Ireland: Failures in the Present
Neil MacGregor of the British Museum explains how a rare woodcut reveals the troubles and tragedies of Elizabethan Ireland. From April 2012.
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his new object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.
With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.
Programme 7. IRELAND: FAILURES IN THE PRESENT - A rare woodcut offers a equally rare visual impression of the troubles and tragedies of Elizabethan Ireland.
Producer: Paul Kobrak.
A Dangerous Image of Ireland
Size: H:205mm, W:320mm
Made in: London
Made by: John Derricke
Why is it that Shakespeare gave us a Scottish play, and Scottish and Welsh characters in abundance, and yet in his entire works there is only one Irish character?
The answer has much more to do with national politics than artistic inspiration. The war in Ireland was the great military crisis of the Elizabethan regime – almost resulting in failure for England – and as a result it was a topic prone to censorship.
While we can glean a lot about the issues presented by Ireland from the many references in Shakespeare’s plays, this book, The Image of Ireland, published in 1581, perhaps allows us best to reconstruct what his audience might have known and thought about the Irish.
And if you’re still wondering who the one Irish character is, then you’ll have to listen to the programme…
This object is from Edinburgh University Library
'The Duke of York is newly come from Ireland,/And with a puissant and a mighty power/Of gallowglasses and stout kerns/Is marching hitherward in proud array.' Henry VI part 2, Act 4 Scene 9
- The scarcity of Irish artefacts from this period makes Derricke's work one of the leading sources for the Irish experience in the late Tudor age
- The plates tell the story of the subjugation of Irish rebels by Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, detailing his triumphs against the native Irish - many probably witnessed by the author
- Derricke's plates have been called the finest woodcuts made in a 16th century English book
- Only one Irish character appears in a play by Shakespeare - Captain Macmorris in Henry V (and he's actually Anglo-Irish)
- A lot of academic ink has been spilled on what was meant by Macmorris' expostulation on 'What ish my nation?' in Henry V, Act 3 Scene 2
More from Radio 4: Elizabeth I and Ireland
More from Radio 4: Martin Frobisher and Fool's Gold
More from Radio 4: The Plantation of Ireland in The Counties of Armagh and Tyrone
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