Shakespeare and Wales: From the Marches to the Assembly

Stewart Mottram delights in Shakespearean scholarship that finally gives Wales its due

July 8, 2010

Shakespeare probably never visited Wales, but Wales certainly came to visit him. Shakespeare had his Welsh grandmother, Alys Griffin, to teach him Welsh lore, and his Welsh schoolteacher, Thomas Jenkins, to teach him Latin grammar. There were Welsh actors in Shakespeare's theatre companies, and it was to Welsh noblemen that Shakespeare's First Folio was dedicated in 1623.

These, Shakespeare's Welsh connections, are the subject of this fascinating new collection, which in the spirit of Fluellen, the Welsh captain in Henry V, also delivers something of a "Welsh correction" to existing scholarship. Shakespeare wrote against the backdrop of England's wars in Ireland and its union with Scotland and Wales. Two previous collections - Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture (1997) and Shakespeare and Scotland (2004) - have thrown light on the complexities of Shakespeare's investment in the British politics of his day. Shakespeare and Wales completes this British devolution of the Bard, and certainly not before time. Wales features more prominently in Shakespeare's plays than Scotland or Ireland; it features more prominently even than Italy. Indeed, what is most remarkable about Shakespeare and Wales is not its ability to surprise and delight (although it does that), but the fact that it has taken this long for scholarship to recognise the centrality of Wales to Shakespeare's works.

In truth, the early 20th century did see studies of Shakespeare and Wales, the subject of essays included in this collection and written by Kate Chedgzoy and Willy Maley. But Shakespeare and Wales emphasises its departure from these earlier studies, all of which looked to Shakespeare's Welsh grandmother for an answer to the riddle of his interest in Wales. That Shakespeare must have been Welsh in order to want to write of Wales is precisely the kind of unthinking assumption that the present collection seeks rigorously to deny. Wales had significant political currency in Shakespeare's day, as Philip Schwyzer's essay in this collection reminds us. Wales was the guardian of Britain's ancient imperial past, and thus the guarantor of Tudor (and Stuart) claims to British imperial rule in the present. The contributors to Shakespeare and Wales all seek to restore Wales to its rightful place at the centre of the political map of early modern Britain. This is a collection that asks, not why would Shakespeare want to write of Wales, but why wouldn't he?

Of all Shakespeare's plays, Cymbeline foregrounds Wales and Welsh history most conspicuously. Three essays here, by Marisa R. Cull, Lisa Hopkins and Andrew King, all do justice to the uncertainties of this play's celebration of the British union under James I. Anxiety over the union is also the subject of Christopher Ivic's reading of Henry V, while David J. Baker and Megan Lloyd focus on the Welsh characters Glendower and his daughter in 1 Henry IV.

There is scope for disagreement and debate among contributors to this collection. In the case of 1 Henry IV, Baker argues that the play deflates Glendower's reputation as a Welshman and rebel; Lloyd that the play works rather to champion Welsh language and identity on stage. Welsh accents and language politics are the subjects of essays on the Henriad and Merry Wives of Windsor by Huw Griffiths and Margaret Tudeau-Clayton. The collection concludes with Richard Wilson's essay on the pitfalls of seeing Shakespeare in traditional terms as a proud Middle Englander who was patronising to the Welsh. An afterword by Katie Gramich speaks to the subtitle of this collection, exploring Shakespeare's afterlives, "from the Marches to the Assembly", in Welsh performances and translations of his plays.

Shakespeare and Wales by no means exhausts the subject's potential; there are other of Shakespeare's plays and poems with Welsh connections that are not covered in depth here. But this is a collection that nevertheless succeeds in throwing new light on well-thumbed plays. It puts Wales at the centre of debates about Shakespeare's attitude towards the British politics of his day - and with those politics resurfacing in our era, Shakespeare and Wales serves as a powerful reminder of the Bard of Avon's continuing relevance to the now.

Shakespeare and Wales: From the Marches to the Assembly

Edited by Willy Maley and Philip Schwyzer
Ashgate, 260pp, £55.00
ISBN 97807546692
Published 28 February 2010

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments