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Mae'r Arglwyddes yn siarad yn Cymraeg: Lady Mortimer and Welsh in 1 Henry IV

For St. David’s Day, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust would like to commemorate one of Shakespeare’s most underrated characters: the Welshwoman Lady Mortimer.

Kelsey Ridge
Group photo Henry IV, part one, 1975
Henry IV, part one (1975) The Thomas F and Mig Holte Photographic Collection. Image courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Catrin ferch Glendower is the daughter of the noted Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr (styled in Shakespeare’s 1Henry IV as Owen Glendower), who Holinshed’s Chronicles states could control the weather and summon storms.  She married Roger Mortimer, an English noble her father had taken prisoner, and in Shakespeare is generally referred to as the Lady and called by critics Lady Mortimer.

Technically, in Shakespeare’s text, she has no scripted lines.  Lady Mortimer is a stage direction: the Lady speaks in Welsh.  Her Welsh is translated into English by Glendower.  Unlike Thomas Middleton in A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Shakespeare did not script his own Welsh.  Megan Lloyd hypothesizes that Shakespeare had a Welsh-speaking boy in his acting company; perhaps he intended the boy to do his own translations of the described texts.

Audiences could be excused for forgetting her, because she has often been removed from productions.  Thomas Betterton’s 1680s edition cut of 3.1 (Bevington 71).  John Bell’s 1774 edition excised 3.1 as a “strange unmeaning, wild scene” (43).  In 1808, Kemble cut 3.1 entirely.  Not until a 1864 revival at the Drury Lane theatre did the audience, for the first time since before Betterton, hear Lady Mortimer’s Welsh song and all of 3.1 (Bevington 76).  Despite this return, she has not remained unscathed since.  Phyllida Lloyd’s 2014 Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse removed Lady Mortimer entirely.  Graham Abbey’s 2016 Breadth of Kings: Rebellion adaptation, which combined Richard II and 1 Henry IV, completely removed 3.1, where the characters discuss how to rise to rebellion.

Group photo Welsh translations
A selection of Welsh translations held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library.

This excision may have several causes.  As she appears in only one half of one scene, cutting her proves easier to do than cutting a character in multiple scenes.   Graham Abbey likely thought removing 3.1 would save time, important in an adaptation mushing together two full plays; however, considering he largely kept 2.4, perhaps he did not well-enough consider the thematic import of 3.1, as opposed to Falstaff’s taverning, when making his cuts.  Others may simply decide the scene is unimportant.   Even late 19th-century reviewer William Archer, who argued that “it was [the actors’] business to interpret the eloquence of Shakespeare’s words, not to omit as many of them as they dared and trust to the eloquence of their own pauses” (143-4), when discussing Beerbohm Tree’s 1896 production, freely argued that 3.1 should only be retained if “doing so does not involve the sacrifice of some more vital scene or passage” and that, though he was happier to have it stay, he was “content to see it dropped, because it is clearly an inessential interlude, designed to afford an opportunity for the singing boy-comedian who played Lady Mortimer” (Archer 103).  She is, though, more than that.  Productions may erase her simply to avoid the difficulty of acquiring a Welsh-speaking actor or teaching an actor to speak Welsh.

Hamlet in Welsh 1864
Hamlet in Welsh (Image Courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company)

The archives of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) stored at the SBT do not expressly address how they handled the Welsh in productions that preserved Catrin alongside her father and husband.  Perhaps these performers already spoke Welsh.  They could have simply memorized their pre-translated texts.  The promptbook for the 1951 production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre attributes (with a curious question mark) their Welsh translations to the Welsh actor Hugh Emrys Griffith, who played Glendower in that production.  Their Lady Mortimer was played by Welsh actress Sybil Williams.  The same Welsh translation was later used in the promptbook for the 1964 production in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in which Hugh Griffith played Falstaff and Lady Mortimer was played by the English Katherine Barker.  At the same time, another attribution suggests that a Rev Fred Lewis supplied their Welsh song, though the promptbook places a question mark next to the year of composition.   A shortened version Griffith’s translation was also employed in the promptbook for the 1966 production in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as was the Lewis song, complete with question marks. In those performances, Lady Mortimer was variously played by the English actresses Estelle Kohler and Angela Down.  In 1975, the RSC continued to use the Griffith translation in their promptbook.  That Lady Mortimer was played by Yvonne Nicholson.  Of course, the RSC does not always use that translation.  The promptbook of the 2014 production in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in which Lady Mortimer was played by Welsh actress Nia Gwynne, used a different Welsh text.  From such records, it can be hard to determine the process by which this Welsh dialogue was generated or remembered, but it is present.

In 1413, Catrin ferch Glendower died, in 1415, Glyndwr disappeared into the hills, and in 1536 the Welsh-born Tudors passed an Act of Union that brought Wales into England but banned monoglot Welsh from holding public office.  In the 1960s-1980s, groups organized acts of civil disobedience to preserve the Welsh language, and in the hometown of England’s greatest poet, Welsh was spoken onstage by Lady Mortimer and Owen Glendower.  It took until the 1990s, but Welsh has finally resumed its proper place as a language legally on the same footing as English.  It has not always been easy.  Nevertheless, they persisted.  Mae'r Arglwyddes yn siarad yn Cymraeg.

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