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My Mum Wrote Shakespeare

The strange idea that Shakespeare was written by someone else, a notion which only seriously began in Victorian times (and 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 one person who actually added anything to Shakespeare’s own lines, though 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 Council, and Mum, helped to produce LP records of the entirety of Shakespeare’s plays, and the Sonnets too. While working as the organiser and administrator of this labour of love, 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 not only the Actors but also 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 later 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 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.

One of the writers she met while recording poets was a youngish, stick-thin, intense man called John Wain, who she later married. This entailed leaving London for Oxford and leaving the literary world for the less glamorous job of bringing up three sons. But Mum kept 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 although 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,  named Lady Mortimer in the play, woos Edmund with words and looks, and a 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: Shakespearean and royalist equilibrium is restored.The real Owain Glydnwr,too, 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.)

How would the theatre companies have handled the Princess’s lines in Welsh in the original performances of the play? London had its share of Welshmen who had 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 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 they made it all the more Celtic and atmospheric. In fact it just makes it hard to actually hear the words. I can only speak a few phrases of the language myself, and 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 the good things – there were plenty of bad ones – that we exported across the world in the days when the sun hadn’t yet set on all that. Shakespeare’s canon has lived on – deservedly – in many of the countries of the world after we left them, an anachronistic survival, like cricket, or parliamentary democracy. We re-create and reinvent Shakespeare every time we perform him – it – and my Mum, who added a few lines to William Shakespeare’s half a century ago, was just one tiny part of a great army of reinventors. She was just the closest one to me.

 Read the scene in full