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Jane Yeang Chui Wong, Dissent and Authority in Early Modern Ireland: The English Problem from Bale to Shakespeare
by Thomas Herron

Jane Yeang Chui Wong. Dissent and Authority in Early Modern Ireland: The English Problem from Bale to Shakespeare. New York: Routledge, 2020. ISBN: 9780367257750.  218+x pp. £96 hardback.


This book, the fifty-second published in the Routledge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture series, stems from the author’s dissertation, ‘Governing Elizabethan Ireland: Representations of Colonial Administration in Holinshed, Spenser, and Shakespeare’ (University of Alberta, 2013). Chapter 5, ‘“This present quality of war”: Truth, Trust, and Truce in 2 Henry IV (1597-8)’ revises an article, ‘John of Lancaster’s Negotiation with the Rebels in 2 Henry IV: Fifteenth-Century Northern England as Sixteenth-Century Ireland’, published in a special issue of Critical Survey (30.1) (2018) on the topic of Shakespeare and War. The other four chapters are ‘King Johan (1538), King John, and the Henrician Reformation’ (Chapter 1); ‘Englishness and Loyalty in Gerald of Wales’ Expugnatio Hibernica (1189) and Holinshed’s Irish Chronicle (1577)’ (Chapter 2); ‘Portrait of a Lord Deputy: Sir Henry Sidney in Ireland and on the Page’ (Chapter 3); and ‘Negotiating Violence and Equity in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Book V (1596)’ (Chapter 4). These five chapters are bookended by a ‘Prologue’ and an ‘Epilogue’ with ‘Bibliography’ and Index.

As can be told by the range of subjects and dates cited, from 1538 through 1598 (not counting 1189), the breadth of the book is ambitious and covers much of the Tudor period, while the genres covered range from drama to historical chronicle to prose memoir to peace treaty to epic-romance poetry. Three of the five chapters focus on topics other than Spenser and Shakespeare’s works. Such attention to lesser-known mid-to-late Tudor works on (or about, or, in the case of John Bale’s King Johan, somehow related to) Ireland and the problems that came with its governance is always welcome in the field. Wong seems most comfortable when plumbing the depths of this or that historical event or trend (like the repeated Lord Deputyship of Sir Henry Sidney) and their reflections in both the historiographical components of fictional literature and in the fictionalised components of historiographical literature. What is frustrating here is how tangential some of the literature appears in relation to those events and how episodic the chapters feel in and of themselves and in relation to each other. Concepts like parliamentary ‘dissent’ and royal or vice-regal ‘authority’ in this or that figure blossom briefly and close up again as we move on to the next work. General association often substitutes for explicit topical reference (we are told that ‘Irish allusions in [Shakespeare’s] plays are plentiful’ [4]: no, they’re not, at least not clear-cut ones).  Analysis skips across genres like a pebble on a pond to sometimes dazzling effect, until interpretation suddenly stops. The proof-reading is poor throughout (see below).

The book does not hold well together as a monograph beyond the rather general thesis that ‘vexed relationships’ occurred between various parties in the Irish and English governments at ‘“key” historical moments that broadly represent the arch of the Elizabethan reconquest of Ireland’, and these relationships at key moments are reflected variously in the works at hand. The ‘key’ moments covered here are ‘the development of the Henrician constitutional reform (including the Oath of Supremacy of 1534 and the Act of Kingly Title of 1541; cf. Chapter 1), popular representations of cultural and identity politics in the different phases of the reconquest of Ireland (particularly as narrated in Gerald of Wales’s original Expugnatio Hibernica [1189] and Richard Stanyhurst’s contribution to the first edition of Holinshed’s Irish history [1577]; cf. Chapter 2), the perceptions and limitations of proxy authority (including discussion of Sir Henry Sidney’s Memoir [1583], John Hooker’s ground-breaking English translation of Cambrensis’ Expugnatio that appears in the second edition [1587] of Holinshed, and John Derricke’s Image of Irelande: with a Discoverie of Woodkarne [1581]; cf. Chapter 3), the implications of violence (including in Book V of The Faerie Queene; cf. Chapter 4), and the interpretation of royal dignity and justice during the Nine Years War (as revealed in the earl of Tyrone’s Ceasefire Documents [1597], which are compared to negotiating tactics dramatized by Shakespeare in 2 Henry IV [1597-9]; cf. Chapter 5)’ (24). To this is added a useful but brief and awkwardly placed analysis of financial corruption in successive New English administrations, especially during the Nine Years War, in the Epilogue.[1] As Wong summarises her argument in her ‘Prologue’, ‘Unorthodox as it may seem, the confluence of discord and contention among conflicting spheres of power was, in many ways, as imperative as it was detrimental to England’s reconquest of Ireland’ (24). It is no surprise to any reader of early modern Irish history that various administrations in Ireland and in England strongly disagreed with themselves and with each other over how to reform and/or further conquer the country. Spenser is no exception here: the quality of mercy in Book V of The Faerie Queene is badly strained, as Wong tells us in familiar ways.

Wong wishes to focus on ‘dissent’ and problems of ‘authority’ among the English polity that, like bubbles in a pond, surface in regard to Irish subject matter in mid-late Tudor English writing. Since Irish-language materials are not covered here, the object is to soak the bread of a past generation’s worth of historico-literary criticism on early modern English-language texts related to Ireland into a new flavour of milk: rather than highlight the antagonistic relationship between the two worlds, Irish-speaking Gael vs. English-British colonial (to put it crudely), conflicts within the English-speaking sphere in relation to Ireland will be explored instead:

The relentless predilection to ‘retrieve’ lost Irish voices and to question English (mis)representations of those voices have, in turn, undermined the prospect of finding any promise in attending to English voices… Dissent and Authority in Early Modern Ireland… focuses on explicating dissenting voices within the English community, and among colonial administrators in Ireland and their counterparts in England.  In so doing, I attempt to piece together a composite narrative of the ways in which English voices perceived ideas of faith, loyalty, and authority, and how these discordant voices influenced the making and unmaking of political realities that were often imagined but not explicitly visible in English literary and historical narratives. (7)

There are various problems here. First, the vague generalisations on subject, concept and theoretical approaches seen here are not clearly resolved into categories in this ‘Prologue’ nor in what follows. Secondly, because many of us have not learned Irish and do not work consistently with Gaelic sources does not mean we should not keep trying to stage conversations between the authors and traditions, following the admirable multilingual/-cultural examples of Richard McCabe, Pat Palmer, Brendan Kane, Micheál MacCraith and Sarah McKibben (among others).[2] Doing so helps to broaden exciting new work into the cosmopolitan character of early modern Ireland in relation to both England and the Continent. Learning Irish also remains a possibility.[3] Thirdly, while the energy may have drained out of the New Historical British critical approaches of the last generation towards ‘Spenser (and Shakespeare) and Ireland’, new theoretical approaches focusing on imperialism, colonialism, eco-criticism (including plantation studies), and racism as well as careful historical plotting continue to move the train up the tracks towards a better and more comprehensive view of what was happening when Spenser wrote his poetry in (and in some cases about) Ireland.[4] Spenser’s contemporaries in turn knew whereabouts he was climbing. As Robert Reid reminds us, ‘By 1595… the celebrity of Spenser’s poem [FQ] had played on Shakespeare’s mind with wondrous results’, including in the construction of his ‘epic’ second Henriad.[5]

Of particular importance in Wong’s analysis to our understanding of work by Spenser and Shakespeare that relates to Ireland are ‘medieval political exigencies’ that were influential on early modern authors; these exigencies ‘seem to be all but invisible in the literary historian’s preoccupation with early modern nationhood and identity in Ireland’ (5-6). In particular, Wong does a capable job highlighting the long-running rivalries between the Old English earls of Ormond, Kildare and/or Desmond, all three of whom were entangled in the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses and politics of the later Tudor monarchs, including struggles with Lord Deputy of Ireland Sir Henry Sidney. Wong rightly highlights Yorkist sympathies among the Fitzgeralds of Desmond and Kildare that had grave consequences in setting English policy towards Ireland and vice-versa, and Shakespeareans in particular could do more with these connections, which touch on Jack Cade’s rebellion and Shakespeare’s obsession with pales.[6] Nonetheless, Wong’s comment about literary critics being oblivious to the political dynamics of late medieval Ireland does not apply to those many scholars who have paid ample and careful attention to the legacy of Cambrensis in particular. References to previous literary critics on this score are disappointingly perfunctory or absent altogether.[7]

Of particular interest to readers of The Spenser Review is likely to be Chapter 4, on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Book V. Wong argues that while the

violence that Spenser advocates in A View provides a rather one-dimensional view of his stance on Irish reformation […] his ideas on this matter appear more nuanced in “The Legend of Justice,” where his convictions on implementing justice through violence are tested and dismantled. (121)

The generalisation about the View notwithstanding,[8] Ireland-centred readings of Book V that highlight its conflicting imperatives between grotesquely harsh justice and politically treacherous mercy are shop-worn. We hear again here how Artegall, or Arthur, Lord Grey in the topical allegory (at least in parts of Book V), weakens before Radigund (133-136), and how Mercilla’s hesitation in condemning Duessa, i.e., Mary, Queen of Scots in the allegory, is a critique of the confused or timid directives of Queen Elizabeth I (137-40).[9] What Mary may or may not have done in relation to Irish politics per se is not really considered. More original is Wong’s detailed discussion of the Egalitarian Giant in relation to equity, martial law and Ireland, including the Smerwick massacre in 1580, in which Spenser, Sir Walter Raleigh and their employer Lord Grey all played a part (129-32). Wong makes no specific, tell-tale links between Spenser’s language in the episode and Ireland in particular, however, other than Artegall and Talus being the protagonists and the Giant being knocked off a cliff (the victims at Smerwick were tossed off a seaside cliff).

The most valuable chapter in the book may be the last one, focusing on 2 Henry IV. While there is little evidence of direct influence of Irish material or events on that play, the analysis of its episode involving the political parley between the Northern rebels and the king’s representatives in Act IV.i, when compared to details of the so-called ‘Ceasefire Documents’ drafted in 1597 by Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, for the Queen’s representatives in Ireland, enriches our understanding of Shakespeare’s work (written c.1597). Wong does a careful job highlighting Shakespeare’s skill in imagining the intricate and dangerous innuendos involved in such high-stakes negotiations, which make for great drama. Wong also refers in her discussion to the siege, negotiation, and final massacre of Spanish and Italian soldiers and their Irish accomplices at Smerwick (177).

Unfortunately, minor and major errors are numerous and appear in the main text, its footnotes, the Works Cited or ‘Bibliography’ (where an article by Ciaran Brady is attributed to John Bradley), the Index (‘Yeats’ on page ‘199’ oddly refers to that author’s name as it appears in a work listed in the ‘Bibliography’; nor could I find ‘Smerwick’ in the Index), and even in the captions to illustrations (the caption labelling Plate XII of John Derricke’s Image of Irelande [1581] refers to ‘Turlough Lynagh O’Neale and the other kerne’, as if O’Neale, the Gaelic lord who was nominated for an English earldom and is finely dressed in English fashion in the plate, were a foot-soldier.[10]  For Plate 2, the Latin ‘Gualtherus Ralegh Amicitiam Contrahit Cum Rege Arromaia’ is translated as ‘Walter Ralegh in the New World’ [‘List of Illustrations’, vii, 22, 117]).

Most irritating for a book about historical influences are the bad or confusing dates, as when Bale’s King Johan is supposedly ‘stag[ed] in 1536’ at Archbishop Cranmer’s residence; at the bottom of the page, the date of the ‘performance at Cranmer’s residence’ changes back to ‘the end of 1538’ (30). In the same chapter we hear that the ninth earl of Kildare’s imprisonment in June 1534 ‘followed closely behind… the enforcement of the Oath of Supremacy’, but the Oath was not established until November 3, 1534 (did enforcement occur before the establishment?). Bale, we are told, performed his trilogy of biblical plays in central Kilkenny in ‘1533’ (33; the event happened in 1553). ‘During his campaigns in Wales and Ireland in the 1160s, Henry II successfully extracted submissions from leading native princes’ (64n; Henry did not arrive in Ireland until 1171, as is noted on 70ff.; see also the misspelling ‘Dermont’ for ‘Dermot’ in the same note). ‘Hugh O’Neill surrendered… after his defeat at Kinsale in 1603’ (85; the siege and Battle of Kinsale was in 1601-02: is this a factual or grammatical error?).  

Some phrasing is strange, as when King Philip II of France, aka Philippe Auguste, is called ‘Philip of Augustus’ (47). We learn that ‘James Fitzmaurice’s alliance with Philip II [of Spain] during the Desmond rebellion (1579-83) pushed the faith-and-fatherland agenda to a new level when Hugh O’Neill secured Spanish support in the Nine Years War’ (13). Bizarrely, ‘While seeking refuge from a fortress, [Lord Chancellor of Ireland John] Alen’ was captured by the Kildare faction (40), and Artegall is hounded by ‘Envy and Detractor’ (148).

Wong declares in her first sentence that her book ‘explores the implications of dissent and the contention of authority within the English government at a time when the relationship between England and Ireland was fraught with suspicion, anxiety, distrust, and ambivalence’ (1).  Critics and historians with similar feelings of ‘suspicion, anxiety, distrust, and ambivalence’ towards Ireland-focused readings of Shakespeare’s and Spenser’s works (outside of Book V of The Faerie Queene) will not be persuaded by Wong’s analysis. 


Thomas Herron


[1] See also 153: ‘The more practical concerns of the Nine Years War (1594-1603) — the corruption and mismanagement of the war within the government — are largely neglected in studies that discuss the representations of English anxieties on the early modern stage’. 

[2] Wong rightly cites and discusses work by McCabe, Palmer, and Kane, but only briefly. She misses studies like MacCraith’s ‘Fun and Games among the Jet Set:  A Glimpse of Seventeenth Century Gaelic Ireland’ in Joseph Nagy (ed.), Memory and the Modern in Celtic Literatures, CSANA Yearbook 5 (2006): 15-36, and McKibben, ‘In their “owne countre”: Deriding and Defending the Early Modern Irish Nation after Gerald of Wales’, Eolas 8 (2015), 39-70.  The vexed relation between Spenser studies and scholarship on Irish-language authors of the period is sensitively discussed by David Baker, ‘Britain Redux’, Spenser Studies 29 (2014), 21-36.

[3] New digital resources make this easier to do; see, for example, the database dedicated to early modern Irish, Léamh, directed by Brendan Kane: https://lé (accessed 3/19/2022).

[4] Wong sympathises with David Baker’s complaint that Anglocentric (or -phonic) New Historicist approaches towards the field ‘“have been exhausted”’ in Baker, ‘Britain Redux’, 23.  Nonetheless, Andrew Hadfield published his landmark biography of Spenser only two years before, in 2012; it further emphasises Spenser’s writerly Irish contexts and focuses on his colonial settlement there. A new biography on Spenser’s later, Irish years by Jean Brink, which will build on and respond to Hadfield’s own, is apparently in the works.  See also the large-scale digital project MACMORRIS, directed by Pat Palmer, Willy Maley and David Baker, which has a focus on Spenser’s cultural context in the wider province of Munster: (accessed 3/19/2022).

[5] Reid, ‘Unfinished Epics: Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s Henriad, and the Mystic Plenum’,  Renaissance Papers (2020), 23-35:  29.

[6] See for example Willy Maley, ‘“End of a Pale” or “a new Pale in the making”? The “Barbarous nook” of the North from Shakespeare to Milton’, Dublin and the Pale in the Renaissance, c. 1540-1660, ed. Michael Potterton and Thomas Herron (Dublin:  Four Courts Press, 2011), 372-90.  Wong discusses Pale politics in Chapters 3-4, including 76-77.

[7] I am thinking in particular of critics like Andrew Hadfield, David Baker, Willy Maley, Richard McCabe, and Andrew Murphy, who all grapple with Cambrensis’ profound influence in early modern Ireland as reflected in Tudor English literature and historiography (historians like Nicholas Canny and Hiram Morgan do as well, of course). Wong cites these critics briefly in one regard or another but strangely ignores Murphy’s monograph But the Irish Sea Betwixt Us: Ireland, Colonialism, and Renaissance Literature (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999), despite its close relevance to her work on cross-cultural tensions in Spenser and Shakespeare and attention to the Old English polity in Ireland and England, and despite quoting the passage (85) from Sir John Davies that provides the title of Murphy’s book. Murphy’s book begins with analysis of Cambrensis. Wong’s treatment of Christopher Highley’s Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland (1997), which analyzes at length Spenser’s works and Shakespeare’s history plays relative to Ireland, is also perfunctory.

[8] Wong argues fairly that ‘the aim of A View is less to persuade than to instruct and inform’ but then adds cryptically, ‘As such, there is little room for Spenser to consider the implications of his convictions’ (123).  Surely Irenius’ pathetic and harsh response to the famine caused by the Desmond rebellion offers some room for thought in that character’s mind and even more so in our own.

[9] For these episodes read against an Irish backdrop, for example, see Richard McCabe, Spenser’s Monstrous Regiment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), chapter 11; for a more recent, richly interwoven analysis of the politics of the Radigund episode in particular, see Jeffrey B. Griswold, ‘Allegorical Consent: The Faerie Queene and the Politics of Subjection’, Spenser Studies 29 (2014), 219-37.

[10] The wording in the caption derives almost exactly from the Wikipedia page on Turlough: (accessed 3/19/2022).


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Cite as:

Thomas Herron, "Jane Yeang Chui Wong, Dissent and Authority in Early Modern Ireland: The English Problem from Bale to Shakespeare," Spenser Review (Spring-Summer 2022). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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