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Stranger danger

17 April 2015

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 did spill."

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 villain.

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 compassion.

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