- Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers Edited by Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane
In this invigorating collection of essays, the contributors explore the diverse ways in which Shakespeare’s works respond to what John Kerrigan terms ‘the Celtic-Saxon-British geopolitics of the three kingdoms’ (p. xli). The volume also considers the subsequent afterlife and reception of Shakespeare, especially in Ireland. These interpretations are broadly inspired by ‘the new British history’, inaugurated by J. G. A. Pocock, which emphasises the interrelationships between Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales as constituent parts of a multi-nation state. In Pocock’s own influential formulation, this means viewing both the past (and the future) of ‘Britain’ as part of ‘a problematic and uncompleted experiment in the creation and interaction of several nations’. This approach has had a significant impact on the study of early modern writing — notably in John Kerrigan’s influential Archipelagic English: Literature, History and Politics, 1603–1707 (2008) — and, specifically, on Shakespeare studies. In the latter, a new range of contexts and subtexts have been explored to show how the plays and poems engage with the ‘British problem’.
John Kerrigan opens the collection with a fascinating prologue on ‘How Celtic was Shakespeare?’ This explores the ways in which the works have been read as archipelagic rather than simply national (or nationalist) in their concerns. He also reflects on the methods that have been used to release this potentiality of the texts and some of the problems and controversies this has generated. However, his own essay is also a demonstration of what can be gained from viewing Shakespeare in this way and it prefigures the approaches taken by the volume as a whole by presenting a compelling reading of Coriolanus, both in relation to its intrinsic political concerns as well as its subsequent adaptation and reception. Kerrigan also illuminates the question of what ‘Celtic’ denoted in Shakespeare’s time, as do a number of other contributors, as well as how later Celtic revivals have sponsored creative rereadings of the works along with resistance to them. He concludes with a tantalising account of Shakespeare’s possible connection to Sir John Salusbury of Lleweni and consequently to Welsh-speaking, Celtic Wales.
In their own clear and forceful introduction, the editors present a genealogy of the term ‘Celtic’, a word Shakespeare nowhere uses, to show the [End Page 146] distinct and sometimes conflicting ways in which this term has been defined. In the subsequent volume, three principal directions are followed. Firstly, attention is given to Shakespeare’s treatment of national identity during the Elizabethan period in his historical drama as well as As You Like It and Venus and Adonis. This includes a fascinating account by Philip Schwyzer of Richard III’s derision of Richmond and his followers as ‘bastard Brittaines’ (or Britons) to reinforce his identity as the last truly English king before the triumph of the Celtic House of Tudor. Christopher Ivic considers and questions the distinctions drawn between different conceptions of national identity within Shakespeare’s Elizabethan and Jacobean writing. He provides a nuanced account of the history plays that suggests they are less monolithic in their view of nationhood than is often thought and compares Shakespeare’s conception of cultural identity to contemporary maps produced by John Speed.
This essay provides a point of transition to the second phase of the collection which focuses on the Jacobean period with discussions of Othello and Macbeth but also the ‘late plays’, Cymbeline and Henry VIII. The latter works elicit some insightful readings on the significance of Wales. Stewart Mottram analyses Cymbeline’s anxieties with regard to invasion, especially through Wales, along with its ambivalent treatment of heroism. Rory Loughnane considers the complex implications of the allusions to Wales used by the Old Lady, Anne Bullen’s attendant and confidant in Henry VIII.
In the final section, the contributors consider the afterlife and reception of Shakespeare’s works. Nicholas McDowell discusses John Milton’s allusions to Shakespeare in his regicide tracts of 1649, notably when he focuses...