O power, what art thou in a madman’s eyes

Anders Behring Breivik

Any other weekend, the death of singer Amy Winehouse would have been enough to brand it as her family have, “this terrible time”, but over the last few days the unfolding national tragedy in Norway has stolen the headlines, all the more unbelievably because it appears to be the responsibility of one man.

Anders Behring Breivik spent around ten years planning his attack on what he calls “cultural Marxists/multicultural traitors”, intending to bring about a revolution in Norwegian society. He recently posted a 1500 page manifesto on the internet, in which he repeatedly refers to multiculturalism and Muslim immigration, and in his police statement he has called the killings “gruesome but necessary”.

 The methods adopted are new, but the attitude is not. The play Sir Thomas More is thought to have been partly written by Shakespeare, and much of the play concerns riots taking place in London against immigrants. In the section ascribed to Shakespeare rioters talk about their intention to set fire to the houses of immigrants, “audacious strangers”. The rioters are “gallant bloods …whose free souls do scorn to bear the inforced wrongs of aliens”.

Referring to the immigrants one asks,  

       shall these enjoy more privilege than we

In our own country?

 Thomas More asks the rioters to think about the results of their proposed actions:

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their back and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires…
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled.

 A different character agrees:

O power, what art thou in a madman’s eyes.

The Sir Thomas More manuscript in the British Library

The play’s subject matter was contentious, and it was never approved for performance, existing in a single manuscript version in the British Library. It’s assumed that Shakespeare was asked to write this section because of his ability to write persuasively.  You can’t ever deduce Shakespeare’s opinions from his writings, but there is a reason to suppose that Shakespeare had sympathy for the immigrants.

 Around 1604 Shakespeare lodged in London with a French Huguenot family of skilled artisans, the Mountjoys. While lodged with them he became involved in their family affairs. Mr Mountjoy wanted his former apprentice, Stephen Belott, to marry his daughter.  Following the marriage, the agreed dowry remained unpaid, hence in 1612 the law suit Belott v. Mountjoy. Shakespeare, it seems, had been asked to put in a good word for the match, and he was called on to testify in the case.

It’s unthinkable that Shakespeare would have lodged with an immigrant family and got involved in their personal lives if he opposed their presence.

 In the other main story of the weekend, Amy Winehouse has been described as a tortured soul, and the circumstances of her death remind us of the death of another vulnerable young woman, Ophelia.  Her “live fast, die young” lifestyle seems though to be more reminiscent of the short but eventful life of the superbly talented Christopher Marlowe. This has been a truly tragic weekend for the waste of promising young lives.

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