William Shakespeare in Yeats’s Irish Revival

There is no great literature without nationality, no great nationality without literature. —W. B. Yeats, Letters to the New Island

William Shakespeare in Yeats_s Irish RevivalTo illustrate the confluence of culture and politics which had, over the course of the nineteenth century, implicated Shakespeare’s works within the framework of nationalist ideologies, two anecdotes should here suffice. Both concern 1916, a year of enormous significance in both Irish and English nationalism. On Easter Monday, 1916, Patrick Pearse and his followers led an armed insurrection in Dublin against British rule, seizing key buildings in the city center and proclaiming the existence of an independent Irish nation. Three months later, across the English Channel on the battlefields of northern France, July 1916 brought carnage on an industrial scale during the Somme Offensive. Both the battles of the First World War and the military engagement (and subsequent executions) of the Easter Rising have, of course, received much historical attention, and both are often regarded as watersheds in the political consciousness of England and Ireland, respectively. After 1916, no longer could British citizens disregard the human cost of modern war. In Ireland, 1916 ushered in a version of Irish nationalism hitherto championed by a minority, so that, as Richard English writes, the “most emphatic achievement of 1916 was to destroy a constitutional, parliamentary, conciliatory version of nationalism (a nationalism founded on the principles of compromise, trust, tolerance, and opposition to political violence or coercion).” As ever in the history of Irish nationalism, political violence proved divisive, in this case further separating Ireland’s “two political communities,” nationalist and Unionist.
This, however, is a book about literary nationalism, and accordingly, the events with which I am concerned are not military, but cultural. That being said, they are decidedly political. The year 1916 was also the tercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare. On Wednesday of Easter week, the pro-Union Irish Times greeted Dublin’s citizenry— at least those who read the Times— with the following headline: “How many citizens of Dublin have any real knowledge of the works of Shakespeare? Could any better occasion for reading them be afforded than the coincidence of enforced domesticity with the poet’s tercentenary?” Under military curfew, following the Rising, acquiescent Times readers might well have been asking themselves, which of Shakespeare’s plays does fit these tumultuous times? Julius Caesar, perhaps, with its dramatization of conspiracy, coup, and murderous, fickle crowds of the angry and confused; or might it have been Henry V, a play whose ironic chorus can only comment upon, and not halt, the imperialist vigor of an English monarch rampant?
The opening two paragraphs from Yeats, Shakespeare, and Irish Cultural Nationalism by Oliver Hennessey.
A reminder that on April 27 we will be reading and discussing poetry and other literature about, or inspired by, Shakespeare, his works and characters. Please bring your own selection of this genre for discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections posted to-date.

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