The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.094 Monday, 2 March 2015
From: Hardy Cook <
Date: March 1, 2015 at 12:52:21 PM EST
Subject: From TLS: Shakespeare and the Red Dragon
[Editor’s Note: The following appeared in a recent TLS. It is available as the Thursday free piece at the TLS web site. -Hardy]
We hope you enjoy this free piece from the TLS, which is available every Thursday in print and via the TLS app. This week’s issue also features Walter Benjamin’s disembodied sexuality, Barbara Graziosi on shameless dogs and gods in ancient Greece, Galen Strawson on the philosophy behind Tom Stoppard’s new play – and much more.
Shakespeare and the Red Dragon
25 February 2015
Marisa R. Cull
SHAKESPEARE’S PRINCES OF WALES
English identity and the Welsh connection
203pp. Oxford University Press. £55 (US $99).
978 0 19 87161 98
It must have seemed like a fine idea at the time. On November 24, 2007, in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, the Welsh national rugby team battled South Africa for the inaugural Prince William Cup. It was natural enough that the Prince should present the cup in person. After the visitors’ predictable victory, William’s smiling face filled the stadium big screen. But as the Prince brandished the prize, his smile suddenly flickered. His eyes darted. An unaccustomed noise filled his ears. Could it be? Surely not! And yet it was. To the BBC commentators’ baffled annoyance, to William’s visible consternation, but to the surprise of nobody at all in his Principality, there rang from the stands the unmistakable sound of prolonged and sincere booing.
What was going on? Everybody in Wales knew. A few months earlier, Welsh fans had been angered by the sight of the Prince wearing the national rugby shirt of England. Few English people could understand this anger: certainly, it seemed incomprehensible to the Prince. Wasn’t he simply displaying a natural patriotic pride in his country? But to Welsh eyes it looked like an aggressive act. The Prince was announcing his allegiance to a polity that emphatically excluded them. It was an untimely reminder that the future Prince of Wales was, like all his predecessors since the thirteenth century, an Englishman.
There had certainly been Welsh claimants to the title. Before the game against South Africa the mischievous Welsh stadium announcer appealed to the crowd to honour the recently deceased Llanelli centre Ray Gravell as “gwir Dywysog Cymru” the “true Prince of Wales”. A petition was launched, backed by several Welsh MPs, to rename the Prince William trophy after Gravell. Some even suggested that the most appropriate sobriquet would be the Glyn Dwr Cup, after the last Welshman to aspire to be Prince of his nation. It was an idea of which Shakespeare would have heartily approved.
Although English literary historians have barely acknowledged the fact, the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-centuries were a period of massive Welsh cultural influence on England. Apart from the Tudors themselves, many other prominent families of the day had Welsh roots, the Cecils (originally Sitsyllt) and the Cromwells among them. Queen Elizabeth’s court magus, John Dee, was of Welsh ancestry, as were the major Metaphysical poets. The strenuous, strained language of Metaphysical verse is English as written by outsiders. George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne were Welsh by birth, as was the father of John Donne (originally Dwn). Donne’s Welsh connections are especially suggestive, since he could claim descent from the greatest Welsh hero of all, Owain Glyn Dwr himself.
Marisa Cull’s absorbing and innovative study demonstrates the profound significance of Wales in general, and Glyn Dwr in particular, for the life and work of Shakespeare. The Bard (the very term has a specifically Welsh provenance) had a Welsh grandmother, Alys Griffin. The man who taught him his “small Latin”, the Stratford grammar school teacher Thomas Jenkins, was Welsh. At least four of Shakespeare’s colleagues in the Lord Chamberlain’s men were from Wales. Welsh characters feature in all the English History Plays except King John, as well as in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Cymbeline and King Lear are set in Celtic Britain, at a time before the English bestowed their current, paradoxical appellation on the Welsh. Even the historical Macbeth had Welsh connections
As Shakespeare was well aware, Wales is England’s original Other. The Saxon word Welsch means “foreigner”. The verb elschen, to speak gibberish, literally means to speak like a Welshman. The history of English colonialism begins with war on the Welsh, and the colonial dichotomy between centre and periphery has its original in the fraught relations between England and Wales. The contradictory nature of this relation is encapsulated in the very title “Prince of Wales”. The Principality is assigned a permanently junior, aspirant role, which can never issue in promotion or fulfilment. Welsh identity is sublimated within the English power structure, Welsh history is assimilated into an English narrative, and Welsh people are represented by an Englishman.
It is in the nature of such disproportionate relations that the dominant partner is unaware of the subordinate’s real nature, identity and even existence until forcibly reminded of them, as Prince William discovered. Yet Shakespeare, greatest of all English literary heroes, was acutely sensitive to Wales’s fundamental role in the construction of English national culture and character. As Cull demonstrates, he embodied and explored the resulting ambiguities through the indisputably central, yet simultaneously marginal, figure of the Prince of Wales.
This book’s title is arrestingly plural. As Cull notes, most readers of Shakespeare identify his Prince of Wales with a single figure: Prince Hal. Even in the plays that he dominates, however, Hal is never the only character associated with that title. Glendower disputes it vigorously, of course, but so does Mortimer, who claimed it as the rightful heir of Richard II. The Henriad features not one but three princes of Wales, each of whom has a very different conception of the role and its proper functions. Cymbeline’s Guiderius is also Prince of Wales, and Cull skilfully links these characters to the princes of Wales who feature in the period’s non-Shakespearean drama, such as RA’s The Valiant Welshman, and Ben Jonson’s For the Honor of Wales.
The Prince of Wales, in short, seems to have provided early modern English culture with a kind of symbolic cipher, a floating signifier, on which a vast range of aspirations and anxieties could be projected. As Cull puts it, the role was “part sovereign, part symbol”. This ambiguity was facilitated by the eloquent absence of any real Prince of Wales. Henry VII’s promising son Prince Arthur died prematurely in 1502, and the famously infertile Tudors did not produce a replacement. It was not until 1610 that, following an acrimonious and undignified dispute with his reluctant father, Prince Henry Frederick was invested with the title, only to pass away himself two years later.
In the meantime, the conveniently vacant position provided playwrights with a royal personage through whom unofficial political and ideological theories could be vented without fear of offending any actual occupant. The title is not inherited automatically but bestowed in a formal ceremony of investiture, and this opened a space for its nature to be disputed. The figurehead of the Jacobean Protestants, Prince Henry Frederick, agitated to be invested without delay; his cautious father thwarted his ambition for years in an effort to preserve the delicate Elizabethan settlement. The works of Shakespeare, and other writers who dealt with Welsh themes, offered oblique but lucid commentary on this quarrel, and Cull does a fine job of decoding the necessarily clandestine criticisms they contain.
In 1 Henry IV, Prince Hal is called “the Prince of Wales” fourteen times. For Cull this amounts to a “fetishization” of the title, and it concentrates the audience’s attention firmly on the Principality’s significance and implications. It provides a way of domesticating the disturbingly “wild Welsh” who are memorably represented by the sinister women mutilating the English dead after Glendower’s crushing victory at Bryn Glas. This “beastly shameless transformation”, in which the Englishmen’s penises are pushed into their mouths and their noses inserted into their anuses, stands for the unnatural inversion of order implied by a Welsh victory over England. That sort of thing is not supposed to happen outside rugby stadiums.
It happens in Shakespeare though, and more than once. This was partly due to the necessity of understanding pre-Saxon British history as the ancestor of the Tudor–Stuart state. It was a tricky operation. The exploits of Arthur and Merlin were part of the island’s heroic heritage, and its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century rulers were anxious to claim them as their own. The problem was that the immortal deeds of the ancient Britons did not involve the ancestors of the English. On the contrary, they were performed in the doughty but doomed struggle against them. To acknowledge this, however, would have opened dangerous wounds that were by no means entirely healed. Some way had to be found of reading the Welsh as admirable forebears, rather than as defeated natives.
That is where Shakespeare came in. When the fiercely loyal Fluellen rams a leek down Pistol’s mocking throat, the hideous inversion perpetrated by the women of Bryn Glas is domesticated into a comic incident quite compatible with allegiance to the English king. When Henry V declares “I am Welsh, you know”, despite his total lack of Celtic blood, the Other becomes part of the Self. When Richard III refers to Henry Tudor as “the Welshman”, the coming dynasty is heralded as incorporating an originally hostile resistance into the colonial power. By such means, Shakespeare continues the project of unification inaugurated by the historical Henry when he named his son Arthur, began his victorious campaign for the throne at Milford Haven, and marched to Bosworth under the standard of the red dragon.
This domesticating project’s success is described with a typically Shakespearean ambiguity. Glendower is an outlandish, incredible figure, often played purely for laughs on the English stage. But his monolingual daughter brings the Welsh language onto that stage, and her marriage to Mortimer places it in a temporarily central position. Cull offers some fascinating speculation as to how widely understood such speeches might have been in early modern London, where the Welsh would have been a highly visible minority. The language would have been at once familiar and mysterious to English people, as Hotspur suggests when he tells Glendower: “Let me not understand you, then; speak it in Welsh”.
With contrary Welsh oppugnancy, Glendower refuses to obey, instead taking the chance to remind Hotspur that “I can speak English, lord, as well as you; / For I was train’d up in the English court”. This training seems to have been ineffectual: Glendower is possibly the least English of all Shakespeare’s characters. The play makes a game attempt to defang him. Shakespeare even informs us that he is “certainly” dead, eliding the mysterious fate of the historical Glyn Dwr, who seems to have vanished into the Monmouth mist like the phantom to which he was often compared. Nobody knows what happened to him, thought it seems likely that he found a final redoubt in the home of his daughter, Alys.
What’s in a name? We cannot know how much influence Alys Griffin had over her grandson, though early twentieth-century critics like Frederick Harries enjoyed speculating that “the Celtic strain in Shakespeare’s blood may be held to account for the sporadic appearance of genius in an unremarkable middle- class family”. But it is clear that, in spite of Glendower’s reported demise, Shakespeare depicted the Welsh with a vaguely querulous foreboding, especially where the English monarchy was concerned. The Prince of Wales is, after all, the rightful heir to the English throne, and all rulers must be slightly nervous about their heirs. In Richard II, it is the Welsh captain whose astrological hermeneutics leads him to declare: “These signs forerun the death or fall of kings”.
This book’s essential argument is that, in Shakespeare’s treatments, “the Welsh become predictors of the king’s fate”. The Prince of Wales is a living embodiment of that prediction. By definition he occupies an awkward, transitional position, always awaiting his parent’s demise, which must take place before he can grasp his own proper destiny. It is a position of inadequacy, of unfulfilment, as the current holder of the title suggested when he lamented that “I feel I must justify my existence”. Certainly, Shakespeare’s English monarchs are well aware of the subversive potential inherent in the Princedom. Just after his coronation, Henry IV shows his prescience when he anxiously inquires after Hal, remarking: “If any plague hang over us, ’tis he”.
The Saxon colonization of Celtic Britain provides the earliest, paradigmatic instance of English imperialism’s remarkable skill at conscripting those it has conquered into its service. But as Prince William of Wales discovered in Cardiff, the colonized Other is always waiting for an opportunity, no matter how slight or insignificant it may appear, to assert its continued existence, often to the dominant power’s dismay and confusion. As Hal informs Douglas, in the dark lines which form the epigraph to this original and invaluable study: “It is the Prince of Wales that threatens thee, / Who never promiseth but he means to pay”. But who is the Prince of Wales?
David Hawkes is Professor of English at Arizona State University. His books include The Culture of Usury in Renaissance England, 2010. His new book, Shakespeare and Economic Theory, is due to appear later this year.