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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: January ::
Re: Welsh in Henry IV
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0198  Tuesday, 30 January 2001

[1]     From:   Tony Burton <
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        Date:   Friday, 26 Jan 2001 10:48:10 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0187 Re: Welsh in Henry IV

[2]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Friday, 26 Jan 2001 08:05:02 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0187 Re: Welsh in Henry IV

[3]     From:   Karen Peterson-Kranz <
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        Date:   Friday, 26 Jan 2001 13:58:06 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.0187 Re: Welsh in Henry IV

[4]     From:   Werner Broennimann <
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        Date:   Saturday, 27 Jan 2001 15:07:04 +0000
        Subj:   Welsh


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tony Burton <
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Date:           Friday, 26 Jan 2001 10:48:10 -0500
Subject: 12.0187 Re: Welsh in Henry IV
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0187 Re: Welsh in Henry IV

This discussion so far seems to accept the undefended assumption that
Welsh was incomprehensible to a London theater audience, and I invite
those with knowledge to submit references to known facts.  An onstage
conversation in Spanish, for example, is presumably (I hope I'm not
offending) more or less unintelligible in North Dakota, but a playwright
could anticipate that in large parts of California, Texas, Florida, or
New York any audience would surely recognize it and a good portion
follow it with fair to perfect comprehension.

What does it mean that Shakespeare simply directs his actors at certain
points to speak in "Welsh".  Was it a reasonable demand on an acting
company to ask one or two actors to do so, and to expect the audience to
recognize it for what it was, or was it a cue for the actors to engage
in double-talk (implying the equally problematic assumption that a
company of actors would include one or two who could do so
competently)?  There are modern examples of each, from Sid Caesar's over
the top doubletalk in a variety of languages to partially translated
legitimate Russian in The Hunt for Red October, and of course they
create very different moods towards the foreign language in question.

In either event, the Welsh was largely gestural in its purpose, since
the actors apparently had a free hand in deciding what to say in it.
Considering how much Shakespeare generally makes every word count for,
the notion of his inviting language apparently ad lib, without caring
about its content is the most fascinating fact of all.

My sincere apologies to Megan Lloyd if this note overlooks anything said
in her paper cited earlier in this thread, which I should like to read
but have not.

Tony B

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Friday, 26 Jan 2001 08:05:02 -0800
Subject: 12.0187 Re: Welsh in Henry IV
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.0187 Re: Welsh in Henry IV

Hannibal Hamlin queries:

>To have such extensive passages of an incomprehensible language still
>seems to me theatrically
>strange, and I wonder if anyone can back up A.R. Humphrey's claim that
>this was not uncommon at the time (songs don't count, I think, because
>the immediacy of the music compensates for the incomprehensibility of
>the text)?

In an earlier (not much earlier) thread on the same topic, I argued that
the use of a language which other characters don't understand, and the
majority of the audience can't be expected to, changes Lady Mortimer
from an agent, with a voice, into an aesthetic object, admired for her
song.  She moves a little closer, if one likes, to a prop.

By the way, I recall reading (perhaps someone else has the exact
citation, though I can check if anyone's interested) that one of the
early English voyages to the new world encountered native people who the
crew thought "sounded Welsh".  They even asked a Welsh crewmember, who
was recording all this, to try speaking to the natives.  What this
points out, I think, is that languages that weren't understood tended to
be associated with one another, seemingly arbitrarily.

Is there any record (outside the play) of Welsh as being particularly
musical sounding?  If so, then the language might, even when not sung,
still have some of the aesthetic weight (or lightness) of a song.

Finally, to add to Ann Carigan's note on the wooing scene in Henry V, it
seems in this instance to be Kate who is cutting down Henry's efforts at
conventional wooing, driving him towards the 'plain soldier' rhetoric.
The real question, in my mind, is why this sort of scene takes place at
all, when Henry has already conquered France?  It seems superfluous to
conquer it over again, unless there's some surplus of meaning to this
scene that 'conquest' does not express.

Cheers,
Se

 

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