- "Speak it in Welsh": Wales and the Welsh Language in Shakespeare
Megan Lloyd (no relation of mine) has produced a very interesting study in which she throws light on the position of Wales and the Welsh in Shakespeare' s England by examining the half-dozen characters in Shakespeare' s plays who are to a greater or less extent Welsh. The references to the plays are very comprehensive and the historical background informative, if a little melodramatic in its account of the impact of Henry VIII' s Acts of Union, but Lloyd' s readiness to treat Shakespeare' s characters as real people rather than as the creations of a dramatist does cause problems.
Lloyd sees Fluellen in Henry V and Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor as Welshmen who are losing touch with their roots, Hugh Evans willingly [End Page 1039] while he makes a reasonably successful attempt to fit into English town life, and Fluellen reluctantly as he struggles to assert the position of Wales while earning his living in an English-speaking world. This is true enough (though anyone who accuses Falstaff of overindulgence in metheglin had not lost all contact with Wales), and these plays probably would have given their audience a rather better understanding of the way Welshmen moved into a new community. But when Lloyd argues that Fluellen' s failure to shift to Welsh when angry and Hugh Evans' s sticking to English even when soliloquizing shows that they could no longer speak Welsh, she is confusing real life with the work of the dramatist. Very possibly Welsh speakers in the audience would have expected them to switch to Welsh at such moments but, as Shakespeare knew no Welsh and was not a naturalistic writer who would have had someone write lines in Welsh for his characters, the point is not relevant to the play.
Other dramatists did provide lines in Welsh for their characters: as Lloyd points out, the published text of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside has a few lines in Welsh and Patient Grissel has a good deal of it. But Shakespeare simply left the actors to get on with it when Welsh was needed in one of his plays. Early in act 3 of 1 Henry IV the stage directions require Lady Mortimer to speak and then to sing in Welsh. It looks as if a boy in the company had a beautiful Welsh singing voice but a Welsh accent that would provoke giggles and guffaws if he played a love-scene, so Shakespeare told him to make up three or four sentences in Welsh and then told Glendower (Lady Mortimer' s father) to play along with this and leave it to Sir Edmund Mortimer to build up in words a love that rises above the limitations of language. The scene brings out very well the problems of a marriage where the partners are united by affection and divided by language, but it does not follow that Lloyd is justified in seeing Lady Mortimer as a freedom fighter resisting the advance of the English language —she may be promising in Welsh to learn English just as fervently as Mortimer promises in English that he will learn Welsh.
Some of the space devoted to Lady Mortimer and the idea that she does not want to speak English (she gets more lines in the book' s index than any other Shakespearian character, which suggests some over concentration on a lady with no identifiable words to discuss) might have been directed to fuller consideration of a curious problem about Shakespeare and the Welsh: why does Henry V say that he wears the leek on St. David' s Day and declare twice that he is a Welshman? Obviously Fluellen in Henry V 4.7 believes he is Welsh, and the preliminary encounter with Pistol in 4.1 suggests that Henry should be performed as sincerely believing that he is in part Welsh and is not just...