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Shakespeare backtracks on Wales

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How well did Shakespeare know Wales and Welsh people, its history and culture? And how sympathetic and indeed accurate are his representations of the Welsh characters he chose to include in his dramas?

Merionethshire-born, Cambridge-educated barrister Arthur Hughes set out to answer one of the puzzles surrounding one of the three main Welsh figures in the canon – Owen Glendower – in a learned critique that appeared in The Transactions towards the end of World War One. If, as is convincingly claimed, Shakespeare portrayed characters with a high degree of consistency as he sought to represent their essential natures, why did he create a bifurcated Glendower, barely recognisable in the latter half of Henry IV, Part I from the character that has preceded: a gentleman and scholar in the later stages, an uncouth rebel of repute at the play’s beginning? “His treatment of the character of Glendower in the first part of King Henry IV shows a remarkable inconsistency. There are clear indications that his conception of the Welshman’s character suffered a radical change when he was writing the play,” Hughes maintains.

Though Warwickshire is not too far from Wales and plenty of Welsh surnames were found in the bard’s time in Stratford-upon-Avon, Hughes suspects Shakespeare’s knowledge of Wales and the Welsh was limited. As the lawyer-scholar acidly observes: “Shropshire is today on the Welsh border but if you desire to enjoy association with undistilled ignorance of Welsh and Welsh literature, Shropshire will give you all you desire in spite of the many Jones’, Evans’, and Jenkins’ to be found there.” In other words, for Shropshire in Hughes’s time, read Warwickshire in the 16th century!

Hughes believes that the play was written in a hurry in a period of three years between 1596-99 when six other players also emerged. The tension in the play had to focus on the struggle between Henry IV (Bolingbroke) and his rival Henry Percy (Hotspur). For dramatic reasons, a character contrast with a less heroic figure was needed which the portrayal of the Welshman – also at war with Bolingbroke – was able to represent. 

When Shakespeare brings Glendower and his daughter to the stage in the latter half of the play, however, colour was required to bring them to life. Hughes believes the poet turned to the Welsh actors playing male and female roles at the London theatres for such information – the Welsh, for example, that Glendower night have used with his monoglot daughter. Without this the play would have lacked authenticity, there being other Welsh people, including printers in London who would have known Welsh history and antiquities.

These actors, therefore, brought about the course correction seen in the later scenes, telling Shakespeare of Glendower’s training at court and legal background, his interest as a man of culture in establishing a Welsh university and a Welsh archbishopric, his campaign for Welsh-speaking clergy to minister to the werin, and his correspondence in Latin with the French king. These would suggest a much more substantial figure, and not the superstitious magician of the hills that the playwright had previously conceived from his readings of Holinshead’s tendentious chronicles, with their contempt for the Welsh.It is a plausible theory, and it would be interesting to know whether, in the voluminous Shakespeare literature since, scholars have cast a different light on Shakepseare’s relations and understanding of the Welsh. Sadly, Hughes, a council member of the Cymmrodorion and clearly no mean scholar himself, died in an accident before his paper was published and it was read to the society on his behalf. Welsh letters were clearly deprived of the thoughts of no mean scholar who was able to combine a career at the bar with impressive literary scholarship.

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The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion reach a venerable 150 years in 2023 and throughout the year we will be publishing articles on the website that have appeared during the decades. Many deal with issues that have since ceased to be important, but others still have a strong contemporary resonance.

Look out on the website for regular new uploads of this fascinating material. Or you can read all the articles by visiting the National Library website where you will find the material at