Literature and Theatre
The Conclusion draws together the ideas argued in the preceding chapters. The argument hangs around a coincidence at the National Theatre, London, in summer 2016, when outside a performance of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars there was an exhibition commemorating the National Theatre’s five productions of Hamlet since it opened. Both these – the play and the exhibition – rely on commemorative memory, but side by side produce an interesting analytical collision.
This chapter explains how the return of Hamlet’s Ghost is replayed by Synge in Playboy of the Western World (1907). Unlike in Shakespeare’s play, Christy Mahon benefits from his father’s absence, excelling in the Mayo shebeen where he turns up, even falling in love with Pegeen Mike. However, when Old Mahon rises from the dead to haunt his son, Christy’s and Hamlet’s trajectories begin to match one another’s again. Christy’s tactic is to try (again) to kill his father, hoping for the same positive reaction from the Mayoites. Where Hamlet ‘remembered’ his father’s Ghost by proving him true – by demonstrating that Claudius did murder King Hamlet – Christy updates Hamlet by wanting to kill his father to confirm Old Mahon as a memory on which he, Christy, can build his own truth. Christy goes yet further. Just as with Hamlet examining Yorick’s skull, Christy also remembers forward by realising that he can only succeed offstage. When Christy and Old Mahon leave at the end of the play, Christy becomes a disruptive memory himself, destabilising the traditional world of the Mayo shebeen. The diabology that underpins the Hamlet–Playboy connection – the way to approach and communicate with a ghost – leads to Christy’s understanding of how to be ghostly, without yet being dead.
This chapter focuses on Yeats’s engagement with the motif of land in both his drama and poetry, with a particular interest in the way he is concerned with what is on the land’s surface. Whilst previous studies have noted the influence of King Lear on Yeats’s thinking – and, in particular, Lear’s concern with linear genealogy and who will inherit his territory – that comparison is limited in its usefulness. Instead, through a thorough examination of Yeats’s thinking about surfaces, this interest in Coole House – Lady Gregory’s ancestral home that Yeats hopes will remain standing – transforms into his interest in his tower whose crevices and degradation are instead praised. What joins these interests is the impression these buildings make in the land, and not the history they presuppose. The ideal figure in this vein is that of the dancer – whom we see, for example, in The Wanderings of Oisin, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, and ‘The Double Vision of Michael Robartes’ – because of the privileging of indeterminacy and the continuous process of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation. Foucault (1980) calls this counter-memory. This idealism is visible in the earlier period in As You Like It, when a dance takes place to celebrate the return of Duke Senior’s land to him, and in Edmund Spenser’s and Sir John Davies’s respective poetry. This counter-memorial preference also conditions Yeats’s response to the (successive) Famine, Land Wars, and Irish revolution that sought to reterritorialise Irish land.
The Introduction charts the parallel concerns with memory evident in early modern England, revolution-era Ireland, and twenty-first-century Ireland. In each case, memory emerges as a cultural practice that is not limited to itself. In Renaissance England, for instance, the art of memory is on the wane, but finds its last staging post in the early modern theatre – in particular (in the case of Robert Fludd) in Shakespeare’s proprietary Globe theatre. There is also evidence that characters such as Hamlet are disciples of humanist memory theorists such as Petrus Ramus. In early twentieth-century Ireland, the theatrical also offered a way of serving up memory to Irish citizens. Whether through the national theatre at the Abbey, or through the ‘performance’ of the Easter Rising (notwithstanding its tragedies), Irish revolutionaries recognised the dual power of memory and of theatre to cohere a singular sense of Irishness in rejection of British colonialism. Not coincidentally, much of the rhetoric on the topic – as on Irish nationalism generally – built on (and remembered) Shakespeare’s revolutionary potential. Finally, the focus on commemoration in the Decade of Centenaries (1913–23) also builds on the theatrical. The 2016 ‘re-enactment’ of Pádraic Pearse’s declaration of the Irish Free State by Capt Kelleher of the Irish Army expanded and glorified – ‘dismemorialised’ – what was originally a drab affair. Coinciding with Shakespeare’s quatercentenary, it becomes clear that ‘Irish cultural memory’ (Frawley, 2011) is bound up with Shakespeare’s own memorial practice, thus establishing the premise for the case studies that follow.
The connection between Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue (1960–86) and Shakespeare has never been explored, despite the author’s insistence that she is an avid – even daily – reader of the Bard. This chapter undertakes this task by examining the correlations between The Country Girls’s villainous men and Shakespeare’s heroes and lotharios. Mr Gentleman is a version of Othello, while Eugene Gaillard is cast as both Othello and Petruchio. This means that Caithleen ‘Kate’ Brady becomes, passively and in response to the men, the fille vièrge Desdemona and the tamed ‘Kate’ from The Taming of the Shrew. These women suffer because of and through their bodies, just like Caithleen, who bears the post-war burden of inhabiting the Mother Ireland figure. Caithleen’s final response to the male hegemony is to elect to have a hysterectomy. In the Epilogue, refreshed and unencumbered by her burdensome womb, she is able to reject the Mother Ireland symbol and become the woman she chooses to be. In doing so, her actions echo Hermione’s from The Winter’s Tale who, when revivified in the mode of early modern hysterical discourses, re-joins her daughter and family.
Whilst great attention has (rightly) been paid to the intertextual references between Samuel Beckett’s drama and Shakespeare’s, relatively few analyses have examined how Beckett’s prose also talks with Shakespeare’s drama. This chapter examines how the male bodies of Beckett’s Three Novels (1951–53) suffer from physical problems, but in the cases of Malone and the Unnamable, they find ways to endure their pain – ways that are tried and tested in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Coriolanus’s body is a treacherous object for him, betraying his commitment to Rome and gifting the plebeians a focus of their ire. He wishes to ‘play / The man I am’ (III.ii.15–16), invoking a theatrical metaphor that leads me to consider the (anti)theatrical strain in the play. Ultimately, Coriolanus avoids the amnesia associated (by antitheatricalists) with plays and playgoing by becoming a better actor. He could have taken a lesson from Volpone, whose proclivity to acting underpins his entire deception. In Volpone, Jonson mocks playgoers and antitheatricalists alike as he takes the mimetic logic to a comic extreme. These two early modern characters and their theatrical strategies provide blueprints for Malone and the Unnamable. Malone invents memories as a way to circumvent amnesia and lethargy (also a failure of memory), and the Unnamable commits to the alienating and disembodying vocation of acting.
One of Seamus Heaney’s abiding motifs is of the underground, whether potatoes, ploughing the land, or the bog bodies. He is thus an archaeological poet. Less well sketched is the way that Heaney, in turn, archives these objects and images in his own poetry, thus becoming an arkhe-poet, too. This process – from archaeology to archive – is elucidated by Heaney’s fascination with Hamlet’s ‘dithering, blathering’ in the grave (from North’s  ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces’). Hamlet’s willingness to muck in provides a blueprint for Heaney’s own archaeological interests. Furthermore, a consideration of Hamlet’s own subterranean interests and connections to the physical land – he was born on the day his father won the Norwegian lands that became his by inheritance – invites a consideration of the motif of disease in both Hamlet and across Heaney’s oeuvre. Doing so reveals another key link between the two. Heaney’s archiving of diseased and pierced nature in his poems – wounded bodies, fish with infected cuts, a spade dug into the ground – confirms that Heaney’s interest is also with territory and with the idea of de-seizing Irish land. This etymological pun is also at work in Hamlet. This archaeo-poet is also (and at the same time) an arkhe-poet through which he becomes a capital-H Historian (Steedman, 2001): he curates the past in his poetry which, itself, becomes ‘perfected in my memory’ (‘The Grauballe Man’).