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Shakespeare, Henry IV, Welshness


This essay explores the ways Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV deploys Welshness as a counterforce to English national stability. I argue that the critical habit of equating the genre of romance with untruthfulness or silliness does not pay close enough attention to what Shakespeare does in his history plays. The Hal he gives us, whose youth and military training in Wales he suppresses, is, generically, a romance character. But, instead of a knight in his father’s service (where his adventures would be securely in the service of the realm), or knight errant, he is an errant haunter of bad company, an adventurer (Robin Hood-like). The characterization of Owen Glendower—already Anglicized in one sense in the tri-syllabic pronunciation of the di-syllabic Welsh Glyndwr—is in a number of similar ways made to signify Welshness through a series of romantic tropes. Among these are magic, prophecy, and witchcraft, perhaps most clearly represented in 3.1, where Glendower’s tendency toward historical and artistic copiousness annoys a practically minded, martial Hotspur. Here genres collide: the romance of the margin contends with the epic desire of the center.