Mutabilitie: In Search of Shakespeare

By Grene, Nicholas | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Mutabilitie: In Search of Shakespeare


Grene, Nicholas, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


'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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Mutabilitie: In Search of Shakespeare
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?