Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 23 June 2018

Is Shakespeare responsible for the 'stage Irishman'?

Kim Bielenberg spots some less than flattering lines

Andrew Westfield as Macmorris in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V.
Andrew Westfield as Macmorris in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V.
Laurence Olivier in a 1944 production of the play which features the feckless Macmorris, the only Irish character in any Shakespeare play

Scholars believe that William Shakespeare may be to blame for the creation of the first stage Irishman.

The rough-hewn, feckless, brawling Paddy has been a stock character through the ages, first in theatre and later in cinema.

We see the stereotyped Oirish character in Hollywood movies from The Quiet Man to Ryan's Daughter, and in 1970s sitcoms, but where did this figure come from?

Professor Andy Murphy of the School of English at St Andrew's University in Scotland believes the hackneyed image of the pugnacious Irish goes all the way back to Shakespeare's play Henry V, and the character Captain Macmorris.

"Captain Macmorris is really the first stage Irishman,'' says Prof Murphy, who takes a special interest in the links between Shakespeare and Ireland. "He is the only Irish character in Shakespeare."

Henry V tells the story of the English invasion of France. Macmorris, the Irish officer in the army of the King, appears in a scene that to modern eyes seems like a joke - it features an Irishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, and an Englishman.

"It is almost like they are walking into a bar," says Prof Murphy.

Macmorris gets embroiled in a row and delivers the most famous line about Ireland in Shakespeare's work: "What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal."

It is not a flattering portrayal of the Irish. Prof Murphy says: "Macmorris is incomprehensible and his sentences are incomplete. He is very aggressive and keen to get on with the business of blowing things up."

Centuries later in cartoons in the satirical magazine, Punch, the Irish were imagined as ape-like figures, according to Murphy.

"In a way Captain Macmorris is a little bit like that. He is inarticulate and aggressive."

Elsewhere in Shakespeare's plays, references to Ireland are equally unfavourable. In A Comedy of Errors, Antipholus and Dromio talk about a "kitchen wench", who is "spherical like a globe".

Antipholus asks: "In what part of her body stands Ireland?"   

The reply is: "Marry, sir, in her buttocks. I found it out by the bogs."

The humour of this Paddy the Irish joke may elude us today, but in Shakespeare's time audiences probably fell about laughing.

During The Bard's era, England was frequently at war in Ireland, and there are often references to this in the plays.

In Richard II, the king says: "Now for our Irish wars: / We must supplant those rough rug-headed Kernes / Which live like venom where no venom else."

The kernes to whom he referred were Irish infantry soldiers, who were often mercenaries.

Prof Murphy says: "They were much-feared and had a distinctive appearance. These Irish soldiers wore their hair long and combed forward, and they wore one-piece cloaks often pulled over their heads.  They were seen as mysterious, strange and different."

When Shakespeare wrote Henry V, the Irish crisis was dominating English politics. In preceding years, the English had suffered heavy losses in Ireland at the hands of the Gaelic lord, Hugh O'Neill.

In 1598, O'Neill inflicted the heaviest defeat on English forces in the Irish wars at the Battle of the Yellow Ford on the Blackwater River in Ulster.

O'Neill was eventually defeated at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601; but to the English of that time, Ireland was like Vietnam to the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.

Tens of thousands of soldiers were sent to fight in Ireland, and many lost their lives. In Shakespeare's home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, there is a reference to a violent war veteran, Lewis Gilbert, a "maimed soldier in Ireland", who stabbed his neighbour to death.

Prof Andy Murphy says Shakespeare could not generally discuss contemporary politics in his plays, because it was too dangerous and controversial.

"The only way of referring to what is happening in the present is by setting a play in the past or in a foreign country."

However, in Henry V, he does refer to the campaign of Queen Elizabeth's general in Ireland, the Earl of Essex, expressing the hope that he will return victorious.

The play mentions a general "from Ireland coming, bringing rebellion broached on his sword".

The domination of the Irish issue is raised in a book by the Shakespeare scholar, James Shapiro - 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

He notes that the original version of Henry V was not performed often soon after it was written, because of its focus on sensitive contemporary events. It was too hot to handle.

In some versions of the play, produced after 1599, references to Ireland were cut out to avoid giving offence.

Irish Independent

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