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An Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, and an Irishman are having an argument … in a Shakespeare play.

English view of an Irish rebel (click image for gallery)

This set-up is part of an interesting series currently on BBC Radio 4, Shakespeare’s Restless World, presented by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor (more links below).

The concept is to take objects from Shakespeare’s time and explain how the playwright’s contemporaries used them to make sense of their changing world.

In this show the object in question is John Derricke’s series of woodcuts illustrating an English military campaign in Ireland in the late 1570s, published in The Image of Irelande (1581). The example in the image above is of the rebel Rory Oge O’More –  the other woodcuts have several dynamic scenes, with gruesome detail.

MacGregor starts the radio show with a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.ii – played by four captains in the king’s army, during a siege of a French city. The full range of accents is available on the page: Gower with his English, Fluellen his Welsh, and Jamy his Scots. The Irish captain is MacMorris, and in the course of their chaotic exchange he says:

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?

A much debated passage.* MacGregor makes the interesting observation that MacMorris is Shakespeare’s “only Irishman”, and yet behind him are “hundreds of Irish hovering off-stage”.

If the only subject of this blog were Tudor Ireland I would never run out of things to say – although I might run out of readers. The point is that Ireland held a strange and, arguably, fatal attraction for the Tudor English, as suggested by the woodcuts.

So please listen to the show for an intriguing introduction to this strange attraction. Here’s the link to the Radio 4 webpage for the show: Ireland: Failures in the Present. But also try this link for the webcast itself (note – available for a limited period – noodle around the website for the cache).

Not interested? True Tudor historians should always, “like a bit more Irish in them” – but do try the rest of this series: 20 brief shows on a wide range of Tudor issues, stuffed with expertise, and brilliantly presented with many insights. You can also enjoy the British Museum’s contribution to the series at this link.

Not deep, not comprehensive, but you may receive inspiration. I recommend.

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*Many commentators assume that the “-sh” sounds in MacMorris’ speeches indicate he is a drunkard. The truth ish Shakeshpeare loved the acshent.

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