An exhibit at the Folger Shakepeare Library entitled Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland explores some of the era's best documented figures and key aspects of the Irish past through rare manuscripts, books, poems, and portraits.
The exhibit focuses on the Munster and Ulster plantations. At the time of the Tudors and the Stuarts, British officials said the purpose of the plantations, established on more than a half million acres of seized Irish land, was "to transform the supposedly savage, Catholic, backward Irish land into a Protestant profitable land that would be peopled by English settlers".
The time was the period of the 9 Years War (1594 to 1603), which finally ended only days after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Her successor and Shakespeare's patron King James I was the 1st monarch to unite the crowns of England, Scotland, and Ireland. King James rewarded loyal followers with Irish noble titles and also gave them to British families with deep pockets to help subsidize his reign.
Although Shakespeare never visited Ireland, 2 of his plays had Irish political ties. Today, The Tempest is viewed as a timely critique of the plantation schemes in Ireland and the Americas. First published in 1600, Shakespeare's Henry V celebrated King Henry's triumph at Agincourt, but included a then-contemporary reference: a hope for a similar victory in Ireland for "our gracious empress".
The literary ties to the period were further strengthened by the fact that 2 other major figures of the English writing Renaissance, Sir Walter Raleigh and the poet Edmund Spenser, were among the English newcomers who settled in Munster.
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The exhibit, which will run until May 19, has created controversy. A major Irish scholar has accused the curators of rewriting Irish history to make it far more favorable to the British perspective in their exhibit.
Ironically, the Irish government has been supportive of the exhibition. To read about the controversy, click here.