Wales, the Welsh, and Shakespeare
Little is on offer in Wales to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s first folio, and this is a pity. Shakespeare is England’s icon, of course, but he is also a universal figure and should be celebrated here.
In fact, Wales features a fair amount in Shakespeare. There’s Glendower, of course, in Henry IV Part 1, Captain Fluellen in Henry V and Sir Hugh Evans, “a Welsh parson”, in that shameless money-spinner, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Cymbeline is set in pre-Roman Britain – Wales before it was called Wales – and Milford is specifically name-checked in the action. Lear has long disappeared as an English Christian name but survives in contemporary Welsh as Llyr.
There’s no evidence that Shakespeare set foot in Wales, but none that he didn’t either. His patron, to whom the first folio is dedicated, was the Earl Pembroke so the thought is at least plausible.
There is little that ties Shakespeare to time and space beyond some basic dates and this a source of benefit rather than frustration.
Like his creation Ariel, Shakespeare seems to hover in a netherworld of fantasy and imprecision between what’s real and invented. It is precisely this amorphous quality which enables us to paint onto Shakespeare what we will, just as you like it.
His greatest Welsh creation was Owen Glendower (Shakespeare’s spelling), the show-stealing supporting role in Henry IV, Part 1. Shakespeare’s Glendower is boastful, vain and pompous:
“ ….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.”
These are scarcely attractive qualities but form a satisfying counter to the uncritical lionisation sometimes attributed to Glyndŵr as he sought to align his personal interests with those of the nation.
The historical Glyndŵr was what we would now call an oligarch, as much Roman Abramovich as El Cid. To be fair, he was battling the usurper Prince of Wales and the mighty forces of the crown ranged around him; a little whistling in the dark seems reasonable.
Glendower is a brilliant character and in any decent production capable of surmounting his cameo status to print a lasting impact.
He is aggressively aware of his consequence, as any rebel fighter must be. His verbal dexterity and silky charm run rings around the pellet-headed Hotspur and the plodding Mortimer, to whom Glendower’s daughter is married.
Glendower is cultured and has his daughter sing to change the atmosphere. You feel like you could listen to Glendower all day:
“And on your eyelids crown the god of sleep,
Charming your blood with pleasing heaviness,
Making such a difference ‘twixt wake and sleep
As is the difference betwixt day and night,
The hour before the heavenly-harnessed team
Begins his golden progress in the east.”
When I read Shakespeare’s Glendower I think, for example, of the penetrating fluency of Cerys Matthews or Michael Sheen or Gwyn Alf Williams. A stereo-type perhaps, but surely Shakespeare was onto something.
In any case, Hotspur and Mortimer proved unreliable allies, leading to that home-grown historical document the Pennal Letter. This was penned in Latin by the historical Glyndŵr in the village of Pennal on the road between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth.
The letter appealed to the King of France to join in alliance with Wales against the English crown: “my nation, for many years now elapsed, has been oppressed bythe fury of the barbarous Saxons”.
His letter was delivered into the King’s hands by the clerical civil servant Gruffudd Yonge and is preserved at the French National Archives in Paris.
Glyndŵr and Shakespeare have things in common. Both are icons in their worlds, albeit the whole world in Shakespeare’s case. For both, scholars can assemble biographies (let’s salute the late RR Davies, the pre-eminent Glyndŵr scholar of our age) which somehow reflect less than the sum of their parts.
Shakespeare is infinitely bendable because we know so little about him and his views. His characters mouth opinions on everything under the sun, and we feel the relevance of his words all these centuries later.
But what did Shakespeare really think? No one has a clue. I see him on The Graham Norton Show blushing, uncomfortable in the limelight and tongue-tied.
Some of this same sense of mystery hangs around Glyndŵr. We don’t know what he looked like. We know little of what he believed beyond some thoughts on higher education and church policy.
We don’t really know to what extent he was a true patriot or a self-serving charlatan. Good. For exactly these reasons, he is what you want him to be (I suspect he was an untidy and compromised mixture of the elevated and selfish).
Glyndŵr’s death was never recorded. He just slid out of recorded history, like the Fool in Act 3 of King Lear. Glyndŵr took office in that other realm, the one that never dims, where victory remains elusive but where defeat is never final, peering over the shoulders of the living and brandishing chimerical standards of lions rampant.
You sense his hand daubing messages on rocks and bridges of rural Wales, and an aching clarion in the forest dying into the crow’s screech.
So far as is known, no copy of Shakespeare’s first folio rests in Wales. A copy was owned by Charles Watkin Williams Wynn of Denbigh but after his death records show it was sold to one James Beaufoy in 1851.
The most recently discovered folio was found in 2016 at the ancestral home of the Marquis of Bute, on the eponymous isle in Scotland.
There’s no reason to believe they ever brought it to Cardiff but, at this cosy time of year, I like to conjure an image of the third Marquess settling down in front of a log fire in his newly decorated lounge at Cardiff Castle to read out loud from Henry IV part one.
Some 750 copies of the first folio were printed in 1623, of which 235 are known to be extant. The largest share, 82 of them, are housed at the Folger Institute in Washington D.C.
Folger was a magnate who left his fortune to build a neo-classical temple to Shakespeare, striking from the outside but actually rather gloomy inside.
The Folger Institute has the means to buy up any copies available on the open market. The next largest owner is Meisi University, Tokyo which has 12. New York Public Library owns 6.
Nearer home, the British Library owns 5 copies while Oxford and Cambridge universities own 4 each. Birmingham City Library has one all of its own, aptly enough as the metropolis closest to Stratford.
It’s sad that there isn’t a copy in Wales; and here is my modest proposal. Couldn’t the British Library, from its collection of 5, place a permanent loan copy at suitable locations in each of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
This would still leave two copies in London and would constitute a generous act of cultural partnership, marking Shakespeare’s universality among the union nations. We might lend them some Dafydd ap Gwilym in return?
Alternatively, if there’s a budding Welsh plutocrat with an appetite for philanthropy and £10m to spare, that should get us one.
Better still, we could ask the French to loan us the Pennal letter again – it’s 25 years since it was last at the National Library. Shakespeare’s Glendower and Glyndŵr’s letter side by side.
What a thrilling exhibition that would be. The contemporary document signed by Glyndŵr himself: “Vester ad vota, Owynus pincips Wallie/ yours avowedly, Owen, Prince of Wales”. And the first text of Henry IV part one, the imaginative vision conceived for the metropolitan audience:
“These signs have marked me extraordinary,
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.”
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