William Shakespeare Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories

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Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Neill, Michael University of Auckland

[T]he English have always governed Ireland not as a conquered people by the sword and the conqueror's law, but as a province united upon marriage.…

Fynes Moryson, "The Commonwealth of Ireland"

So be there 'twixt your kingdoms such a
That never may ill office, or fell jealousy,
Which troubles oft the bed of blessed marriage,
Thrust in between the paction of these
To make divorce of their incorporate league.…
     William Shakespeare, Henry V, 5.2.362-66

[T]he husbandman must first break the land, before it be made capable of good seed: and when it is thoroughly broken and manured, if he do not forthwith cast good seed into it, it will grow wild again, and bear nothing but weeds. So a barbarous country must be first broken by a war, before it will be capable of good government.…

Sir John Davis, A Discovery of the True Causes why Ireland was never entirely Subdued

Things thus succeeding according to English desires so that none now remained able to resist their power, nevertheless they did not cease to rage against … all the conquered people, in such fierce and savage fashions as can scarce be heard or told without horror. For in the towns, forts, and villages they seized many who had up to this survived, and … drove all without distinction of age, sex, rank or deserts into old barns and setting them on fire destroyed those shut up therein. But if any of the victims attempted to break out, the surrounding enemy either drove them back into the fire or cut them off with the sword. When they came across a few persons either wandering abroad or lying at home, they at their pleasure shot them with muskets, or ran them through with swords. Some they hung on trees by the wayside or on gallows, amongst whom was sometimes seen the cruel spectacle of mothers hanging on crosses, the little ones still lying or crying on their breasts, strangled in their hair and hanging from this new fashioned halter; and other children wherever met or found it was an amusement and sport to toss in the air with spears or lances, or to pin them to the ground, or dash them against the rocks, with other atrocities of this sort, because if they were suffered to live they would one day be rebelly papists.

Peter Lombard, The Irish War of Defense, 1598-1600

Were now the general of our gracious Empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him!
     William Shakespeare, Henry V, 5.Cho.30-34'

"No man or woman," writes the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o in an incautious moment, "can choose their biological nationality."2 The phrase "biological nationality" sounds especially odd in the mouth of a professing Marxist; and, now that even "race" has been deconstructed as an effect of ideology,3 it is not easy to see how "nationality" can be defended as "biological." For that very reason, however, Ng g 's slip is all the more revealing, exposing the deep essentialism that infects our thinking about such matters. Nations, as Benedict Anderson has famously reminded us, are"imagined communities,"4 thing that get thought up; yet, in the teeth of reason and history, we persist in experiencing these fictions as natural, things to which we are native, like fish to the sea. And if nationality seems to be somehow "in the blood," nationhood has come to be imagined as equally essential—as much the ordained form of civil society as the polis was for the Greeks. People may argue about the proper boundaries of the nation—about its geographical, political, cultural, linguistic, or racial constitution—but there is seldom any doubt in the minds of the disputants that such boundaries really exist or that (after due process of "ethnic cleansing") they can be established and placed beyond dispute.

When, in the course of this century's first great anticolonialist revolution, Irish patriots sang "A Nation Once Again," they celebrated the...

(The entire section is 17,092 words.)