Hapus Dydd Dewi Sant, look you!

Just how authentic are Shakespeare’s Welsh characters?

BH fluellen leek

‘if you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek’ [1]

Wales is my second home: my girlfriend is Welsh.  I lived there for a while, and visit frequently.  It’s a place I’ve come to know reasonably well, and to like very much.  One of the highlights of each year is watching the England vs Wales rugby union match – you simply haven’t tasted real passion and love of country until you’ve watched it on a big screen in a packed pub in North Wales (avoid wearing white, if you can).  They have a national anthem that genuinely moves me every time I hear it: inexplicably visceral and patriotic in a way that ‘God Save The Queen’ can never, ever be.  Take 90 seconds out of your life to watch this, below:

All this love doesn’t stop me from massively enjoying any opportunity to ‘mock the leek‘, but in an affectionate way …

One of our regular ‘discussions’ is whether or not portrayals of the Welsh in Shakespeare are authentic.  You might imagine that she says not.  Forcefully.  But those great characters, Owain Glyndwr (Glendower) and Fluellen have verbal tics which are too good an opportunity to pass up when you are teasing someone who gives as good as she gets – and usually more.

I’ve always maintained that Shakespeare would (OK, might) have had contact with the Welsh in his pre-London life: travel wasn’t what it is now, certainly, but Stratford-upon-Avon is a LOT closer to the border than it is to the capital.

And then, in an unexpected place (an introduction to The Dream), I found this.

it is plain that in 1595-9 he [Shakespeare] was interested in matters Welsh. The Chamberlain’s Men had a boy who could sing in Welsh; he did so as Lady Mortimer in 1 Henry IV. In addition, ‘Glendower speaks to her in Welsh, and she answers him in the same’. Three times more she speaks in Welsh: her tongue, says Mortimer,


The best because the simplest explanation of Jacques’s ‘Ducdame’ equates it with Cymric ‘Dewch da mi’ (‘Come to me’, matching Amiens’ ‘Come hither’).


He was able to give Sir Hugh and Fluellen a genuine Welsh lilt and turn of phrase. He must have written their parts, and Glendower’s, for one of his fellows who was either a Welshman, or well acquainted with Welshmen. His interest culminated in the creation of Fluellen, so finely comic and so sympathetic a Welsh character, and there may be a sign of it as early as Richard II. The desertion of Richard’s Welsh troops is certainly crucial, and the short scene devoted to it is germane to the action. Yet it is not, perhaps, an obligatory scene: and Shakespeare makes the most of the Welshman’s belief in omens as a main motive of their defection. […] It looks as though Shakespeare was apt to link the Welsh with their traditions of the supernatural.

In the period from Richard II (1595) to Henry V (1599), with the Dream near the beginning of it, it is safe to infer that he had Welsh contacts, among the players of his company if not also through the entourage of Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke, President of the Council of Wales, who resided often at Ludlow. The earl’s son William was addressed by Heminge and Condell in 1623 as having been (with his younger brother) a leading patron of Shakespeare’s [2]

My emphasis.  Take that, look you!

Hapus Dydd Dewi Sant, everyone.

_ _ _

[1]  William Shakespeare, King Henry V (Arden Third Edition), ed. T.W. Craik, (London:  Methuen Drama, 1995), V.i.39

[2]  Harold F. Brooks, ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Arden Second Edition), ed. Harold F. Brooks, (London: Methuen Drama, 2007), pp. lxxiii-lxxiv

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