Wherefore art thou, Irish rat?
CULTURE SHOCK:There are glimmers of Ireland in Shakespeare’s work, but even after all these years, theatre makers don’t quite know how to handle them
WATCHING THE Globe’s very entertaining production of As You Like It at the Kilkenny Arts Festival last week, I was struck again by the weird ways in which Ireland worms its way into Shakespeare’s imagination. The play is largely set in a fantasy world, the Forest of Arden, where there is no war or tyranny and the ruling duke is a benign child of nature.
It is the last place you would expect references to Ireland, the main source of contemporary turmoil and darkness. Yet there it is – not the place or the people but, in this great celebration of nature, in the animals. One of the references is straightforward enough. Rosalind, driven astray by a cacophony of declarations of love, cries out “Pray you, no more of this: ’tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.” The train of thought is clear – Ireland is a wild place; wolves are the standard image of barbarous wilderness, so Irish wolves are doubly wild.
But as well as the Irish wolves, there are Irish rats. Here the thought process is so complex that it seems impossible for any audience, even a learned one, to have grasped the metaphor without being able to read over the text. Rosalind is commenting sarcastically on the way her would-be lover, Orlando, has left passionate poems all over the place for her to find: “I was never so be-rhymed since Pythagoras’s time, that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.” What this means is that the last time she had so many poems addressed to her was in a previous incarnation – Pythagoras is associated with the theory of the transmigration of souls – when she was a rat in Ireland.
But why would she have been a rat in Ireland? Because the story had seeped into Elizabethan literary culture that Irish “conjurers” could kill rats by speaking certain magical verses at them. The allusion was actually quite common in Shakespeare’s time. Sir Philip Sidney has it in The Defense of Poesie: “to be driven by a poet’s verses . . . to hang yourself, nor to be rhymed to death as is said to be done in Ireland”. Ben Johnson has it in Poetaster: “Rhyme them to death as they do Irish rats in drumming tunes.”
Shakespeare almost certainly picked it up from Sidney, rather than from any direct contact with Ireland. But it is somehow indicative of the mental world in which he lived that a piece of Irish folklore ends up giving us the surreal image of his witty, beautiful heroine as the reincarnation of an Irish rat. Inside Rosalind’s civilised English persona is the ghost of a gnawing Irish presence.
THIS KIND OF thing happens again and again in Shakespeare: Ireland won’t go away, but it exists in a strange half-life of complex allusions or subterranean echoes. The language can be complex and metaphysical, as in Rosalind’s allusion, or it can be nonsensical: famously in Henry V when Pistol, confronted with a soldier speaking French, replies: “Calen o custure me.”