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Welcome to Episode #77 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When Queen Elizabeth wanted to punish Robert Devereux for his imprudent behavior at court, she placed him in charge of handling the Irish rebels and sent him off to Ireland with strict instructions on how to handle that situation. His campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, due to reasons that can, and have, filled volumes on the history of the Nine Years War, as well as the Irish Rebellion, but where this elaborate Irish history finds an intriguing connection to Shakespeare is hidden in a seemingly nonsensical line about the death of Irish rats in Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It. In a single line Shakespeare invokes a popular legend about the ability of Irish poetry to kill rats by rhyming them to death. While the bard could simply be referencing the power of words here, we’ve invited an expert on Irish legends, poetry, and Shakespeare, Dr. Kelly Fitzgerald, to sit down with us and take us back to 1599 when As You Like It was written, as well as the year Essex was sent to Ireland, and explain what this line implies with its’ suggestion of outright political commentary by Shakespeare, during a time when it was quite dangerous for a playwright write something so pointed.

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Dr. Kelly Fitzgerald is an Assistant Professor in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore, University College Dublin. She graduated in folklore and early (medieval) Irish at University College Dublin and defended her doctoral dissertation in 2009. It was titled: Literary and Oral Interaction in Irish Folklore.  She is also Chairperson of ANU Productions and a Director of the National Folklore Foundation. Recently she was involved around the collecting of oral histories in the development phase of Dublin’s Tenement Museum.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Kelly about :

  • There is a real legend associated with Irish rats, that was held by Elizabethans when Shakespeare wrote this play. What is the legend of the Irish rat and their ability to kill with magical rhyming words? 

  • In an action that is noted by some historians as having precipitated the Essex Rebellion of 1601, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, was sent to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth in a famously unsuccessful (For England) campaign there the year before, in 1599, which is the same year As You Like It was written. Is this line about Irish rats an example of political commentary by Shakespeare?

  • As I understand it, there’s a connection to Torpest’s reputation in the work of 19th century poets Yeats and James Joyce, who invoked a cursing and name calling in their works as a way to preserve the rat-rhyming tradition, but for William Shakespeare, would there have been an industry pride in being able to write words that could kill?

  • … and more!

I was seven of the nine days out of the wonder before you
came; for look here what I found on a palm-tree. I was never so
berhym'd since Pythagoras' time that I was an Irish rat, which I
can hardly remember.


As You Like It, III.2

Wrestling scene from As You Like It, Francis Hayman, c. 1750 Source

To be Berhymed

When Rosalind refers to “being berhymed” she is referring to the practice of describing someone in verse. It's an artistic expression which was popular in Shakespeare's lifetime, referring to turning someone into poetry.

In Irish tradition, the poet was a sacred person, liked to a druid. They were endowed with magical powers which, through their words, they were able to weild this power for good or ill. In addition to being a very learned and education person, the poet was a kind of journalist about his country, His works were not written as songs, but instead as political commentary on the world, including satirical commentary on his fellow countrymen. 

Thus, when Rosalind invokes this idea of “being berhymed” she demonstrates' Shakespeare's knowledge of Irish folklore which said the sanctity of the poet could produce the “poet's miracle”, able to counteract bad curses, as well as produce a physical affect on the person (or rat) to whom the poet's words were spoken. (Source)


Grace Tiffany, who wrote an interesting article on rat catcher's in Shakespeare's England (linked further down the page), is a guest on That Shakespeare Life to discuss the life of Judith Quiney. 

As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword…


Henry V, Act V

Dated 1592, by Augustus von Moersperg. The oldest picture of the Pied Piper, whose job it was to lure the rats from the city with music. Copied from the glass window of the Market Churchin Hamlin/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633). Source


So who came up with the legend of deadly poems?

Shakespeare is one of many poets who referenced the power of Irish poets to kill rats.

Ben Jonson wrote “I could do worse/…Rhime them to death, as they do Irish rats/ In drumming tunes.”

And another Shakespeare contemporary, Philip Sidney penned, “I will not wish unto you … to be rimed to death as is said to be done in Ireland.”

While it is note certain who was the originator of this legend, it was extremely popular in Irelance. Long held was the beleif that rats could be exterminated through the power of Irish poems. Bards like Shakespeare were held in high esteem in Ireland from the time of early Celts, who believed their poets could physically kill another person, or animals, through weilding magical satire.

One poet in particular is generally given credit for sourcing the legend (though some scholars will debate this conclusion.) The legend says that Seanchan Torpest, a poet of the 6th entury, a sixth-century bard who became angry when rats ate a meal his wife had fixed him. Vowing to take revenge against the rats who ate his food, he sat down and penned a deadly poem. Here is what it said:

Mice, though sharp their snouts,

Are not powerful in battles;

I will bring death on the party

For having eaten Bridget's present.

Small was the present she made us,

Its loss to her was not great,

Let her have payment from us in a poem,

Let her not refuse the poet's gratitude!

You mice, which are in the roof of the house,

Arise all of you, and fall down.

According to writer John Kelly's account of this story, the poem killed 10 rats immediately. (Source) More on rat catcher's in Shakespeare's England, visit Grace Tiffany‘s website here.

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


Excepting none but good Duke Humphrey:
And, brother York, thy acts in Ireland,
In bringing them to civil discipline,
Thy late exploits done in the heart of France,
When thou wert regent for our sovereign,
Have made thee fear'd and honour'd of the people:

Earl of Salisbury

Henry VI Part II, I.i

Calen O Custure Me, performed by Deller Consort. Alfred Deller, Desmond Dupré. Source

Gaelic Songs in Henry V

A popular song from Shakespeare's lifetime was the Gaelic song, Calen O Custure Me, whose title is used by Shakespeare in Henry V when he has Pistol make a joke about tripping over a soldier's French language by responding with the title in his reply. The reference in Shakespeare happens during the Hundred Years War, when an English soldier, Pistol, cannot understand his French captive and repsonds using gibberish, including a mixture with the Gaelic song title.
French Soldier Je pense que vous etes gentilhomme de bonne qualite. PISTOL Qualtitie calmie custure me! Art thou a gentleman? what is thy name? discuss. French Soldier O Seigneur Dieu!
Henry V, IV.4
Calen O Custure Me is generally considered a bad version of Gaelic, and not the actual title in Irish of the song. Instead, there are two alternatives often listed as the likely songs Pistol was in reference to: Cailín Óg a Stór, or Cailín ó Chois tSiúre mé. Both of these original Irish melodies, could easily have been conflated by a largely oral distribution of the Irish melodies through the English singing what they heard of these ballads and thus anglicizing them.

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Whiles I in Ireland nourish a mighty band,
I will stir up in England some black storm…

Richard Plantagenet (Duke of Gloucester)

Henry VI Part II, III.i

According to legend, “In the year 1572 the mayor had the story portrayed in the church windows. The accompanying inscription has become largely illegible. In addition, a coin was minted in memory of the event.” Apparently, the original Pied Piper of Hamlin, lead away not rats, but children, to a mountain cave from which they were never heard from again. While the story is now legend, there are plaques dating to the 13th century which record, and seem to have annually honored the memory of this event when a man “in multicolored clothes” and playing a pipe, lead 130 children to their deaths.  Source

Legend of Irish Rats Killed by Poetry

 In Shakespeare’s time there were several writers using this legend. Irish poetry being able to kill was a popular legend of this time period. It was widely known and used often, but the origin is unclear.

England was taking an intense role in Ireland at this time, so the pop culture had a magnifying glass over the culture there for that reason. In Irish History and Society, the poet is hugely important figure.

Irish form of poet, file (pronounced [fee-ley]), or seer, were people where on the one hand they are in the present, but they have a broad view of past and scope of perspective. They were magical people, endowed with special wisdom and a kind of other-worldly vision. They were able to prophecy and foretell the future. In Irish society, your honor is your most valuable possession, the sum of your value as a person. For the poet, this honor was amplified and even more important, which is why some of the power of a poet's ability to dishonor someone, through satirization, produced dangerous consequences. If a poet decided to satirize you, the satirization can cause boils on the face.

Early Irish Law even criminalized satirical “crimes of the tongue” equal in offense to property theft and spousal rape. Source

Books and Resources Kelly Fitzgerald Recommends:


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