- The (Mis)Fortunes of the Nine Years War:Accountability and War Profiteering in Shakespeare's Richard II and 1 Henry IV
The reconquest of Ireland is arguably one of the most expensive enterprises of the Elizabethan era. Prior to the 1541 constitutional transformation of Ireland from lordship to kingdom, the succeeding Old English earls of Kildare, through a combination of exploitation and patronage, absorbed the economic burden of governing the island. From the perspective of the English government, its wardship of Ireland was politically and economically expedient; financial demands on the exchequer, especially in the event of war and rebellion, were considerably relieved through the earls' ability to raise and support armies with their private resources and revenue. This status quo was dismantled in the aftermath of the Kildare rebellion in 1534, and English-born men were appointed to replace their Old English predecessors as chief governors of Ireland. The new order consolidated royal authority at a high price: England must cover the cost of governance that was formerly undertaken by the Old English governors.1 While the cost of maintaining order and asserting royal authority in Ireland grew steadily over the course of the sixteenth century, it was not until the last decade of Queen Elizabeth I's reign that the reconquest of Ireland began to threaten England with bankruptcy. For decades, Elizabeth was reluctant to engage in what she knew would be an overwhelmingly expensive reconquest of Ireland, and it quickly became clear that there was no avoiding the clash with the Ulster rebel leader, Hugh O'Neill, the disgraced Earl of Tyrone, when he established the Irish confederacy and declared open revolt against English rule.2 To fund the Nine Years War (1594–1603), England resorted to selling Crown lands and imposing enforced loans, and even then, the government could not keep up with the financial demands of the Irish campaign, which were further compounded by rampant war profiteering. Elizabeth and her advisors found themselves reaching more frequently into the exchequer and drawing increasingly large sums to support military operations in Ireland. [End Page 27]
As Irish expenditures peaked during the Nine Years War, news of English losses in Ireland prompted authorities to prohibit public discussions about Irish affairs in London.3 Even with the suppression of Irish news, Elizabethan writers frequently alluded to the anxieties of the Irish conflict—or the so-called Irish problem—in their works. The study of this corpus has become a genre in itself within the field of literary criticism.4 On the early modern stage, William Shakespeare's histories have provided a powerful focal point in this area. The self-reflexivity in the history plays "[merit] a central place [in studies on Ireland and early modern English literature] because of the remarkably sustained and provocative tenor of its analysis of Anglo-Irish affairs," generating a "discourse about Ireland in the late sixteenth century that was not only far from monolithic or ideologically coherent, but also unpredictably challenging."5 Literary critics are aware of the limitations that privilege ideological discussions of imperialism and coloniality.6 More recently, scholars have turned their attention to examining the more tangible and practical aspects of early modern representations of Ireland in Shakespeare's histories: that second tetralogy was written and performed during the Nine Years War.
In Shakespeare criticism, Richard II and 1 Henry IV are traditionally examined alongside the revolt in Ireland and the English struggle to contain Irish Otherness, but this line of interpretation downplays an equally threatening force within England.7 Richard II is, of course, the play par excellence in this context:
Well, he [Bolingbroke] is gone, and with him go these thoughts.Now for the rebels which stand out in Ireland.Expedient manage must be made, my liege,Ere further leisure yield them further meansFor their advantage and your highness' loss.8
The point I would like to make here has less to do with the play's fixation on Ireland and how it leads to Richard's ruin than about his financial (mis)management in relation to his Irish expedition; Shakespeare tells us: "He hath not money for these Irish wars" (2.1.59...