PTS 015/095: Two Bravehearts Collide

Owain-Glyndwr
Owain Glyndŵr stirs the blood in Corwen, North Wales

PTS 015/095 1HIV Act III, scene i

When my Dearest Partner of Greatness (DPG) and I were discussing Trilogy Day at The Globe, THIS is the scene that prompted my suggestion she come along to this first play.  Curiosity mixed with mischief as I thought about her reaction to an English representation of the national hero, Owain Glyndŵr

The thing is, as I mentioned in Act I scene i, the Welsh memory runs deep, and not without cause.  Andrew Sanders tells us that:

Although not one of them spoke Welsh, the five English monarchs of the Tudor dynasty were inclined to insist on the significance of their Welsh origins.  For propaganda purposes they were pronounced to be princes of ancient British descent who had returned to claim King Arthur’s throne and to restore the promised dignity and prestige of Camelot. [a]

So far, so convenient.  But a little digging, or a proud Welsh connection like I now have (not to mention a home in Wales), unearths the kind of unpleasantness that Scotland can corroborate – not for nothing does their national anthem celebrate the time Edward I’s troops (under his hapless son) were sent homeward from Bannockurn in 1314 year ‘to think again’.  Edward I may have been known as ‘the hammer of the Scots’, but he hammered the Welsh, too.

So, what did Shakespeare do with Glyndŵr, who raised the country against the English in 1400 and (unlike his Scottish equivalent, William Wallace) was never captured?  William Hazlitt calls him:

‘a masterly character. It is as bold and original as it is intelligible and thoroughly natural.’ [b]

Obviously, he’s a caricature, but then it’s safe to say that other memorable characters in the play, notably Hotspur and Falstaff are, too.  But the best caricatures always hyperbolise the essential characteristics of real life.  Did you know that RL Stevenson lampooned a public figure to create Long John Silver?  Even in the late sixteenth century, with communities more parochial and travel less free and easy than now, Stratford-upon-Avon wasn’t so far from the border, and Shakespeare might have heard what Harold F Brooks calls the ‘genuine Welsh lilt and turn of phrase’ found in Glendower and Fluellen (Henry V).  Brooks suggests that:

The Chamberlain’s Men had a boy who could sing in Welsh; he did so as Lady Mortimer in 1 Henry IV. [c]

Which also helps us out as far as the language goes.  Lady Mortimer is free to say what she wants in the scene; this had my DPG’s ears pricking at The Globe, at what she thought was quite modern dialect.  Brooks says two further interesting things.  Firstly: 

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.

Loth as I am to get ‘Looney’ in my speculations (forgive an in-joke for those who feel that authorship deniers are mouth-breathers) here we are presented with a few famous Welshmen who might be satirised.  From the specific to the general – to point number two:

Shakespeare makes the most of the Welshman’s belief in omens as a main motive of their defection [from Richard II …] It looks as though Shakespeare was apt to link the Welsh with their traditions of the supernatural.

It’s all here in this scene too, in wonderful, pedantic detail.

Give me leave
To tell you once again that at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
The goats ran from the mountains, and the herds
Were strangely clamorous to the frighted fields. [d]

As a side note, I wonder if Shakespeare is disparaging the ancient beliefs of the druids, with the conventional English ‘enlightened’ Christian hat on?  It’s interesting that when Christ was crucified the Bible tells us that there was an earthquake (see Matthew 27:50-54). When Glendower assures us that:

‘at my birth

The frame and huge foundation of the earth

Shaked like a coward.’

his impetuous audience refuses to be over-awed, in fact going further to cheekily suggest it was a ‘strange eruption’ of ‘unruly wind’ … it’s lines like these which make me sad I don’t have the opportunity to teach this play.

Needless, perhaps, to say that I got my giggles at The Globe, especially at Glendower’s ‘lovely well’ which apparently no Welshman ever said:  overall the DPG was about as impressed with Glendower as Hotspur is.  Let’s turn to my man-crush.

If the play is Hotspur’s Tragedy (Falstaff’s spans two, perhaps three, plays), and I usually read it as such, then we see both good and bad here; his nobility and his hamartia.  I’ve pondered a bit about his honesty, and come to the conclusion that whilst he might exaggerate in the everyday fashion we all do – ‘I was literally starrrrving, man’ – he’s not, fundamentally, a liar.  So, to borrow from elsewhere in the play, when he is confronted with ‘open, palpable lies’, spoken not in the heat of the moment but quite coolly, he won’t suffer gladly those Welsh traditions of the supernatural that Brooks remarked on:

‘tell truth and shame the devil!’

Here’s Hazlitt, again:

‘The disputes between him [Glendower] and Hotspur are managed with infinite address and insight into nature.’

We need to spare a thought for Mortimer in all this – caught between two Bravehearts, his father-in-law on the one side and his brother-in-law on the other … ouch.,

Let’s look at Hotspur’s marriage once more.  Although it can be played as spiteful and nasty, as it was at The Globe, I’m with the Arkangel audio version in having the Percys flirt as Lady Mortimer sings.  It’s teasing, and fun, with a ‘naughty’ sexual edge.  Even here:

LADY PERCY:  Now God help thee!

HOTSPUR:  To the Welsh Lady’s bed.

LADY PERCY:  What’s that?

HOTSPUR:  Peace!  She sings.

Admirable as he is, Hotspur needs fatal flaws for me to feel that the main business of the play is done when Hal skewers him.  Lady Percy identifies the main one, I think:

‘you are altogether governed by humours’

And his uncle, Worcester, manages to get more than a word or two in this time:

you are too wilful-blame;
And since your coming hither have done enough
To put him quite beside his patience.
You must needs learn, lord, to amend this fault:
Though sometimes it show greatness, courage, blood,—
And that’s the dearest grace it renders you,—
Yet oftentimes it doth present harsh rage,
Defect of manners, want of government,
Pride, haughtiness, opinion and disdain:
The least of which haunting a nobleman
Loseth men’s hearts and leaves behind a stain
Upon the beauty of all parts besides,
Beguiling them of commendation.

It’s Summer 2019.  I’m a political animal. My job involves making Shakespeare ‘relatable’ (yuck).  When Hotspur justifies his toying with Glendower in the following terms I want to spit, despite loving him, because I hear Boris Johnson and his cronies:

‘I’ll give thrice so much land

To any well-deserving friend;

But in the way of bargain, mark ye me,

I’ll cavil on the ninth part of a hair.’

His confrontation with Glendower turned out to be a huge willy-waving competition.  In many ways, given what happens later, we might say that Hotspur’s inability to accommodate compromise is his undoing.  A bit like telling the world we are prepared to leave the EU with no deal, ‘do or die’ … ?


REFERENCES

[a]  Andrew Sanders, The Short Oxford History of English Literature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

[b] William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, (London:  CH Reynell, 1817)

[c] Harold F Brooks, in William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (The Arden Shakespeare, ed. Harold F Brooks), (London:  Methuen Drama, 2007)

[d] all play quotations are taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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