Cultural Divides

The rejection of other culture’s the English had at this time period is touched upon in every play we have read thus far, and Henry IV is no different. In Act 3, Hotspur and Glyndwr are finally introduced to one another. The Welsh rebel leader, Glyndwr, is more than just a man. Besides being an important character in the play, as well as in history, he also plays an iconic role in Welsh culture; Glyndwr is a symbol of nationalism for the Welsh people. The Welsh certainly had a distinct and unique culture. Their religion consisted of many pagan rituals regarded as barbaric or evil by many Englishmen at this time. Glyndwr proclaims repeatedly that he is capable of summoning the dead and that he has some kind of supernatural powers: “These signs have marked me extraordinary,/And all the courses o f my life do show/I am not in the roll of common men” (3.1.39-40). This certainly would have been viewed as strange and sacrilegious to many Christian Englishmen at this time; many of the English felt that the Welsh were merely barbaric heathens. Hotspur, personifying this belief, immediately disregards all of Glyndwr’s behavior, mockingly stating, “I think there’s no man speaketh better Welsh.”(3.1.48) Hotspur’s tone of Glyndwr perfectly embodies the feelings the English had towards the Welsh of that time. Despite often being regarded as heathens by the English, the Welsh were actually quite the opposite. In the Middle Ages, many Welsh writers emerged as prolific poets, musicians and bards. There were also systems of government, religion, and education comparable to the systems of the English at this time. Mortimer, although portrayed as merely being under the spell of love, tries to speak to Hotspur of his ignorance towards Glyndwr: “In faith, he is a worth gentleman,/Exceedingly well read, and profited/In strange concealments, valiant as a lion.” (3.1.162-163). This quote is commenting on the fact that despite the two cultures having some obvious differences, that this foreign culture has created an intelligent, well read, wealthy man. Shakespeare is surely saying that this rich Welsh culture surely has created other intelligent men as well.
Shakespeare further comments on the divide between Welsh and English culture by making Mortimer and his wife unable to communicate with one another. “This is the deadly spite that angers me:/My wife can speak no English, I no Welsh.” (3.1.188-189). This is an obvious commentary on the distance between these two cultures. Furthermore, it is important that these two characters are married; implying the possibility that these two cultures possess to overcome their differences and begin to communicate with one another effectively, much like in a marriage.  Shakespeare further comments on the power of empathy and the universality of human emotion in order to demonstrate this point in the following quote made by Mortimer to his wife: “I understand thy kisses, and thou mine,/And that’s a feeling disputation;/But I will never be a truant, love/Till I have learnt thy language.”(3.1.200-204).This is commenting on the power of love and the necessity for these two cultures to embrace each other’s different lifestyles or “languages” in order to achieve peace. Clearly Shakespeare saw the differences, divides, and the need for unification between these two cultures. 

2 thoughts on “Cultural Divides

  1. molly

    The final comment you make on Mortimer and Lady Mortimer's love being able to create potential unification of English and Welsh culture is appealing. But from what I can tell, part of the quote you use might contradict your optimistic reading: "But I will never be a truant, love/Till I have learnt thy language." I think he is saying that he will not stray from her until he learns her language and gets to know her. Meaning, he prefers keeping her, and her culture, at a distance.

  2. Celina Strater

    I wasn't aware of how disparate the Welsh were from the English until reading this play, as illuminated in your blog. It’s interesting how easily caricaturized the “other” is in the realm of the British egocentricity, juxtaposing English sensibility with the bestial sacrilegious nature of Wales. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Mortimer’s wife embodied this “otherness” in her silence and inability to communicate with Mortimer. In comparison to other women in Shakespeare’s literature, she is a vacuum—a female entity with an unspoken void. The only use of her voice was to lull the men to sleep, enchanting them to loose their masculine/militant agency. This representation of Wales, more so the “other” woman, bothered me in its iconicized limitations as much as it interested me in Shakespeare’s world that set such standards.


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