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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

5 - Shakespeare and the Irish self


Our Irish servant has piqued me this morning by saying that her Father in Ireland was very like my Shakespeare only he had more colour than the Engraving.

John Keats, ‘Letter to Georgina Keats’

Jorge Luis Borges in his remarkable meditation on Shakespeare's career entitled ‘Everything and Nothing’ strikingly begins: ‘There was no one in him.’ For the South American fabulist, Shakespeare was a man who from boyhood sensed an ‘emptiness’ that made his life a quest for a cure from the ‘ill’ of non-identity which so terribly afflicted him. For Borges, the bard's career as actor and playwright was a long demonstration ‘of simulating that he was someone’. Borges eloquently contends:

No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired many famous passages of his.

Borges has Shakespeare retire from the theatre to play a final role as a litigious, wealthy Stratford burgher, until, at the last, he stands before God. Shakespeare asks his creator, as one who has been so many men, to be allowed to be himself.

The voice of the Lord answered him from a whirlwind, ‘Neither am I anyone; I dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who, like myself, are many and no one.’

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