, the worlds he conjures expose the fractured complexities of multiculturalism.[16] Othello, a play set at first in a cosmopolitan metropolis even more impressive than London, Venice, portrays a man of dark skin – written, of course, to be played by a white actor blacking up – murdering his white wife in a jealous rage, something that at face value only seems to live out the worst paranoid racist prejudices of Shakespeare’s era. Only as we watch do we become aware how subtle the grain of the drama is: Othello, a widely respected general, is the play’s victim as much as its villain; the real vortex of evil is Iago, a white (and racist) Italian.

Sympathies in The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–97) are even more finely balanced. Primed by Marlowe’s cackling anti-hero in The Jew of Malta (c. 1589), Shakespeare’s audiences would probably have come to a play first printed as ‘The Jew of Venice’ expecting to detest Shylock, the miserly and unlikeable moneylender whose ‘merry bond’ of a pound of flesh comes agonisingly close to becoming tragic. Yet Shakespeare seems to make things substantially more complicated. ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ Shylock cries halfway through the play, when mocking gossip about his daughter’s elopement with a Christian begins to run rife around the Rialto:

Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (3.1.53–59)

As generations of readers and audiences have discovered, it is impossible to hear this great appeal for religious and ethnic compassion without responding to it, and the prospect of a Jew being forcibly converted to Christianity at the play’s end remains profoundly, darkly disquieting. Shylock does not exit The Merchant of Venice as a saint, but nor is he the devil; that the play’s first spectators would have expected precisely the opposite demonstrates how radical Shakespeare’s portrayal of outsiders could be.

Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Photogravure images of Henry Irving as Shylock and Ellen Terry as Portia

Henry Irving became well-known for his sympathetic portrayal of Shylock in a ground-breaking production of The Merchant of Venice at the Lyceum Theatre, 1879.

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[1] The attribution was first suggested by Richard Simpson, ‘Are there any Extant MSS. in Shakespeare’s Handwriting?’, Notes and Queries 183 (July 1871), 1–3.

[2] The second edition of the Oxford Shakespeare prints a full, edited text, attempting to identify authors of individual sections. See The Complete Works, 2nd edn, gen. eds Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare, (London: Penguin, 2011).

[4] The lines are attributed to ‘Hand D’, assumed to be Shakespeare’s; the arguments are rehearsed in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 461–67, and extended in T H Howard-Hill (ed.), Shakespeare and ‘Sir Thomas More’: Essays on the Play and its Shakespearian Interest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[5] For the play and its chequered history, see Vittorio Gabrieli and George Melchiori (eds), Sir Thomas More (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990).

[6] The ‘Dutch Church libel’, as it became known, is covered by Park Honan’s biography, Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 334–35.

[7] For some facts, figures and contexts, see Mihoko Suzuki, ‘The London Apprentice Riots of the 1590s and the Fiction of Thomas Deloney’, Criticism 38 (1996), 181–217 (p. 182).

[8] The best short book-length account of ‘outsiders’ in Elizabethan society and their influence on Shakespeare’s plays is Marianne Novy, Shakespeare and Outsiders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[9] See Emily Bartels, ‘Too many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination, and Elizabeth I’, Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 46 (2006), 305–22.

[10] The best and fullest account is by Charles Nicholl in The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (London: Allen Lane, 2008).

[11] Nicholl offers suggestive details about Shakespeare’s contacts with French culture; see The Lodger, pp. 175–80.

[12] On Lanier, see See A L Rowse, Shakespeare the Man (London: Macmillan, 1973), and Marshall Grossman, Aemilia Lanyer, Gender, Genre and the Canon (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998).

[13] See Alden T Vaughan, Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500–1776 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 42–44.

[14] The relevant sections of Platter’s account are printed in ‘Thomas Platter: A Swiss Tourist in London’, excerpted from the Norton Anthology of English Literature <https://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/16century/topic_4/tplatter.htm>.

[15] For more on the colonial contexts of The Tempest, see the introduction to Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T Vaughan’s Arden third edition of the play (London: Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury, 2011).

[16] See Novy, Outsiders, pp. 1–16.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

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