St. David’s Day and Welshness in Shakespeare

Did you know that March 1st is a holiday? Well, actually, according to Wikipedia, it’s several, including Independence Day for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Roman Matronalia, and Beer Day, celebrating the end of prohibition in Iceland. But for those of an early modern bent, it’s most important as St. David’s Day, honoring the patron saint of Wales.

Though little is actually know about the saint’s life, he is supposed to have died on March 1st in 569 CE. St. David’s Day has been celebrated by the Welsh since the Middle Ages, and seems to have come to prominence as a day of national pride during Welsh resistance to the Norman Conquest. Both St. David and his day remained important to the Welsh throughout their struggles with the English in the subsequent centuries. Observance, in the modern day as in the medieval, involves parades, wearing the national costume, recitation of Welsh literature, and turning daffodils or leeks into accessories — a practice Shakespeare refers to in Henry V:

Welsh Guards affixing the leek to their caps, 1921

Welsh Guards affixing the leek to their caps, 1921

FLUELLEN
Your grandfather of famous memory, an’t please your
majesty, and your great-uncle Edward the Plack
Prince of Wales, as I have read in the chronicles,
fought a most prave pattle here in France.
KING HENRY V
They did, Fluellen.
FLUELLEN
Your majesty says very true: if your majesties is
remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a
garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their
Monmouth caps; which, your majesty know, to this
hour is an honourable badge of the service; and I do
believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek
upon Saint Tavy’s day.
KING HENRY V
I wear it for a memorable honour;
For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.
FLUELLEN
All the water in Wye cannot wash your majesty’s
Welsh plood out of your pody, I can tell you that:
God pless it and preserve it, as long as it pleases
his grace, and his majesty too!
KING HENRY V
Thanks, good my countryman.

In a subsequent scene, Fluellen comes into conflict with the boastful swaggerer Pistol, who mocks the Welsh Captain and his nationality. Fluellen cudgels Pistol, quite possibly with the very leek he then makes Pistol eat, stating, “If you can mock a leek, you can eat a leek.”

Wales occupied a somewhat strange place in the worldview of early modern London. The Welsh were still seen in many respects as foreigners. They were, since the Act 1536 Act of Union, subject to English law, but not fully English themselves. Many at this time did not even speak English, and common observance noted strong accents in those who did (the sort of accent Shakespeare writes into Fluellen’s dialogue, above, with consonant shifts confusing Ps and Bs, as well as Ts and Ds). On the other hand, the Tudor dynasty was part-Welsh itself, and earlier centuries’ conflicts between the English and the Welsh had died down. Wales had helped Henry VII win his crown, and the country was now the jumping-off point for wars with Ireland. Shakespeare’s plays illustrate England’s mixed acceptance and ostracization of their near neighbors.

Though it will be somewhat after St. David’s Day, audiences at the Blackfriars Playhouse will be able to see a lot of Welsh-ness on stage this spring when 1 Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor return home from tour. In these two plays, Shakespeare presents two very different views on the Welsh. In 1 Henry IV, the English speak of Glendower as a near-mythological terror, and Glendower himself readily builds on this larger-than-life legend (however little Hotspur thinks of his prophetic birth and self-proclaimed magical powers). The stories the English characters tell about their Welsh opponents are terrifying — they consort with devils, they mercilessly slaughter defeated foes, and their women perform unspeakable transgressions upon corpses. Both Glendower and his daughter, Lady Mortimer, give the lie to rumor a bit. Though Glendower embraces and encourages his supernatural legend, he shows himself educated and cultured. He speaks in perfect, unaccented iambic pentameter, just like the English nobles, and seems far less inclined towards random violence than report would have it. Lady Mortimer speaks no English, but through her song and as an object of desire for both Mortimer and Hotspur, she represents an English exoticization of another culture. However much a threat the Welsh might be, there is something attractive about them, too.

p039-z4By contrast, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare writes a Welsh buffoon in the character of Hugh Evans. Evans displays no element of threat whatsoever. Instead, Shakespeare calls on other, more humorous stereotypes about the Welsh, including a pronounced accent and an utter lack of pith. Evans displays a tendency towards circular speaking and repetition that reflects English prejudice of the Welsh as an overly garrulous people. There are also a great many jokes about cheese (an early modern equivalent of our current cultural conceptions about Wisconsin). Despite these slights on his nationality, however, Evans appears to be an integrated and valued member of the Windsor community — if no less ridiculous than many of his neighbors, certainly not a wide margin moreso, either.

Shakespeare also shows a different angle on the idea of Welsh magic. Whereas Glendower claims mystical power and summons music-playing spirits from the air, Hugh Evans is as solidly Christian as they come — an actual parson without the hint of devilry about him. Until, that is, he takes on the personage of a demonic fairy in order as part of the trick against Falstaff. Shakespeare turns the idea of Welshness that he presented in 1 Henry IV on its head, and continues to develop it in Henry V with the character of Fluellen (he who righteously defends the honor of the leek). Fluellen is somewhere between the two extremes: prone to loquaciousness and to fits of temper, but a capable military commander, full of heart and utterly loyal to King Henry.

For more on Shakespeare’s treatment of the Welsh, see the upcoming ASC Study Guide Henry, Hal, and Falstaff, on sale at Lulu and in the Box Office during the Spring Season.