IN 1596, Queen Elizabeth told the Privy Council: "There are of
late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of
people there are already here to manie." Concerns around
immigration are not new.
London in 1593 had already settled for racial stereotypes: the
lecherous Frenchman, the greedy Jew, and the savage African; and
the anti-immigration riots of the same year were particularly
virulent. Immigrants had become used to threats of violence and
molestation; but, in April and May, gangs of apprentices marched
the streets chanting murderous anti-French slogans. "Wheel cut your
throats, in your temples praying not Paris massacre so much blood
The exotic vegetables they brought with them were thought to
"breed sore eyes" because they grew in dung. And these strangers
were also thought to push up prices. The rioters wanted them
removed, and many chose to go of their own accord, finding refuge
in the kinder Dutch cities.
In Charles Nicholl's fascinating book The Lodger:
Shakespeare on Silver Street, we learn of Shakespeare's
changing relationship to the stranger at this time. In Titus
Andronicus, written at about the time of the London riots, the
"coal-black" Aaron is a relentlessly evil figure, an over-reaching
But 12 years later, in Othello, his approach is
different. The bard offers us a "noble Moor" who is the hero. It is
Iago, his white subordinate, who is the villain, working against
the integration into European society which Othello has achieved.
As Nicholl says, "He is of the class which feels bitter and
excluded by the immigrant's success. Iago's is the persuasive voice
of racism," starting with the physical differences - "the thick
lips", "sooty bosom", and "old black ram" - but suggesting also a
wandering quality to this "erring barbarian".
Here is someone who is rootless, of no fixed abode, a permanent
stranger wherever he lives. Is he really to be trusted? We note
that Shakespeare wrote these words in about 1603, while living in
Cripplegate in the house of French immigrants, who themselves knew
much about the status of "stranger". As one playwright put it in
1598: "Pigges and Frenchmen speak one language, awee awee."
Nativism is the political position of demanding favoured status
for certain established inhabitants of the nation over the claims
of newcomers. It is the belief that strangers will distort or spoil
existing social values, and is a worldwide phenomenon, which, like
the poor, will always be with us.
But, in the house of a French family, Shakespeare changed. What
grew in him - or at least in his writing - was not revulsion, but