Wherefore art thou, Irish rat?

Sat, Aug 25, 2012, 01:00

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.”

This was taken to be deliberate gibberish until the great Irish Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone pointed out that it is Pistol’s phonetic rendering of the chorus of a Gaelic song that had become popular in Tudor England: Cailín Óg a Stór. The language can even be a compositor’s mistake: at one point in the first folio version of Henry V, “Ireland” is printed instead of “England”; a Freudian slip, perhaps.

But allusions to Ireland can never be entirely straightforward. The subject is too current and too edgy. The one time Shakespeare comes close to a direct political comment, when referring, in Henry V, to the campaign of the Earl of Essex against Hugh O’Neill, he has the misfortune that Essex then falls dangerously out of favour.

The thing with all of this, though, is that no one seems to know quite what to do with it. In recent Shakespeare scholarship, the Irish dimension has been a hot topic. (James Shapiro, in the best general study of Shakespeare and his times, 1599, foregrounds the war against O’Neill.) But in performance, it seems to be something of an embarrassment. Take, for example, the most “Irish” of the plays: Henry V, with its Irish character, Capt MacMorris, its references to Essex’s campaign and, in particular, its deep anxieties about the dark sides of glorious military adventures. The BBC had a terrific version of the play in its recent series The Hollow Crown. How did it deal with the Irish dimension? By excising it. MacMorris and his resonant question “What ish my nation?” simply disappeared.

Even more remarkable was Propeller’s vigorous production at this year’s Galway Arts Festival. It was the first professional outing for Henry V on an Irish stage since 1906, a fact that was emphasised in the billing. But it went out of its way to avoid the subject: no MacMorris, no references to Essex’s campaign, no attempt to use “Calen o custure me” as anything other than a piece of nonsense. There was just one moment when the production acknowledged at all that it was being staged in Ireland. Towards the end of the play, in the courtship scene, Henry offers the French princess the chance to be queen of all of his territories: “England is thine, Ireland is thine . . .”. In the Propeller version, this offer of Ireland was preceded by a stagey pause and accompanied by some mugging at the audience. The effect was one of pure embarrassment.

Yet, this embarrassment seems to be mutual. Irish theatre remains oddly uncomfortable about its relationship with Shakespeare. It is striking that, in the World Shakespeare Festival, staged as part of the cultural Olympiad in London, there are productions from Albania and Macedonia, from Mexico and China, from Belarus and Kenya, from India and Sudan. There are none from Ireland, although Camille O’Sullivan is performing in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Rape of Lucrece as part of the Edinburgh Festival. It is now a given that almost every culture has its own version of Shakespeare. Ireland doesn’t.

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