Saint David’s Day is the feast day of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales, and falls on the 1st of March each year. This St. David’s day, we explore Shakespeare’s relationship with the country – his personal links to it, and where it pops up in his writing. Shakespeare probably never visited Wales, but Wales was still a palpable presence both in his early life in Stratford-upon-Avon, and in his career in the playhouses of London.
Shakespeare’s Welsh heritage came from his mother’s side; his maternal Grandmother, Alys Griffin, was Welsh. Some scholars in the early 20th century believed these Celtic roots and their link to an oral poetic tradition explained Shakespeare’s artistic gifts, although contemporary criticism has been a little more sceptical. Shakespeare’s Welsh schoolteacher, Thomas Jenkins, did have a profound influence on the playwright in his formative years, according to eminent Shakespearean Jonathan Bate. Jenkins taught Latin to the young playwright at the King Edward VI grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, an education which perhaps instilled the playwright’s linguistic flair.
His Welsh influences followed him from the Midlands to London, where he worked with multiple Welsh actors. At any one time there were several Welsh actors in The Chamberlain’s Men, including Robert Gough, Jack Jones and Henry Evans, who are all recorded as company players. His first Folio, published seven years after his death in 1623, was also dedicated to Welsh aristocracy, the Earls of Pembroke William and Philip Herbert. The dedication described these brothers as the “most noble and incomparable paire of brethren”.
An environment dotted with such Welsh influences had a small but recognisable influence on Shakespeare’s work. There are more Welsh characters in Shakespeare’s plays than from any of England’s other neighbouring nations, and his list of Welsh creations includes Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Captain Fluellen in Henry V, and Owen Glendower in Henry IV Part One.
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Cymbeline foregrounds Wales and Welsh history most conspicuously; the action of this late romance is set largely in Wales. The play’s heroine, Imogen, becomes lost after attempting to escape to the Pembrokeshire town of Milford Haven, referred to as “blessed Milford” (3.2.59), and so spends most of the action embroiled deep in the Welsh mountains.
In King Henry IV Part One, Wales finds national representation in the characters of Owen Glendower and his daughter, Lady Mortimer. Prince Hal is also repeatedly referred to as the Prince of Wales. The position of Wales here is complicated, especially with the character of Glendower. Even now, Shakespearean scholars are split on his portrayal: in recent studies, some argue that the play deflates Glendower’s reputation as a Welshman and rebel, yet others insist that the play works rather to champion Welsh language and identity on stage.
Certainly, the enduring image of ‘Owain Glyndwr’ as an exotic and magical Celtic warrior is largely thanks to Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part One. Whilst he is not spoken particularly highly of by the characters in the play, referred to as variations on “ the irregular and wild Glendower” (1.2.40) and “that devil Glendower” (2.4.259), he is still recognised as a powerful warrior and leader. When Glendower appears before the audience in Act Three, his status as helped very much by his own proud and dramatic admissions that “the earth did shake when I was born…. The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble” (3.1. 20-24). Even the Welsh women are portrayed as fearsome army-extras, with the Earl of Westmoreland unable to speak of deeds “By those Welshwomen done as may not be / Without much shame retold or spoken of.” (1.1.45-6)
In Act Three, Lady Mortimer speaks all her lines in her mother tongue of Welsh. Shakespeare gives a stage direction – “The Lady speaks in Welsh” (3.1.196) – rather than writing the language itself, and it is assumed that Shakespeare would have relied on the ad-libbing talents of his Welsh players for this scene. Welsh language is celebrated in this scene as Mortimer lavishes praise on his wife’s speech – whilst he cannot understand it, her foreign words are “pretty” (3.1.196), “sweet as ditties” (3.1.204) and pours “down from these swelling heavens” (3.1.197).
This sense of Welsh national pride follows in King Henry V, with the die-hard Celt Fluellen as keen to express his patriotism as many a modern day Welshman. When Fluellen’s English colleague, Pistol, insults the Welsh vegetable of choice on St David’s day, he forces him to eat the national emblem as punishment: “If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek” (5.1.38-39). Shakespeare also gives Fluellen some familiar verbal tics, with dialect such as “look you” peppering his comical English-Welsh speech.
Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus i’n dilynwyr Gymraeg.
By Elizabeth O’Connor