The literary historian, James Shapiro, has a fascinating article in the Irish Times on William Shakespeare’s aversion to Ireland and the Irish. In many ways the 16th century English playwright and poet was the codifier of the racist stereotypes that define Irish characterizations in British – and anglosphere – writing to the present day (albeit building upon the works of his predecessors, right back to Gerald of Wales and the publication of the partisan Topographia Hibernica in 1188). The portrayal of Irish men as drunken, slow-witted, quick-tempered killers in the likes of FX’s television series, Sons of Anarchy, or the recent season of Netflix’s Daredevil, can be traced to an original theatrical source in Henry V’s quarrelsome clown, Captain Macmorris. Some four centuries after Elizabethan England’s wars in Ireland the propaganda born out of that bloody era continues to determine the portrayal of the Irish – from buffoon to brute – in English language comics, books, television shows and movies.
“In the late 1980s, when I began research on what turned into my book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, I had never heard of the Irish leader Hugh O’Neill. I had no idea that England had been caught up in a bitter nine-year war to crush an Irish revolt, knew nothing of the difference between the “New” and “Old” English then living in Ireland, and didn’t know that Queen Elizabeth’s popular courtier the earl of Essex had marched out of London leading an army 16,000 strong to resolve England’s Irish problem once and for all. I didn’t even know that Edmund Spenser, so admired for his Elizabethan epic The Faerie Queene, had also written a tract arguing for the brutal suppression of the Irish, if necessary by starvation.
Shakespeare mentions “Ireland” 31 times in his works, or 32 if we include a slip of the pen to which I will return shortly. The adjective “Irish” is spoken 10 times, and the word “Irishman” appears twice.
What I find especially striking about these allusions to the “Irish” or “Irishman” is how concentrated they all are within a very narrow band of time, one that stretched from about 1596 to 1599.
England at this time had no standing army, so potential soldiers had to be rounded up from across the land, with some dragged out of inns, playhouses and even outside of churches. Military service in Ireland was much feared, given the high casualty and mortality rates and how poorly equipped the conscripts were to fight in these campaigns. Unhappy soldiers mutinied, and there was a proverb in Cheshire: “Better be hanged at home than die like dogs in Ireland.”
Shakespeare’s most sustained interest in Ireland and Irishness dovetails with this huge spike in the conscription of soldiers for the Irish wars. As Neil Younger has shown in his excellent study from 2012, War and Politics in the Elizabethan Counties, more than 44,000 men were packed off from England’s villages, town and metropolis between 1590 and 1602. This is a staggering number from a population of four million, the equivalent of about 500,000 soldiers today.
Put another way, one out of every 100 English people, or roughly one out of every 50 English men, and an even higher percentage of those in their 20s and 30s – the generation of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Donne – were packed off to Ireland in the late 1590s.
Dig a bit deeper into those numbers and you can easily see why the Irish campaign haunts the Henry IV and Henry V plays, on stage and in print, for while about 2,500 men were shipped off to Ireland in 1596 and 1597, that number would rise dramatically. About 8,000 men were conscripted for the Irish wars in 1598, 1599, 1600 and 1601. In those four years alone twice as many men were conscripted for Ireland than all the men sent to fight in the Netherlands going back to 1585.
These numbers make clear why Ireland, during the closing years of the 16th century, was such a national preoccupation in England. Pretty much everyone knew someone – husband, son, brother, father, cousin, nephew, neighbour – who had crossed the Irish Sea. If they were very lucky they returned unscathed physically, if not psychologically, to tell the tale.”
Please read the whole thought-provoking piece.