The scene is a riot, on the first day of May, 1517. It would later be known as Evil May Day,or Ill May Day.
An angry mob, mostly comprised of apprentices, marched through the streets of London, their passion inflamed by a xenophobic speech made the past Easter by Dr. Bell (or Beal) at St. Paul’s Cross. Bell railed against the foreigners living in London, especially the wealthy foreign merchants and bankers. He called on all “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.”
His words spread and festered, as racism is wont to do, among the poor, the jealous, the petty, the uneducated, the unthinking and the gullible.
Within the next two weeks, mobs attacked foreigners across the city. Rumours swirled that a mass riot would occur on 1 May, during which the city would rise up and collectively “slay all aliens.” The city politicians, fearing the worst, imposed a 9 p.m. curfew the night before. That just made matters worse. Around 1,000 men gathered that night, and stormed a lockup to free several men who had been imprisoned for attacking foreigners previously. Together, they marched into the area of London where many foreigners lived.
Thomas More, at that time the under-sheriff of London, met the mob and tried to persuade them to return to their homes. But although his words calmed them for a short while, others reacted against them, and soon the mob mentality was back. The crowd raced through the city, looting foreigners’ houses. The authorities reacted slowly, but with force.
By 3 a.m. the riot ran out of steam. But the authorities had not. They arrested more than 300 of the rioters, perhaps as many as 400, and while most were later pardoned, 13 were convicted of treason and executed. John Lincoln, who had instigated Bell’s fiery speech and was the mob’s ringleader, was also executed.
This now-forgotten incident in English history was captured in a play called Sir Thomas More, or more properly The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore. The handwritten manuscript – tantalizingly incomplete – is in the British Library. It dates from before 1594.
It’s an uneven work, and the different handwriting makes it clear it was a collaboration of six playwrights. One of them, scholars believe, was William Shakespeare (“Hand D”). The section of Hand D includes the speech made by More to the mob (see below).
That allegation of authorship is based on a comparison of the words and phrasing in the speech with other lines in known works by the Bard (mostly Coriolanus, Pericles and Troilus and Cressida). It remains controversial, but a great many scholars accept it today. The photo above shows some of the writing alleged to be Shakespeare’s.
The play had great potential, had it ever been finished, especially had Shakespeare the opportunity to polish his and other portions. But today it’s a minor piece in the Bard’s canon.
What struck me, on reading it, was how More’s speech could, as Stanley Wells puts it in his book, Shakespeare For All Time, “speak powerfully to modern listeners.” Here’s the speech, with More warning the mob what their efforts will result in:
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.*
What moves me in these lines are More’s courageous stand against the mob, in which “insolence and strong hand” rule. Unafraid, he warns them that all they will accomplish by mob rule is to open the door for more unrest, and they could themselves be the victims of the next riot of self-righteous bullies.
More calls the rioters “kings in your desires” – ruled by passion not thought – clothed in their self-righteous ”ruff of your opinions clothed.” Powerful stuff.
Bullying begets bullying, he warns. “For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought/With self same hand, self reasons, and self right…”
Men, like ravenous fishes, would feed on one another, each one cloaked in his private anger and righteousness. Others who followed would swim among the rioters themselves like a shark, using the same mad logic, the same self-righteous fervor to gobble them all.
That’s always the lesson, usually unheeded, about mob rule and righteous – mindless – violence: that whatever you do to others now, you permit – even invite – to be done unto yourselves later. It always escalates.**
Which, of course, is true everywhere, not simply in Shakespeare’s time. When one sets a precedent of anger, violence, hurt and destruction, it justifies using them on everyone, even the instigators. Shakespeare might have appreciated the French revolution, which feasted on such righteous anger and violence, and ended up turning on its very self, putting its own leaders to the guillotine.
Today, you could say the same is true of the spiteful and petty Tory attack ads, which merely justify others using the same tactics against them; the same virulent rhetoric, the same disingenuous content, the innuendo, allegations and disinformation. You could also say the same of some bloggers.
When you create the toxic environment, you end up being consumed by it. Whatever words you use, tactics you use, they will be used in turn by others against you. You reap what you sow.
More’s words would be well heeded by more people today.***
* You can read it all on the Gutenberg.org site, or in some later versions of the collected works of Shakespeare (Norton, Riverside and Oxford editions).
** Somewhat later, More warns the rioters that they commit treason, and won’t even be able to flee to another country, except one steeped in similar violence, where they will be treated as they treated in same same manner they treated the foreigners:
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
More again makes the case that “do unto others” means that you get back what you give.
*** As would Frank Outlaw’s, who counselled:
“Be careful of your thoughts,
for your thoughts become your words.
Be careful of your words,
for your words become your actions.
Be careful of your actions,
for your actions become your habits.
Be careful of your habits,
for your habits become your character.
Be careful of your character,
for your character becomes your destiny.”
Which is not far from what the Buddha taught about the eightfold path. As this site explains about right speech:
Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.
And similarly: Proverbs 16:27-28:
A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire. A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends.
All words of merit.