Peer-Reviewed Journal Details
Mandatory Fields
O'Neill, Stephen
Literature Compass
Beyond Shakespeare's land of ire: Revisiting Ireland in English Renaissance drama
Optional Fields
There has been much critical work on the symbolic centrality of Ireland to English Renaissance literature and drama. To focus on the latter, Shakespeare's histories have been read topically in terms of the contemporaneous Irish wars and also more historically, in terms of English colonialism in Ireland. Topical readings have been followed by allegorical approaches with, for instance, attention to Othello's “ghostly Irish subtext” (Hadfield, 1997) or Troilus and Cressida's memories of Elizabethan conflict in Ireland (Parker, 1996). Such interpretations suggest scholarly imaginativeness, the discovery of surprising meaning about a text we thought we knew, albeit within a Shakespeare‐centric frame. They further suggest the capacity of Ireland to enter a play's imaginary—as problem, as image, as other world. At stake here, then, are interrelated questions about what Ireland is doing in English Renaissance drama, where and when we expect to find it, and how we read it. This essay re‐examines the question of why and how Ireland features in plays by Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists. This deceptively simple question is intended to revisit some assumptions that underpin current critical understandings. Why Ireland features in plays has been largely understood as a function of historical contexts and processes: critics and scholars have turned to these as an important site of explanation, with the early modern colonialist discourse on Ireland given special prominence as a determinant of meaning. However, this focus has sidelined other considerations. This article argues for a broadening of context, beyond a focus on topical resonance, to allow for a consideration of dramatic genre and form, the imitative nature of dramatic writing, and the theatre companies themselves, as important factors that shaped how a text and context like Ireland and the Irish found its way into a play. This approach treats representations as a series of reciprocal markings, intertextual echoes, and foregrounds the capacity of a play to make meaning within its own frame. The objective here is less about discounting the political and ideological work of Renaissance plays than about exploring their possibilities to (re)imagine the early modern “land of ire.”
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