Christopher Highley. Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 246pp. ISBN 0 521 58199 0 Cloth.
Christopher Ivic
Queen's University, Canada/SUNY, Potsdam


Ivic, Christopher.  "Review of Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (January, 1999): 7.1-7 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-3/ivicrev.html>.

  1. As readers of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature shed further light on the crucial role literary representations played in the production of individual and collective identities, they are drawn more and more to the elaborate cultural and political history of early modern Britain and Ireland. A sense of (perhaps senses of) Englishness, we are coming to realize, did not emerge solely within the fluid and contested borders of England. The Englishries beyond the borders of England -- those pockets of English settlements in Wales and, especially, Ireland -- gave rise to powerful and alternative articulations of cultural identity. Although Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland brings both Scotland and Wales into the discussion, it is primarily a book about the ideologically diverse English discourse on Ireland produced during those volatile years from 1580 to 1603, when England sought to extend its political domination over its Irish kingdom/colony. By situating Spenser's and Shakespeare's canonical texts alongside the non–canonical writings of John Derricke, John Hooker, Fynes Moryson, George Peele, and Richard Stanihurst as well as within the wider context of England's violent incorporation of the "Celtic fringe," Highley's wonderfully written and well-researched book marks a vital contribution to the on-going construction of a less anglocentric literary history of the early modern period, a literary history alert to the heterogeneous writers and readers throughout the British Isles.

  3. Highley's approach to Spenser's texts is in synch with recent critical work that seeks to recuperate or, to borrow Willy Maley's phrase, salvage Spenser: that is, not to condemn Spenser as an anti-Irish propagandist but rather to place his writings within the ideologically charged colonial milieu that not only informed but also enabled their production: Elizabethan Ireland, Munster in particular. The opening chapter considers the various ways in which Spenser's poetry cultivates both real and imagined "alternative structures of power and patronage -- alternative courts, in fact -- that reflect in often unexpected ways [the poet's] complex immersion in Irish culture" (15). Crucial here is the novel twist that Highley adds to the conventional reading of The Faerie Queene as epideictic literature. Rather than bringing classical and Renaissance rhetorical conventions to bear on Spenser's elaborate narrative poem, Highley explores Spenser's authorial self-fashioning in relation to Book 3's representation of Merlin, who, like Spenser, occupies a liminal, though privileged, position vis-à-vis a political and cultural centre of power. Turning to the Irish setting of Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, Highley enhances his argument by tracing the emergence of a bardic Spenser in the 1590s, an "appropriation of a bardic persona" (33, 39) that signals a disillusionment with Elizabethan (i.e., Queen Elizabeth's) policies in Ireland and also a social and cultural refashioning of Ireland's New English Protestant poet.

  5. The other chapter on Spenser builds on the first by analysing the ways in which both A View of the Present State of Ireland and The Faerie Queene figure Ireland as a homosocial community beyond the sphere of England's court, a court that Spenser depicts as effeminate and effeminizing. Sustaining this chapter is the strong connection Highley establishes between Spenser's texts and their New English readership in Ireland: in particular the Talus-like Sir Richard Bingham, "professional soldier and aggressive governor of Connaught" (116), whose sobriquet was "the Flail of Connaught." A detailed examination of Bingham's portrait nicely introduces this chapter's central discussion of the "extreme and masculinized policy in Ireland that A View and the second installment of The Faerie Queene endorse" (116). These two chapters on Spenser are indeed important additions to recent reassessments of "England's Arch-Poët."

  7. That Spenser occupies a prominent place in this provocative study will not come as a surprise to Spenserians. Shakespeareans, on the other hand, may be curious to find that three of the book's six chapters are devoted to Shakespeare's history plays. By attending to Shakespeare's representations of non-English inhabitants of the British Isles, Highley reminds us that the so-called English histories are not confined to events that occurred within the contested, shifting borders of England. In fact, the Bard merits attention precisely "because of the remarkably sustained and provocative tenor of his analysis of Anglo-Irish affairs" (8), an analysis that Highley traces in 2 Henry VI, 1 Henry IV, and Henry V -- not to mention a chapter on Peele's Edward I (c.1590). Following upon his assertion that "a growing fascination with England's troubles in Ireland was satisfied less by printed materials than by the public stage" (5), the author does a remarkable job of examining the complex ways in which the polyphonic playtext could open itself to "Ireland." For dramatists, one way to broach the contentious "Irish problem" was to employ "strategies of temporal displacement and spatial transcoding": (6) in other words, dramatizations of past Anglo-Scottish and, even more so, Anglo-Welsh encounters afforded a means of responding to current Anglo-Irish affairs, as well as the "British Problem." The conflict between English and Welsh forces in 1 Henry IV, for example, is read as a thin veil for the contemporary crisis in Ireland, with Owen Glendower functioning as a "displaced representation" (87) of Hugh O'Neill, the rebellious Earl of Tyrone. Along with fleshing out 1 Henry IV's topical resonances, this chapter does a masterful job of probing the play's intersecting discourses of civility, incivility, and, especially, gender. Not surprisingly, the splendid chapter on Henry V, the most explicitly topical of Shakespeare's histories, considers the play in light of Tyrone's rebellion (1594-1603) and Essex's expedition to Ireland, an expedition to which the fifth-act Chorus directly alludes. Whereas a number of critics have read the play as actively and unproblematically soliciting support for Essex's Irish campaign, Highley foregrounds "Shakespeare's misgivings about Essex;" he rereads the play, therefore, as "a skeptical counter-discourse about English expansionism within the British Isles" (135-36). In turning to these plays, then, Highley draws upon recent work on the material conditions of theatrical and textual production that views the early modern stage as a site of dynamic cultural interrelations, where dominant ideologies clashed with residual and emergent elements of culture. Furthermore, Highley's informative readings are supported by a familiarity with and reference to Shakespeare's multiple texts. For instance, his analysis of 2 Henry VI's "Irish subtext" is buttressed by a note on the quarto version's anachronistic naming of "The wilde Onele" (as opposed to the Folio's "Th'uncivil kerns of Ireland"), an anachronism that unequivocally underscores the play's concern with Elizabethan Ireland.

  9. Although Highley works with the First Folio edition of Henry V, he unfortunately says nothing about the Queen of France's unsettling reference to Henry as "brother Ireland" (sig. h2, TLN 289), a passage that was dubiously emended to "brother England" in the Second Folio of 1632 and has remained so in all subsequent editions until the recent publication of Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine's New Folger edition. Given his attention to anxiety about cultural hybridity in the final scene of Henry V, discussion of "brother Ireland" seems called for.
  10. This important book appears at time when "Spenser and Ireland" and, increasingly, "Shakespeare and Ireland" are burgeoning, if not firmly established, fields of study. Whereas much of the earlier critical commentary on Ireland -- centred on issues of gender, race, and empire -- is often given over to reproducing the material it condemns -- namely, anti-Irish English discourse -- Highley's original work is refreshing and stimulating precisely because it traces the emergence of dissenting, oppositional voices, as opposed to the monologic, oppressive voice of the colonizer. This is particularly true of his work on early modern popular drama. By placing the voices of Henry V's disgruntled soldiers within the context of "a subculture of dissent and resistance in early modern Britain" (150), Highley locates emergent sites of resistance in Shakespeare's texts. His chapter on Henry V also looks forward, in a way that the ones on Spenser do not, to the opposition that Cromwell's Irish expedition incited. Of course, Highley can be accused of stretching his argument, since dissenting pronouncements by lower-class soldiers were indubitably more mercenary than ideological. Nevertheless, his approach to Shakespeare's history plays is a welcome addition to recent readings. However, his recuperation of Spenser is at times less convincing, even inconsistent. While downplaying the emphasis on Spenser's "official" pronouncements, Highley calls attention to "conflicting impulses that can be felt throughout Spenser's corpus in equivocations and doubts about New English designs in Ireland and as moments of near-sympathy with Gaelic culture" (20). Part of the problem with this reading of Spenser's ideological articulations is the lack of an accurate critical vocabulary. What exactly does "near-sympathy" mean? The heterogeneous English discourse on Ireland, to be sure, cannot be turned into an exact science; however, the phrase "near-sympathy" is too imprecise. Moreover, this passage is contradicted by the author's claim that the "re-conquest of Ireland [was,] for Spenser, England's most urgent political and military objective" (124).

  12. Highley should be lauded not only for his superb research into a diverse collection of primary texts but also for his impressive archival work -- in particular, his deft handling of the "massive archive of Irish materials . . . built up in the 1580s and 1590s when English efforts to reform, settle, and reconquer Ireland necessitated an increasing volume of correspondence between the court and the Irish administration" (1). In addition, his wonderful findings are supplemented by fifty pages of rich, informative notes.


Works Cited


Maley, Willy. Salvaging Spenser: Colonialism, Culture and Identity. London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's, 1997.


Shakespeare, William. Henry V. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square-Pocket, 1995.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).