He may be the most famous English playwright, but Shakespeare has strong links with Wales, including claims that he actually lived for a period at the Great House in Laleston, near Bridgend.
Built around 1550, the Great House is believed to have been a gift from Queen Elizabeth I to her suitor and court favourite Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who used it as a hunting lodge.
A local historian believes Shakespeare lived in the house while working as a tutor to a rich man – possibly Dudley’s – son during his ‘lost years’ of 1585 to 1592.
With so no hard evidence to trace the playwright’s whereabouts during these seven mystery years, this theory can be neither proven nor disproven.
What is known is that in 1592 a young Shakespeare burst onto the London theatre scene with several plays under his arm, including Richard III which has a strong Welsh theme.
Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon is only about 60 miles from the Welsh border and there is no doubt the playwright was familiar with Welsh culture, folklore and even to some extent, language.
Here we take a look at what else ties Shakespeare to Wales and supports the idea he may have had a closer affiliation with the country than previously thought.
Cymbeline , Shakespeare’s play about a Celtic king in ancient Britain is largely set in Wales, with much of the drama unfolding in the Welsh mountains on a failed attempt to reach Milford Haven. The play, first known to be performed in 1611 and published in Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623 is believed to be based upon a tale in the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed , which Shakespeare used for many of his plots. The story is part of the Matter of Britain , a body of medieval literature associated with legends such as King Arthur, derived from the Historia Regum Britanniae - The History of the Kings of Britain - written in 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth about the real-life British monarch Cunobeline.
Shakespeare’s plays feature more characters from Wales than any of England’s other neighbouring nations. Well known Shakespearian Welsh roles include Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Captain Fluellen, the passionate Celt in Henry V. Shakespeare makes clear his characters’ Welsh heritage with common verbal tics and phrases, often using these to add to the comic effect. His Welsh characters tend to be very proud of their heritage as per Fluellen’s passionate defence of his national vegetable, the leek, against his colleague Pistol in Henry V, a play in which the King himself pronounces: “For I am Welsh, you know good countryman.”
The legendary Bard had a Welsh grandmother on his mother’s side, Alys Griffin who is sometimes credited with having been the source of much oral poetic folk tradition that inspired Shakespeare’s work. Alys is believed to have come from a line of Welsh nobility descending from the King of South Wales Griffith and his wife Gwenllian, the daughter of a North Walian king Griffith ap Kymme. By the 16th century, Alys Griffin’s parents had moved to the West Midlands but some scholars claim she would have bought her Welsh songs and poems with her and passed these on to her grandson. These suppositions are based on detailed studies of Shakespeare’s works which they claim display the same folkloric poetic traditions so dominant in Wales. Others argue that Wales was simply a prominent part of Shakespeare’s Britain and one he would have learnt about throughout the course of his life.
Shakespeare’s First Folio – that is the first collection of 36 of the Bard’s plays collated and published in 1623, seven years after his death – was dedicated to brothers William, Earl of Pembroke and Lord Chamberlain and Philip Herbert, the Earls of Montgomery. The preface to the book describes them as ‘the most noble and incomparable paire of brethren.’ The dedication points towards a link between Shakespeare and the Welsh aristocracy but since the First Folio was compiled by actors John Hemminge and Henry Condell and published by Isaac Jaggard and Ed Blount after his death, it is not known if the dedication was in line with Shakespeare’s wishes.
Owain Glyndwr was the last native Welshman to hold the title of Prince of Wales after he successfully revolted against Henry IV in 1400. In his play about the Plantagenet king, Henry IV, Shakespeare depicts Glyndwr as a brave and magical Celtic warrior. He is described as noble, clever and generous with a skill in fighting that can only be attributed to mystical powers. It must however be remembered that Shakespeare was writing for a part-Welsh Tudor court, therefore praising the Welsh and bashing the Plantagenets in his plays was a sensible move to remain in favour.
It is known that Shakespeare’s schoolmaster Thomas Jenkins was a Welshman and is likely to have had a profound influence on the young boy growing up. He taught Latin to Shakespeare at the King Edward VI grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, an education which many believe must have inspired the playwrights early lyrical talents. Some scholars speculate that the character of Sir Hugh Evans, a teacher and parson in the Merry Wives, who speaks English and Latin with a strong Welsh accent was inspired by Jenkins. During one scene, Evans is seen testing a young schoolboy named William.
7. Welsh actors
Renowned today for turning out many of our finest actors and musicians, it seems Wales was producing more than its fair share of successful performers as far back as Shakespeare. The Bard’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – later The King’s Men – always boasted numerous Welsh players including Robert Gough, Jack Jones and Henry Evans.
Whatever his actual movements within Wales itself, there is no doubt that Wales and the Welsh were firmly implanted in Shakespeare’s consciousness. For lovers of the Bard who wish to experience firsthand some of the Celtic history and landscapes that inspired his writing, a visit to the Great House and exploration of the surrounding Welsh countryside would be a great place to start.