As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, we ask what the emerald isle might have meant to Shakespeare.
Where did Shakespeare come from – England? Great Britain? The British Isles? The United Kingdom? Figuring out how to address Shakespeare’s birthday card for next month is trickier than it looks. Of course the answer is that he lived in all of these places at once. Yet each one is a distinct entity. And Ireland’s rocky relationship with its neighbours across the water made this a pressing issue in Shakespeare’s life time.
As a separate island, Ireland has historically been resistant to British rule. This flared up into full-scale violence during the Nine Years’ War in Ireland during the 1590s, which is precisely the time that Shakespeare was establishing himself as a playwright in London. It is no coincidence that that vast majority of Shakespeare’s references to Ireland come from the history plays, which are so centrally concerned with the fluctuating borders of the realm.
When it came to writing plays about national identity, Shakespeare came face to face with the intractable problem of Ireland. Think of the Irish captain Macmorris in Henry V, who asks the penetrating question, ‘What ish my nation?’ (Henry V, 3.2). As an Irish captain fighting for the English king in a war with France, Macmorris encapsulates the many conflicting allegiances that citizens were faced with in Elizabethan London.
Shakespeare is fond of holding a mirror up to Nature, and in a sense Ireland offered England a mirror-image of itself. It might seem strange that the (arguable first ever) stage-Irishman becomes a site for Shakespeare to explore geo-political tensions. As a place of rebellion and resistance to the crown, Ireland became the opposite of what England was supposed to be. The island was thought to be populated by ‘uncivil kerns’ (2HenryVI, 3.1), whom Elizabeth’s courtiers were meant to civilise. Famously Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, failed in his attempt to quash the Irish rebellion, starting a chain reaction of events that would lead to his execution for treason.
As Britain’s closest neighbour, Ireland was both familiar and foreign to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. For from being a land of saints and scholars, for Shakespeare the country was a place of resistance, danger, and wildness. As Rosalind says in As You Like It: ‘Pray you, no more of this; ’tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon’ (As You Like It, 5.2).
By Dr. Derek Dunne, Teaching Associate
Read about Shakespeare, Wales and the Welsh.