William Shakespeare on the Irish

The Irish in Shakespeare: see GC Duggan, The Stage Irishman (1937).

Allusions to Ireland occurs in the following plays by Shakespeare: Henry VI (`Great Lords, from Ireland I am come amain / To signify the rebels there are up / and put the Englishmen unto the sword / Send succours, lords, and stop the rage betime / Before the wound do grow incurable .. The uncivil Kernes of Ireland are in arms / And temper clay with blood of Englishmen.’

Full often, like a shag-hair’d crafty Kerne / Hath he conversed with the enemy ... And given me notice of their villanies;’ Richard II: `Now four our Irish wars: / We must supplant those rough rug-headed Kernes / Which live like venom where no venom else / But only they have privelige to live.’

Henry V: `As, by a lower but loving likelihood, / Were now the general of our gracious empress [Essex] / As in good time he may, from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broached upon his sword.’

MacMorris, the only Irishman in Shakespeare: ‘Of my nation! What ish my nation? Ish a villan and a bastard, and a knave and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? I do not know you so good a man as myself.’ (Henry V, 3., sc. 2, Pt. II). There is an Irish soldier and love-intrigue turned husband-murderer called Browne, from Dublin at the centre of A Warning for Faire Women (1599). There is an immoral Irishman, Capt. Val Whit, in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. [Note that the Anglo-Norman Prendergasts changed their name to McMorris.]


Thou rascal beadle, hold they bloody hand!
Why dost thou last that whore? Strip they own back;
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
for which thou whip’st her. (King Lear, IV, vi, 157-60.)

The lining of his coffers shall make coats / To deck our soldiers for their Irish Wars (Rich. III); ‘Now for the rebels which stand out in Irelnad. Expeiend manage must be made, my liege, / Ere further leisure yield them further means / for their advantage and your Highness loss.’

The wind sits fair for news to go to Ireland - but none returns.

‘But this rough magic / I here abjure, and when I have required / Some heavenly music - which even now I do … I’ll break my staff / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book. (The Tempest, Act. V, i, 56.)

Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (1996), cites Joseph Holloway’s note in his diary to the effect that ‘a music-hall knockabout Irishman would appear a lifelike portrait of the genuine article beside the Captain MacMorris as he was presented, in speech, action and appearance.’ Remarks that resentment was expressed - and not for the first time - against English texts which misrepresented Irish persons, or which treated them as if they would never be in a positin to understand or to challenge such writings. [271]

You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / for learning me your language.’ (Caliban; The Tempest; quoted in Kiberd, op. cit., p.276.) Also, George Lamming: ‘Prospero lives in the absolute certainty that language, which is his gift to Caliban, is the very prison in which Caliban’s acheivements will be realised and restricted. … Caliban’s use of language is no more than his way of serving Prospero; and Prospero’s instruction in this language is only his way of measuring the distance which separates him from Caliban (The Pleasures of Exile, London, 1984, p.110; Kiberd, op. cit., p.279.)

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