Stephen O'Neill, Staging Ireland: Representations in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama.
Identity, either self-identity or national identity, concerns us all. Anxieties about how we are perceived by neighbours, friends and foe are a constant in our lives and in our revision of ourselves and our own sense of who we are. Stephen O'Neill's Staging Ireland, the first in Four Courts Press's series entitled 'Ireland: Literature and History', explores various representations of Ireland via the Shakespearean stage and Renaissance drama. Splitting the book into four sections, he deals with several aspects of these representations which include drama and reforming the Irish in the 1580s, manifestations of the Irish landscape in Elizabethan drama and, in the concluding passage entitled 'That monster of ingratitude', Irish servant and English master relations in Sir John Oldcastle. Essentially O'Neill relates what the English made of the Irish between 1580 and 1600 and how those impressions reflect the contemporary relations and influence their portrayal in drama of the day. The chapters approach the theme in chronological order and 'within an unfolding narrative of the Irish wars to reveal the evolving nature of dramatic figurations of Ireland' (p. 21). Supplementary material for his investigation ranges from the account of Gerald of Wales, 'whose writings on the strange customs and practices of the native Irish provided a blueprint for Elizabethan images', to Derricke's Image of Ireland (1581) and Spenser's View of the State of Ireland (1596).
In the first chapter O'Neill pinpoints Irish representations in two overlooked plays, The Misfortunes of Arthur, devised by students including Francis Bacon and performed in the court of Queen Elizabeth, and The Battle of Alcazar. This positions discussion of Irish matters on the English stage at an earlier time than hitherto realised. While O'Neill heralds this fact, the representations seem rather familiar even to someone with only a cursory knowledge of the history of the 'stage Irishman':
In the play's second dumb show, the royal spectator is confronted with an 'Irishman' with 'long black shagged hair down to his shoulders, apparelled with an Irish jacket and shirt, having an Irish dagger by his side, and a dart in his hand'. [p. 24]
O'Neill not only contextualises these images of Ireland but covers the full spectrum of identity, even suggesting in chapter 2 that 'perceptions of Ireland were spatially focused', a correlation between the rugged landscape and indigenous 'intractability' (p. 63). These spatial representations take on both cultural and ideological resonance for O'Neill. The exercise here, as throughout the book, is one of intertextuality, 'their figuration of Irish space, English identity and contemporary events in Ireland' (p. 64). For this he borrows Geraldo de Sousa's description of concepts of space in Shakespeare's plays. Sousa notes that 'the environment becomes allegorical, functioning as a place of projections for the culture's fears, prejudices, desires, and textual and sexual fantasies' (p. 64).
O'Neill cites literature with descriptions of bestiality, barbarousness, treacherousness, and in Sir John Oldcastle the character Mack Chane is described as 'you whoreson Irish dog'. Despite repeated evidence of Elizabethan disdain for all things Irish, O'Neill stays true to his mission and does not propagate a resentful response. Indeed, he decries the position of John Arden, 'who infamously held Shakespeare and other English dramatists like Bale responsible for the perpetuation of anti-Irish prejudices' (p. 143). O'Neill restates his objective, 'to argue for the need to attend closely to the politics of its representations of Ireland and explore the extent to which these representations are shaped by the contemporaneous wars there' (p. 143). And this O'Neill does very well, tying together characterisation, ideologies within the plays and their topical correlation. Hugh O'Neill's relations with the English court demonstrate the image of the rebel Irishman as 'supplicant turned rebel' (p. 23). Anglo-Irish relations read through characters like Jack Cade in Henry VI, Part 2 and Mackmorrice in Henry V (which O'Neill believes can be interpreted as a 'questioning of the Elizabethan colonial project in Ireland'), all inspire an interesting examination of what ultimately becomes a complex relationship. While the inevitable and familiar relationship of master-servant, coloniser-rebel cover large swathes of the historical relationship, O'Neill forages further into the psyche of English identity, extracting evidence of an insecure faith in Englishness, a situation affected by the assimilation of the Old English into Irish culture, an anxiety he traces to the portrayal of the Irish on the stage.
O'Neill's concluding sentence best sums up the extent of his study: 'drama explored and scrutinised the broader questions of identity, and it is in the drama of history that we can continue to challenge and re-imagine the stock roles of national identity, Irish and English and Other, handed down by history' (p. 194). This is an intriguing interpretation and reading of Elizabethan drama.
St Patrick's College, Drumcondra
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|Publication:||Irish Economic and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2010|
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