Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Daniel Cadman: "Staging Ireland"

Book Review

Stephen O’Neill, Staging Ireland: Representations in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama, Four Courts Press (Dublin, 2007), 208 pp. ISBN: 978-1-85182-989-7. $65.00 (USD).

1> Recent scholarship has firmly established Ireland as a significant historical context to many early modern literary texts, particularly the works of Shakespeare and Spenser. Stephen O’Neill’s monograph, the first in a series of volumes from the Four Courts Press entitled Ireland: Literature and History, concentrates upon representations of Ireland and the Irish in both canonical dramatic texts—such as three Shakespearean history plays (2 Henry VI, Richard II and Henry V) and Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II—as well as in a selection of non-canonical works including, among others, George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar and the collaborative history play, Sir John Oldcastle. The study therefore focuses upon the period between 1588 and 1599, an era that O’Neill defines as a ‘key point in a long history of English settlement, colonization and conquest in Ireland’ (14). Indeed, the period saw the onset of the Nine Years War, an event that placed Ireland extremely high on the Elizabethan political agenda. The book also confines its interests to the dramatic literary genre, concentrating solely on theatrical representations of Ireland and the Irish. The theatre, argues O’Neill, was ‘an enabling cultural site, where contemporary ideologies were confronted and, crucially, questioned’ (13). Therefore ‘representations of Ireland and the Irish in the drama can be attended to as a series of topical allusions that have multifarious ideological functions’ (13). The selection of period and genre is therefore quite deliberate. Theatre acted as a significant means of articulating certain ideologies during a period of considerable unrest in Ireland, as the author goes on to demonstrate.

2> The plays are considered in chronological order of their performance, thereby representing what O’Neill calls ‘the evolving nature of dramatic figurations in Ireland’ (21). The first chapter considers two texts that emerged in the late 1580s, a period in which, as the author concedes, Ireland seemed ‘relatively peaceful’ (25). Events such as the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots and the threat from the Spanish Armada meant that Ireland was somewhat marginalized in terms of political priorities. The first text scrutinised in this chapter is The Misfortunes of Arthur, a play produced by a group of students, including Thomas Hughes and Francis Bacon, and presented to the court in 1588. The play’s portrayal of the disastrous consequences of Arthur’s leniency towards the rebellious Modred has often been interpreted by critics as a means of commending the Queen’s decision to execute Mary, Queen of Scots by providing a glimpse of the possible outcome of a more lenient approach. However, O’Neill marginalizes this reading and instead prefers to contextualise the text with debates that were being initiated at the time about the apparent recalcitrance of the Irish population and the need for tougher control over them. Of particular interest in this section is the discussion of one of the play’s dumb shows in which an Irishman appears in a manner which provides an obvious visual allusion to the popular image of the Irish kern. The presence of the kern onstage acts effectively as a shock tactic, highlighting the view that a lenient policy towards Ireland could allow the population to rebel against English authority. The Battle of Alcazar, on the other hand, is one of the two plays in the study to dramatise a particular event from relatively recent history: the story of Captain Thomas Stukeley, the Catholic adventurer who planned an invasion of Ireland as a starting point for the Spanish conquest of England. Dramatising this story therefore capitalises upon contemporary fears about Ireland’s military potential for Spanish invaders. This chapter provides a clear indication that events from the mythical past, as well as recent occurrences, were appropriated in order to dramatize affairs in Ireland, even before it was perceived as such a problem to the Elizabethan government.

3> The second chapter focuses upon three history plays (Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI and Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II) and considers the extent to which they were shaped by spatial anxieties about Ireland. Though no scenes in any of the plays take place in Ireland it nevertheless remains a significant space in each of the texts. As the location for the implementation of York’s plot and the source of the army he requires in 2 Henry VI and as one of the realms to which Gaveston is exiled in Edward II, Ireland becomes associated with rebellion and threats to English national identity. In Richard II, meanwhile, it is the king’s decision to take personal charge of events in Ireland that allows the return of Bolingbroke and his subsequent seizure of the crown to take place. As O’Neill comments, Richard’s decision to leave for Ireland is ‘the originating moment of his downfall’ (104). All three plays indicate the potential domestic impact that events taking place in Ireland could have in England. Despite the absence of any speaking Irish characters and the lack of any actual scenes taking place in Ireland, O’Neill has demonstrated that Ireland is a significant context to the three history plays, each indicating that Ireland was both ‘a symbolic space through which England could be examined’ (115) and ‘also a space where the limits of English identity and power are encountered’ (115-6).

4> A play which shares its subject with chapter one’s The Battle of Alcazar is the sole focus for the third chapter. Unlike most of the other plays in this study, Ireland ‘constitutes an onstage location that forms a significant part of the dramatic action’ (118) for Captain Thomas Stukeley. As well as its presence as the location for much of the play’s action, there are also a number of Irish characters, some of whom are assigned utterances in Gaelic dialect. This is complemented by the play’s attempts to dramatise scenes from recent history, such as English attempts to counter Shane O’Neill’s presence in the town of Dundalk in 1566. For O’Neill the Gaelic dialect is particularly significant, as it ‘at best signifies an incomplete conquest, at worst an unsettling hybridity’ (142) and acts as a reminder that ‘even the most ideologically static of texts on the Elizabethan problem of Ireland contains faultlines’ (142). While the text seemingly endorses the policies of the Elizabethan government, the inclusion of key elements (such as the hybrid dialect of the rebels) hints that the colonial campaign in Ireland has either failed or at least remains incomplete.

5> The final chapter concentrates upon two texts that emerged in 1599, the year which, according to the author, marked the ‘apotheosis’ (144) of the crisis in Ireland thanks to the momentum gained by the Earl of Tyrone’s campaign. The absence of Irish references in the folio edition of Henry V, an absence that raises the question of censorship, is suggestive of the dangerous ground on which references to affairs in Ireland were situated at the time. Henry V and Sir John Oldcastle, the two texts considered in this chapter, are also linked by brief, but significant, encounters with a stage Irishman. The presence of Mackmorrice in Henry V, a figure over whom much critical ink has already been spilt, and Mack Chane in Sir John Oldcastle may address issues of racial difference and otherness, but, as O’Neill argues, in both cases these anxieties find no closure. O’Neill comments that Oldcastle, like Henry V, ‘bears the burden of its present rather [than] exerting control over it’ (190). Both texts address, but ultimately fail to subvert, the questions of national identities raised by the presence of their Irish characters. O’Neill’s attachment of such importance to the year 1599 is affirmed by the differences between the quarto and folio versions of Henry V. The absence of the choruses, one of which famously contains a reference to Essex’s Irish campaign, along with many of the play’s Irish references in the quarto version indicate the potential volatility of debates about Ireland at this point in time.

6> O’Neill makes pertinent use of contextual material relating to Ireland and skillfully links them to the primary texts considered by his study, and appropriates a broad range of considerations—including such significant contexts as national identities, colonialism and the effects of possible dramatic censorship. The study is also notable for its appropriation of non-canonical texts, a trope that reveals the real extent to which the theatre acted as an outlet for political comment. The volume builds upon scholarship by the likes of Andrew Hadfield, Willy Maley and Andrew Murphy, and shares its concentration upon the Nine Years War period with Christopher Highley’s Shakespeare, Spenser and the Crisis in Ireland. O’Neill’s volume, however, remains distinctive for its approach to dramatic representations of the Irishman and specific references to campaigns on Irish soil. The end product is an insightful and persuasive study of the ways in which dramatic texts were shaped by English political maneuvering in Ireland. Staging Ireland marks a significant contribution to the substantial body of critical material examining the importance of affairs in Ireland upon early modern literature.

Daniel Cadman is currently in the first year of his doctoral research degree at Sheffield Hallam University, where he also earned his BA and MA degrees. His main interests include early modern closet drama and the literature of the Sidney circle.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

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