The forty or so allusions to Ireland and the Irish in Shakespeare's plays are concentrated within a surprisingly narrow timeframe, from roughly 1596 to 1599, a period in which Shakespeare wrote four linked history plays (Richard II, the first and second parts of Henry IV, and Henry V), as well as a pair of comedies that also touch on the Irish in passing, The Merry Wives of Windsor and As You Like It. There's a good historical explanation for this: the brutal Nine Years' War that England waged in Ireland from 1594 to 1603 was then at its height. That war took a sharp turn for the worse after the humiliating defeat of English troops in August 1598 in Ulster at Yellow Ford. An English column thousands strong, attempting to relieve a besieged garrison, was routed by the forces led by the Irish chieftain Hugh O'Neill, precipitating bloody attacks on English settlers elsewhere in Ireland. Everyone understood that the Irish war had reached a crisis point.
Since England at this time had no standing army, potential soldiers had to be rounded up—and were, from across the land. Some were even dragged out of playhouses and when leaving church. Military service in Ireland was much feared, and for good reason, given the high casualty and mortality rates and how poorly equipped conscripts were to fight in these campaigns. Soldiers mutinied, and a proverb at the time ran: "Better be hanged at home than die like dogs in Ireland."
Over 44,000 English men were conscripted from villages, towns, and London from 1595 to 1602—a staggering number in a population of approximately 4,000,000—the equivalent to roughly a half-million soldiers today. Put simply, roughly one out of every fifty English men was packed off to Ireland in the late 1590s. The figure is sobering and meant that pretty much everyone knew someone—a husband, son, brother, father, cousin, nephew, or neighbor who had gone there, and if lucky enough, had returned physically, if not psychologically unscathed, with stories of the experience. The so-called 'comic' recruitment scene in the Second Part of Henry IV, which re-enacts what was going on in shires across England in the late 1590s, would have registered far differently in 1598, and with a far more sardonic and bitter edge, than it does on most modern stages.
Henry V, first staged in 1599 as English call-ups had intensified and an English army 16,000 strong, led by the Earl of Essex, had been dispatched to crush O'Neill, engages Irish questions more directly than any other Shakespeare play. In its final Chorus, the Earl of Essex's Irish campaign, long submerged but clearly there all along, fully breaks the surface of the play, one of the handful of times in his plays that Shakespeare redirects playgoers' attention away from the make-believe world of his play to the real world outside the theater. He invites anxious playgoers to imagine the hoped-for day when they will pour into the streets of London to welcome home the Earl of Essex, "from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broached on his sword." But it was not to be. O'Neill, a far better military tactician, ran circles around Essex. The campaign was a dismal failure and the fighting would continue for another four years until a far more brutal Lord Deputy of Ireland, Baron Mountjoy, employing famine as one of his weapons, finally defeated O'Neill in 1603.
Once Elizabeth's war in Ireland ended in 1603, the Irish no longer occupied the same threatening space in the English imagination (or on London's stages), though England's Irish problem was far from over. As soldiers who had fought came home, England had to confront a fresh Irish problem: returning veterans. One of them was a neighbor of Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon. In June 1601, local officials there petitioned to "be eased of the charge of one Lewis Gilbert, a maimed solder in Ireland." Before he was sent to Ireland Gilbert had been a local butcher. We don't know what he was like before he came back maimed, but in the years after his return he was a public burden and a danger to his community—accused of forcible entry into a local shop, failing to pay his debts, and, finally, stabbing a neighbor to death in a quarrel. Through bitter war veterans like Pistol in Henry V, Shakespeare also hints at the corrosive and unavoidable national cost—felt in communities across England, including his own town-—of the Irish war.
Shakespeare interest at this time extended beyond Ireland to Irishness, and to that end he also introduces in Henry V what would become a staple of English comedy: the stage Irishman, Captain Macmorris. Macmorris appears in a scene that ostensibly shows Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English captains united against a common enemy, in a fantasy of a 'united kingdom.' The reality, as Shakespeare and his playgoers knew, was far different. It's no surprise, then, that when a Welshman, Fluellen, starts lecturing Macmorris that "there is not many of your nation-–," he is angrily cut off by the Irishman before he can complete the thought in his stage Irish: "Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?" This caricature of a hot-blooded Irishman even threatens to cut off Fluellen's head. For many now it's a deeply offensive exchange, and one that is understandably cut.
But even when it is omitted from productions (including DruidShakespeare's), it helps to know what is at the root of Shakespeare's derogatory portrayal of this Irishman: Macmorris's name provides a clue to his anger, or simply perhaps his defensiveness. The so-called Old English or Anglo-Norman, who had settled in Ireland centuries earlier, had adjusted to local custom by changing their original prefix 'Fitz-' to the Gaelic 'Mac-.' No wonder, then, the part-English, part-Irish, and part-Norman Macmorris is so touchy about his unfixed national identity: what is his nation? English? Irish? Anglo-Irish? If so, what of his loyalties? As a frustrated Irish captain in the Elizabethan army named Christopher St Lawrence put it, in one of the most poignant remarks to survive from the period: "I am sorry that when I am in England, I should be esteemed an Irishman, and in Ireland, an Englishman."
Macmorris's haunting question—"What ish my nation?"—refuses to go away. In recent years that question has generated more attention than perhaps any other in Shakespeare's work, aside from "To be or not to be?" Those four words, which cut to the very heart of Shakespeare and Irishness, demand an answer. Hamlet, famously, was allowed to answer to his own question; MacMorris was not. It has been left to other Irishmen to respond for him, including two of the finest in the past century.
Seamus Heaney's poem "Traditions," published in Wintering Out in 1972 in the midst of 'The Troubles,' quotes those four disturbing words and reimagines the actor playing Macmorris "gallivanting / around the Globe" Theatre, "whinged to courtier and groundling." Heaney castigates Shakespeare (as well as the great English poet and colonizer of Ireland, Edmund Spenser, who urged Elizabeth to starve the Irish into submission), for their roles in portraying and stereotyping the Irish as "very bare / of learning, as wild hares, / as anatomies of death." Heaney brings his poem to a close with the simple and decisive answer to Macmorris's question offered by Ireland's greatest writer, James Joyce, in Ulysses, spoken by "the wandering Bloom": "'Ireland,' said Bloom, 'I was born here. Ireland.'"
James Shapiro is a professor of English at Columbia University. He is the author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, and the forthcoming The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.
Performances of The Druid Theater Company's DruidShakespeare: The History Plays run July 7-19 at the Lincoln Center Festival. For more on the relationship between Shakespeare and Ireland, go to the free DruidShakespeare Symposium on July 9.