Richard Wilson: 'Shakespeare understood that every foreigner brings gifts'

From the Jon Stachniewski Memorial Lecture by the Professor of Renaissance Literature at Lancaster University, given at Manchester University

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That so many of Shakespeare's plays involve a mob "caterwauling" under the window of some scapegoat allows politically-correct critics to find him guilty by association with the anti-immigrant panics and pogroms of "Old Europe". Yet to shrink Othello or The Merchant of Venice to a story told by the graceless Graziano (the name of the racist bigot in both), is to turn the English writer into a "rustic mountaineer" with the fortress mentality of a Jörg Haider.

That so many of Shakespeare's plays involve a mob "caterwauling" under the window of some scapegoat allows politically-correct critics to find him guilty by association with the anti-immigrant panics and pogroms of "Old Europe". Yet to shrink Othello or The Merchant of Venice to a story told by the graceless Graziano (the name of the racist bigot in both), is to turn the English writer into a "rustic mountaineer" with the fortress mentality of a Jörg Haider.

Shakespeare filled his plays with the spices, silks, peppers, oils, jewels, fruits and furs of world trade. He structured them on the multiculturalism of good King Polixenes in The Winter's Tale, that the more the merrier, if every foreigner brings such gifts: "Then make your garden rich." Twelfth Night, his best New Year treat, was actually paid for by the Shah of Persia as a present to Londoners.

Instead of humouring bigots, Shakespeare also based his work on the hospitality Capulet extends the uninvited Romeo: "I would not for the wealth of all this town/ Here in my house do him disparagement."

Given that the penalty for befriending Gypsies was hanging (five suffered this at Durham in 1592, with nine gypsies hanged at York in 1595), Antony's love for a "gypsy queen" must count as the ultimate answer to anti-gypsy scares. Here the comfort of strangers brings home the lesson voyagers learn in The Tempest: supposed monsters are "more gentle-kind" than "you shall find many, nay almost any," among ourselves. Shakespeare shared Jacques Derrida's faith in the open house as a place of hope.

Making men of monsters was Shakespeare's game, and perhaps it helped do the trick, for as Robert Winder writes in Bloody Foreigners, England may not have been perfect, but by 1600 it was "the safest haven in Europe. There were no pogroms."

"Tottenham," declared one Elizabethan, "has turned French." That was good for Shakespeare, as one of the few things we know about him is that he lodged with a family of French economic migrants in Cripplegate, strangely dependent on the comfort of strangers.

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