How does Friel explore the concept of identity in Making History, looking at alternative viewpoints in your answer?

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Courtny-Sharelle Harper

How does Friel explore the concept of identity in Making History, looking at alternative viewpoints in your answer?

Throughout Making History, Brian Friel presents the audience with ideas that question history, its accuracy and its reliability through the momentous and crucial times of Hugh O’Neill post and prior to the Battle of Kinsale.  One of the key ways in which Friel succeeds in doing this is by implementing the theme of Identity and O’Neill’s struggle with this issue throughout the play.  Other characters are also shown to have split identities, which reinforces Friel’s idea of how history will portray them.  The play is set in the late 1500s during the renaissance period of Ireland – a regular battle zone where the English fight to gain ownership of land in Gaelic Ireland, under the reign of Elizabeth I.  

Using the genre of drama, Friel loosely documents the events of O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone as he attempts to secure a deal with Spain that will drive the last of Elizabeth’s English forces from Ulster.  Defined as a ‘dramatic fiction’, Friel has played on the events of the Battle of Kinsale in order to convey his own ideas and messages as opposed to sticking to the absolute facts – this ironically and supports Friel’s interests in how the ‘facts’ of history are interpreted and documented.  

Act 1 Scene 1 importantly begins with the discussion of a Christening, most likely and evidently representing the light heartedness of the rest of the act to follow, before events take a more sinister turn.  This discussion is also carried out between O’Neill and his personal secretary Harry, the symbol of birth present possibly indicates their relationship facing tough and strenuous times ahead, implying that Harry and O’Neill’s relationship goes further than just professional.  The narrator informs the audience at the beginning “O’Neill describes him as a man ‘who has a comforting and soothing effect’” (p. 1) confirming O’Neill highly regards their friendship and that Harry is most likely that of a close friend than a secretary to O’Neill.  This is a key relationship in Making History that allows the audience an insight into O’Neill’s personal identity.  

Friel commonly uses the metaphor of herbs to represent people in Making History; O’Neill is also significantly distracted with the Spanish Broom he is handling at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 1.  The dramatic irony of O’Neill being distracted by the Spanish Broom is that if only he paid as much attention to his Spanish coalition army then he perhaps would have not met such tragic defeat at Kinsale further on in the play.  

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Friel next uses the language of herbs in a conversation between Mabel and her sister Mary that reveals Mabel’s struggle of identity and loyalty between the English and Irish.  When Mary brings Mabel seeds of her own to plant,

“Mary: … Don’t plant the fennel near the dill or the two will cross fertilize.  Mabel: Is that bad?” (p. 22)

having eloped with O’Neill to Ireland, Mabel has betrayed her family and her heritage and is now burdened with the duality O’Neill faces from being brought up in both England and Ireland – ironically, her sister has implied the ...

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