Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, thought to have been first performed as a post-Christmas entertainment in the very first years of the seventeenth century, is, you may remember, the story of the duke Orsino, who is in love with the countess Olivia, who does not love him, and of Viola, who does; but since Orsino knows Viola only in her assumed disguise as a young man called Cesario there is a problem. A further complication is that Olivia then falls for “Cesario” – who as we have seen is really Viola ‑ but as she (Viola) has an identical twin brother, Sebastian, who was thought drowned but in fact survived unbeknownst to all, we can perhaps see a solution up ahead to that one. One is tempted to think that there would be less of a problem here if everyone was not so fixated on rigid gender identities, but, hey, it was the seventeenth century, what did they know?
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen or read a Shakespearean comedy that all of these difficulties and misunderstandings are prettily tidied up at the end and as the curtain falls everyone is appropriately, heterosexually, paired off and of course, consequently happy. Well almost everyone: the chief exception is Malvolio, Olivia’s pompous and puritanical steward, who has been tricked by some of the household lowlifes into believing that his mistress harbours romantic feelings for him (some chance). His fate is to make a spectacle of himself by extravagantly declaring his love before an amazed Olivia before he is eventually disabused of his illusions and humiliatingly locked up as a madman. As the mechanisms of the plot against him and the identities of the plotters are finally revealed Malvolio storms off the stage, angrily, but one suspects impotently, threatening revenge (“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”). But as Olivia’s servant Fabian has said, for everyone else the whole affair “[m]ay rather pluck on laughter than revenge”, or, stepping for a moment outside the text: “This is a comedy, old man, not a tragedy, and I’m afraid you’re it.”
Viola first appears in Act I, Scene ii in the company of a sea captain, washed up after a wreck and thinking her brother drowned, on the coast of what turns out to be the duchy ruled by Orsino.
Vio. What country, friends, is this?
Cap. This is Illyria, lady.
Vio. And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother is in Elysium …
So we are in Illyria, but where is that? Illyria was a territory which in Shakespeare’s time no longer had a separate political existence, but the name (Illyricum) had referred in the classical period to a substantial Roman province on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, extending from what is now northern Albania up to the Istrian peninsula and including much of present-day Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. In the sixteenth century many of the coastal towns of what had once been Illyria were Venetian possessions and it is perhaps one of these, Zara (now Zadar), for example, or Spalato (now Split), that Shakespeare may have– very vaguely – had in mind as the setting for Orsino’s court. Certainly many of the main characters have Italian-sounding names – Orsino himself, Olivia, Viola/Cesario, Malvolio, Antonio, Feste. But why is Olivia’s bibulous uncle called Sir Toby Belch, and his addlepated companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek? Well, one might as well ask what Quince, Bottom, Flute, Snout, Snug and Starveling are doing in the Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, how a constable named Anthony Dull has found employment in the service of the kingdom of Navarre in Love’s Labour’s Lost or why Shakespeare’s characters, and particularly those of lower social class, make so many references in plays with foreign settings to English placenames and customs. One could say that Shakespeare was not in the business of offering us a consistent naturalism, that stage comedy was a very mixed genre or that the groundlings had to be entertained and that this was more easily achieved through the antics of figures they recognised to be a little like themselves. Or one could say that place is normally a matter of very secondary importance to Shakespeare, in his comedies at least: Much Ado About Nothing is set in Messina, The Taming of the Shrew in Padua and As You Like It in eastern France, but very little would have to be changed if the locations were to be swapped around.
On top of this apparent “carelessness” about locations, there are what we might call the political or topical aspects of several of Shakespeare’s plays, which invite us to consider their action in a double way, involving both the when and where of the historical events featured and the political situation in England at the time of their writing – an approach very impressively deployed in two books by James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005) and 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (2015). In 1599, Shapiro relates the huge anxieties generated in England in the last years of the sixteenth century by the continuing perceived threat from Spain and more recent military reverses in Ireland, culminating in a heavy English defeat in summer 1598 at the Battle of the Yellow Ford in Co Armagh.
After the Yellow Ford and the flight of many “New English” in Munster from their estates into the safety of Cork in the face of native Irish attack, there were calls for a punitive force to be raised and sent to Ireland to defeat the rebellious Earl of Tyrone (Hugh O’Neill) and his allies and restore English domination. On February 21st, 1599 (Ash Wednesday), the celebrated preacher Lancelot Andrewes delivered a sermon before Queen Elizabeth on a text from Deuteronomy 13.9, “When the host goeth forth against thine enemies, then keep thee from every wicked thing.” Andrewes’s chief concern in his homily seemed to be the spiritual health of the soldiers who might be waging the coming war, but he also wished to make clear that the military action in Ireland was justified and would have God’s blessing, a conviction he seemed to have arrived at through an exhaustive examination of the many wars of Old Testament history. It of course goes without saying that in these analogies the English correspond to the Chosen People and the Irish to the various others who have offended God, like the tribe of Reuben, by “erecting them an altar beside that of Moses”, or that of Benjamin, guilty of “a barbarous, and brutish outrage”. But no righteous Christian kingdom, Andrewes stresses, need be nervous of waging offensive (as well as defensive) war: for had not King David, at the battle of Gath, sought the enemy out at his own gates and given him battle in his own territory?
Queen Elizabeth may well have found Andrewes’s long-winded style rather tedious: she was, after all, sixty-five at the time of the sermon and certainly the eminent preacher tended to go on a bit. But it was still useful to have the backing of the church for a costly and potentially risky military enterprise. Indeed Shapiro quotes a contemporary, Peter Heylyn’s, suggestion that the queen was not above arranging such clerical endorsements in advance herself: if she “had any business to bring about amongst the people, she used to tune the pulpits, as her saying was; that is to say, to have some preachers in and about London, and other great auditories in the kingdom ready at command to cry up her design”. Andrewes’s serviceability to the crown on this occasion would seem to be an early example of that remarkably cosy relationship between the Anglican church and the projection of British military power abroad which has persisted over the centuries.
By the late 1590s, England’s war in Ireland was about as popular among Londoners as the Vietnam War was in American cities and campuses in the late 1960s. Given the absence of a standing army (due to Elizabeth’s well-attested parsimony but also perhaps to anxiety about a possible coup), military expeditions tended to rely for their manpower on press gangs and for their financing partly on forced loans extorted from wealthy citizens, “loans” which might never be paid back. According to Shapiro, the government’s own figures show that 2,800 men were pressed into military service in 1594 and 1,806 in 1595. “That figure rose sharply in 1596 to 8,840, dropped to 4,835 in 1597 and then nearly doubled to 9,164 in 1598. The number drafted in the first six months alone of 1599 was 7,300. Apprentices and unmarried men in London of lower social stations had special cause to be fearful.” Caught up in trawls of churches, inns and playhouses and marched off to fight in Ireland, these wretches were ill-trained, ill-fed and ill-equipped for what might lie ahead of them, some indeed “half-dead before they come there, for the very name of Ireland do break their hearts”. Naturally someone was making money out of this shambles.
In Act III, Scene ii of Henry IV Part II, Falstaff and his accomplices review a collection of potential recruits rounded up by the country magistrate Justice Shallow – Ralph Mouldy, Simon Shadow, Thomas Wart, Francis Feeble and Peter Bullcalf, as miserable a bunch of specimens as their names would suggest. Signing up Shadow, Falstaff jokes that he has “a number of shadows to fill up the muster book”, meaning that he has filled out the recruitment lists with the names of non-existent persons whose pay will find its way to him. And having pressed four of the five men into service, he and his accomplice, Bardolph, then accept bribes to release two of them. The conflict for which Ralph Mouldy and Simon Shadow were being recruited occurred in the first decade of the fifteenth century, but Shakespeare’s audience for Henry IV Part II in 1598 would have recognised the techniques of the press-gang depicted on stage as being all too real in their own time and as being applied to enlist men who would be sent to fight and perhaps die in what were routinely referred to as the Irish bogs.
One of the most popular plays on the London stage in the 1590s was The Famous Victories of Henry V. Shakespeare knew it well and indeed raided it for episodes to include in his own Henry plays, but his treatment of the same military escapades in France in his own 1599 play Henry V was quite different, its hero sometimes appearing as an inspiring general and at others as a cold-blooded and ruthless fighter, ordering his men to execute their prisoners or threatening Harfleur with the murder of its women and children if the city is not delivered to him. Ireland was much on Shakespeare’s mind, Shapiro argues, though he was writing about France. So much so that when the Queen of France meets Henry she greets him “So happy be the issue, brother Ireland / Of this good day and of this gracious meeting.” Editors silently correct this manuscript slip to “England”, which was certainly Shakespeare’s meaning. Indeed Ireland and the here and now does break the surface of the illusion in the Chorus to the play’s final act, when the playgoers are invited to imagine the crowds thronging London’s streets to welcome the victorious returning King Henry, as they would perhaps soon go out to see the Earl of Essex
the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword …
The Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, was to return from his campaigning in Ireland, however, without having quelled the Irish rebellion. He was to be executed for treason in 1601, several months before Irish resistance was finally extinguished at Kinsale.
Henry V had an interesting afterlife, again involving Ireland, when during the Second World War, with the Allies poised to invade France, Two Cities Films produced a film version directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. The film was partly financed by the British government but was filmed with the co-operation of the Irish one, which in this particular case would seem to have been neutral in favour of Britain. The scenes featuring the Battle of Agincourt were filmed at the Powerscourt estate in Co Wicklow, with those Shakespearean episodes showing the more savage side of King Henry omitted, presumably in deference to the need for a wartime feelgood factor. The Army’s reserve force (the Local Defence Force) provided many of the extras for the infantry, with the local gentry providing horsemen for the cavalry, reproducing in the film perhaps a social distinction each element could trace back through their ancestors for several hundred years.
Laurence Olivier later paid tribute to those who had facilitated the Irish part of the production, as reported in The Irish Times of December 20th, 1944.
The Powerscourt Demesne was admirable, as were the five hundred Irishmen who played the part of foot soldiers and bowmen, and the 180 splendid riders and their horses which we needed for the French cavalry … It was a stirring sight to see them charging into battle in full armour, over the green fields of Ireland. The advantage of filming in Ireland was even more apparent when certain exterior shots had to be taken in England; for valuable time was lost when waiting for aircraft to pass overhead, and also for the wind to disperse the vapour trails.
Olivier spoke of another problem occasioned by the fact that chain mail for the warriors was not easily to be found, Germany, it seems, being the only country to make and repair it. “But … Ireland came again to our help. Blind Dublin students knitted a number of suits, and when they were sprayed with gold and aluminium paint, they photographed very well, indeed.”