Shakespeare’s Irish Werewolves

Maurice Sand, Les Lupins, featured in Montague Summers

Maurice Sand, Les Lupins, featured in Montague Summers

Serendipity is perhaps an overused term but I saw a production of As You Like It today, whilst taking time out from ‘Company of Wolves’, only to find a bardic reference to (were)wolves! In Act V, Scene ii when Rosalind attempts to quell the dispute between Silvius, Phebe, Orlando and herself, she likens their bickering to Irish (were) wolves howling at the moon:

PHEBE
And so am I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO
And so am I for Rosalind.

ROSALIND
And so am I for no woman.

PHEBE
If this be so, why blame you me to love you?

SILVIUS
If this be so, why blame you me to love you?

ORLANDO
If this be so, why blame you me to love you?

ROSALIND
Who do you speak to, ‘Why blame you me to love you?’

ORLANDO
To her that is not here, nor doth not hear.

ROSALIND
Pray you, no more of this; ’tis like the howling
of Irish wolves against the moon.
(V. ii, 81-102)

Shakespearean werewolves? Howling at the moon has become a common metaphor for irrational or futile behavior and Irish wolves might be imagined to be especially disorderly (‘Ireland’s abundance of wolves was for many Elizabethan writers a mark of that country’s lack of civility’(The Norton Shakespeare, eds. Stephen Greenblatt, et al (New York, Norton, 1997), note 6, p 1650)).

The inspiration for Shakespeare’s Irish wolves is apparently a thirteenth-century Latin text on the ‘Wonders of Ireland’ (which drew upon an eleventh-century Celtic poem). It speaks of strange Irish phenomenon such as ships floating in the air. Included in this phenomenon are the tales of Irish wolves, or people given over to lycanthropy, or werewolfism. The Latin text describes a very civilized species of Irish werewolves. They separate from their human body, which they ask their friends to carefully guard, because if their bodies are moved in the slightest, the Irish wolf can never return to human form. Then the re-embodied werewolves go off to eat sheep, not humans.

Intriguingly, the text on the ‘Wonders of Ireland’ that had inspired Shakespeare’s wolves is quoted by Montague Summers over three hundred years later in a study of the werewolf (given below in a free translation):

There are certain men of the Celtic race who have a marvelous power which comes to them from their forebears. For by an evil craft they can at will change themselves into the shape of wolves with sharp tearing teeth, and often thus transformed will they fall upon poor defenseless sheep, but when folk armed with clubs and weapons run to attack them shouting lustily then do they flee and scour away apace. Now when they are minded to transform themselves they leave their own bodies, straitly charging their friends neither to move or touch them at all, however lightly, for if this be done never will they be able to return to their human shape again. If whilst they are wolves anyone hurts or wounds them, then upon their own bodies the exact wound or mark can plainly be seen. And with much amaze have they been espied in human form with gobbets of raw bleeding flesh champed in their jaw.(Montague Summers, The Werewolf in Lore and Legend ([1933], NY: Dover, 2003), p. 206).

I never expected to encounter werewolves in my Shakespearean comedy…seems I just can’t avoid Les Lupins ahead of September’s wolf fest….love the Sands illustration from Summers above.

About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire
This entry was posted in Critical thoughts, OGOM: The Company of Wolves and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to Shakespeare’s Irish Werewolves

  1. firekrank says:

    Wolves are everywhere! I did a check through about wolves in Shakespeare right at the beginning of my PhD. They are often used in the histories in regards to the French, especially French women. Whilst this has the usual metaphorical connotations of wolves being uncontrollable, aggressive and wild, it is also a reflection of the state of wolf populations in both countries during this time. England, Wales, and to a certain extent Scotland was ‘free’ of wolves by the time Shakespeare was writing whereas France was considered to be over run. The comparison would have re-affirmed certain notions of national identity and the idea of cultivating the natural landscape.

  2. Yes, I wonder does this also mean that those countries without the wolf had less werewolf stories as Emily Gerard implies? Would be interesting to map this:-)

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