Mutabilitie: In Search of Shakespeare

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'Others abide our question, thou art free', declares Matthew Arnold in his great sonnet to Shakespeare. 'Free, indeed', would seem to be Frank McGuinness's response, 'but tantalizingly, infuriatingly elusive'. McGuinness's 'Foreword' to Shakespeare and Ireland traces a three-stage search for Shakespeare culminating in the writing of Mutabilitie, a search frustrated at each of its three stages. 'I once innocently imagined that the sonnets would give up their secrets to me'; he supposed that in the sonnets' coded love tangle was 'the real lost play that would explain the writer'. (1) He considered himself lucky to have given up that delusion without running mad like the narrator of Wilde's The Portrait of Mr W.H., who became obsessed with the mystery of the sonnets. McGuinness's next vision of Shakespeare was pursued through twelve years teaching his work at Maynooth: 'I believed as an act of faith that in these plays I would come face to face with a Catholic dissident, marvellously subverting the insecurities of Protestant England', but '[h]e denied me again. I was wrong'. (2) Mutabilitie was the final phase of the search, conceived as a re-making of Shakespeare in angry revenge for his inscrutability. In McGuinness's play, Shakespeare 'would come to Ireland and be confronted by an Irishwoman. The fight would be to the death, and she would win it'. But once again Shakespeare gave him the slip: the Irishwoman did not defeat him. 'He left as quickly as he arrived, his entrance always being an exit'. (3) This essay is an attempt to track McGuinness's tracking of Shakespeare through the writing of Mutabilitie.

The playwright, of course, was granted a creative freedom denied the responsible teacher and would-be biographical interpreter. He could not only dream up a Shakespeare visit to Ireland, but invent a whole surrounding fantasia playing around the facts of history. So Shakespeare on his Irish expedition manages to end up in Kilcolman Castle, home of Edmund Spenser. In fact, it turns out that he has come to Ireland in part to meet Spenser and to petition him for a civil service job--he is disillusioned with the theatre. Spenser, however, is equally disillusioned; it is 1598, he has given up on completing The Faerie Queene. He is so horrified by the outcome of the Munster wars, so conflicted in his feelings over Ireland, that he will burn down his own castle by the end of the play in order to be able to return to England. McGuinness matches such alternative history with a still freer mythological improvisation. Against the castle of the English colonist is set the forest--shades of Arden--where a dispossessed Irish king and queen maintain a skeleton court. (4) The king is mad King Sweney of the Buile Suibhne, the queen the warrior Queen Maeve of the Tain, characters from totally different parts of the Irish mythological wood. Their son Hugh has feigned conversion to go into the service of Spenser as the undercover agent of his parents. In a play where surnames are suppressed--Shakespeare is only William, Spenser appears as Edmund--he might well be Hugh O'Neill, Irish leader of the Nine Years War, well-known for his multiple and multiply retracted submissions to the Crown. McGuinness's Hugh, though, is not married to the English Mabel Bagenal, as Hugh O'Neill historically was (the subject of Brian Friel's Making History), but to the File. She is the most implausible creation of all, a traditional Irish poet who is a woman, the 'Irishwoman' intended to be Shakespeare's victorious antagonist.

Shakespeare does not travel to Ireland alone in Mutabilitie. He has encouraged his fellow actors Richard and Ben to come with him in search of easy money, Ireland having no theatre of its own, and the possibility of land. In this surnameless play they might well be Richard Burbage, leading man of Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and Ben Jonson, who worked as an actor before becoming a playwright. Separated from William in the first scene, captured by the Irish, Richard and Ben offer a scabrous greenroom view of the Elizabethan theatre in which the prostitution of boy actors is routine. …