In the midst of his career, Shakespeare seems to have gone through a brief fixation with Welshness. Welsh characters figure prominently in several plays of the late 1590s, including Henry IV pt. 1, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V. He would also return to Welshness towards the end of his career, setting Cymbeline partially in Wales and drawing from Welsh legend for its plot.
Why this burst of interest in Cymru? It may have had something to do with the composition of the Chamberlains’ Men. The company had several actors who, judging by their surnames, were Welsh-descended if not Welshmen themselves – and at the time of Henry IV pt. 1, they must have had at least one boy actor who could both speak and sing in Welsh. Shakespeare himself had some Welsh connections, though their ultimate influence on him is unknown: his home county of Warwickshire was only one county over from the Welsh border, and his maternal grandmother was Welsh-born, as was the schoolmaster at King Edward VI School, who would have taught Shakespeare Latin, rhetoric, and arithmetic. We have no evidence, however, that Shakespeare spoke Welsh or ever visited Wales.
Shakespeare’s interest in the Welsh may also reflect popular interests of his day. Though their clashes with the Scots and the Irish are more famous, the English also had a fractious history with their western neighbors. The two countries were so often in connection — either as friends or foes — that ideas of Welshness may have been compelling for Londoners of the late sixteenth century.
To explore that idea, I offer a brief history: Following the withdrawal of the Romans from the British Isles in the 5th century, Wales remained free from Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian control while the southern and eastern portions of the island capitulated to a series of invaders. In 1057, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn became the first king to unite all of Wales under a single ruler – and, according to some historians, the only king to do so in full possession of all Welsh territory, as the Normans who invaded England in 1066 soon set their eyes westward. English power in Wales waxed and waned for the next two centuries. Wales paid tribute and nominal fealty to the English kings, existing as a principality until the late 13th century, when King Edward I decided to conquer the territory and bring it wholly under English control.
The next major event in Anglo-Welsh relations is that chronicled by Shakespeare in Henry IV pt. 1: the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr in the early 15th century. Though his insurrection was unsuccessful, Glyndŵr was never captured and went on to become a Welsh folk hero, something in the likeness of England’s Robin Hood. Not all Welshmen followed Glyndŵr in his rebellion, however; many of those in the marches stayed loyal to the English king, and just a few years later, it was Welsh longbowmen along with their English comrades who helped Henry V in the day at Agincourt. By the 16th century, the Anglo-Welsh relationship had taken another turn. The Tudor dynasty was, itself, part-Welsh, and the support of Welsh troops helped Henry VII to win his throne over Richard III. English law fully replaced Welsh law within Wales under the 1536 Act of Union, instituted by King Henry VIII.
The Welshmen and Welshwomen that we see in Shakespeare’s plays reflect this somewhat varied historical relationship. Though Shakespeare wrote Welsh characters into several plays composed at about the same time, he did not choose to render them in the same fashion each time. The clues for performance he gives to the actor playing Glendower are different from those he gives the actor playing Hugh Evans (and certainly different from those he gives Lady Mortimer). In the characters’ own language and in the descriptions of those characters by others, Shakespeare offers variant viewpoints on the Welsh people. They have some traits in common, acknowledged and perhaps expected by his English audience — they are garrulous, they have issues with plosive consonants, they may be magical, they like cheese — but they are not all the same, nor do all of the English characters respond to the Welsh characters in the same ways.
In Henry IV pt 1, Glendower is repeatedly referred to as a devil, and the Welshwomen are said to desecrate corpses in unspeakable ways — yet Glendower’s magic, if it does exist, seems benign, used to summon music, and the Welshwoman we meet, Lady Mortimer, is a gentle soul who does little besides sing and weep. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hugh Evans is a religious figure and apparently a respected member of the community — yet Shakespeare pokes fun at the cultural connection of the Welsh with magic by having Evans portray a fae spirit in the masque to fool Falstaff. For Evans and for Fluellen in Henry V, the Welsh accent is pronounced and written into the actor’s script, but for Glendower, it is non-existent. Glendower is proud that he can speak English as well as Hotspur, brought up as he was in the English court, yet the Welsh accent, though rendered comically, does not seem to impede Welsh-speaking characters greatly. For Evans, his accent makes him stand apart, but he is clearly still thought fit to educate the young gentlefolk of Windsor. If Glendower is a dramatic Welshman and Evans a comic stereotype, Fluellen falls somewhere between the two: prone to loquaciousness and to fits of temper, but a capable military commander, full of heart and utterly loyal to King Henry – an English monarch who himself happily claims his Welsh heritage, perhaps reminding Shakespeare’s audience of the Tudor dynasty’s connections.
Still, though, whether as villains, comic figures, or counterpoints, the Welsh in Shakespeare are still an Other — not English, as strange and foreign in some ways as the French Doctor Caius. I’m interested in the places where this concept of nationhood, of race, of identity intersects with the plays more obviously focused on such issues, such as Othello and The Merchant of Venice. How does Shakespeare present each iteration of Otherness differently? How might his audiences have received such portrayals? And how do those renderings compare to those put forth by his contemporary playwrights?