The strange idea that Shakespeare was written by someone else, a notion which only seriously began in Victorian times (an aptly-named Mr Looney played a pivotal role in some of that early speculation) has not only not faded, it has been given a big boost by an entertaining film, Anonymous, which plugs the theory that the Earl of Oxford was the real author. All the renewed debate has reminded me that the only person (that I know of) since Dr Johnson’s time who has actually added anything to Shakespeare’s own lines, in a very modest way, was my own mother.
Eirian James, who became Eirian Wain later, was working in the 1950s for the Arts section of the British Council in London. In collaboration with George Rylands of King’s College Cambridge and the Marlowe Society, the British Council, and Mum, helped to produce LP records of the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays. While doing this she got to meet a lot of young actors who either were or would go on to become stars of the theatre and film: Ralph Richardson, Michael Hordern, Hugh Griffith, John Gielgud and Alec Guiness. In later life, as the Wain family clustered round the telly to watch a film, she would often point one of these actors out : ‘Oh look, it’s X. He was one of My Young Men.’
Mum’s Young Men were an illustrious crew which included the poet W.S. Graham, the novelist Lawrence Durrell whom she met on war service in Egypt (‘we galloped over the desert on camels’) and by some roundabout route not clear to me, Sir Peter Parker, who was chairman of British Rail for a while. After a glass or two of Cabernet Sauvignon, lighting up an illict Gauloise, Mum would start telling us of more about her Young Men, and her outrageously glamorous, to us, wartime experiences in Alexandria, Palestine and Lebanon. A different Mum emerged in these stories, one who smoked cannabis with Turkish naval officers and had pistol-firing competitions with her fellow Wrens, shooting at playing cards turned edge on. Dad would harrumph slightly at all this, which didn’t exactly discourage her. It was in this mood that her Welsh blood would rise and she would sometimes be rude about the English : ‘twll din i bob sais’, she’d say. ‘Eh?’ said Dad, although he soon got the general idea.
Even after leaving London for Oxford and the less glamorous job of bringing up three sons, she did keep up a few theatrical connections. Years later, my parents and my youngest brother Toby went backstage at the New Theatre to greet Victor Spinetti, a fine stage actor now most famous for appearing in one of the Beatles films. He surreptitiously presented Toby – a lad of about 16 – with a handsome pre-rolled spliff. ‘This may be more use to you than to me,’ Spinetti said in his lugubrious tones. I’m assuming that this byplay went on when Mum and Dad’s attention was elsewhere, and that Toby didn’t fire up his theatrical dooby coming home in the family Ford Cortina.
Back to Shakespeare : in Henry IV Part 1 there is a scene where the Rebel prince, Harry Hotspur, has a pre-battle parley with his fellow rebels Edmund Mortimer and Owen Glendower (Willie the Shake’s anglicisation of Owain Glyndwr). Part of the dynamic of the scene turns on the fact that Mortimer knows only English, and Glendower’s fiery daughter, Mortimer’s wife, can only speak Welsh. Glendower’s daughter, not named in the play, woos Mortimer with words and looks and song in her native language, while Hotspur cracks jokes with his boopsy Kate, who responds with the exact Elizabethan equivalent of ‘Ooh stop it, you are awful.’ The contrast between the Welsh princess’s passion and Hotspur’s gags makes it a great comic scene, although, like every Shakespearean comic scene I know, it doesn’t actually make you laugh.
In the play Glendower and Mortimer lose the battle, and the rebellion flickers out : in fact the real Owain Glydnwr also seems to have just faded out of history, so much so that no one even knows where he is buried. He does have the distinction of being the sole Welsh fighter against the English who was not betrayed, even briefly, by his own people. Now, of course, he is famous and feted, a national hero who set up a Welsh parliament and kept the mighty English at bay – despite the dissenting historians who point out that his rebellion and its five years of Civil War devastated Wales almost as much as the Black Death.
Would there have been lines in Welsh in the original performances of the play? London had its share of Welshmen who followed the original Welsh king Henry Tudor (Henry VII) to court, and it might even have been fashionable for a short while to have some Welsh ancestry. I think that Shakespeare’s players probably got the actor who played the Welsh Princess – a male actor of course – to speak some real Welsh, rather than some codded up gibberish to please the hirelings at the foot of the stage, although you never know. (The London mosh pit would hardly have known the difference, anyway, and in any case the lines are not recorded.)
Mum came from two Welsh speaking parents, Thomas James from West Wales, and Maggie Williams from Caernarvonshire (Arfon) in the north. Tom and Maggie moved to south Wales to raise their family, and I think the language of the hearth, as they say in Wales, was English, common enough in middle-class families living in the Cardiff area. Mum actually learned or re-learned the language in Alexandria during the war, in the intervals of decoding naval signals. When George Rylands came to produce Henry IV Part I, her spoken and her written Welsh were fluent enough for her to write some blank verse for the stage lines ‘again in Welsh’ and actually perform them.
We still have the huge set of LPs in my loft, one for every play and one for the sonnets, in handsome sleeves decorated with theatrical masks. Sure enough, the record of Henry V Part I has the Welsh princess, Eirian James, speaking Welsh over some stormy sound effects, and her name appears on the printed play notes that go with the recording. Rylands’ sound engineer went to town a bit with the wind and rain noises, perhaps thinking it was all very Celtic and atmospheric, and this makes it difficult even for a fluent speaker to actually hear the words. I can only speak a few words of the language myself. I wish I could understand the lines my mother wrote and performed, back in those days when she was younger than I am now.
How important is it to know who wrote Shakespeare’s works? To me, the idea that an unknown playwright penned the plays and passed them off as his own goes against every balance of probability, but does it actually matter? Shakespeare – for many complex cultural reasons – is a canon that we define, and at times that seems to define us, to define Englishness; one of those things that we exported across the world in the days when we bossed a lot of it around, and that has lived on – deservedly – in many of the countries of the world after we left them, like cricket and the jury service. We re-create and reinvent Shakespeare every time we perform him – it – and my Mum, who added a few lines to the canon half a century ago, was just one tiny part of a great army of reinventors.She was just the closest one to me.