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Shakespeare’s Road Trip in Wales August 11, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

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Where did Shakespeare get his fairy lore from for Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Merry Wives of Windsor? The answer is obviously the countryside of Warwickshire where he grew up. Indeed, some Shakespearean scholars have dredged through fairy references in the canon and have tied these into nineteenth-century references from the region. However, there is a minority opinion that must be cited, namely that Shakespeare met the fairies in Wales! The following appears in a nineteenth-century letter from Thomas Campbell, the biographer of the actress Sarah Siddons (obit 1831).

‘I shall now resume the life of Mrs. Siddons, and shortly begin to print, so as to have it out for certainty in October. I am not sorry for the delay. It is no later than yesterday that I discovered a probability – almost near a certainty — that Shakespeare visited friends in the very town (Brecon in Wales) where Mrs. Siddons was born, and that he there found in a neighboring glen, called ‘The Valley of Fairy Puck’, the principal machinery of his ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

This snatch comes as quite a surprise. What was the evidence that Campbell stumbled upon and are we really to suppose that the evidence of a seventeenth-century trip had survived in the nineteenth-century town? ‘Oh yes, my old dad told me about that one: he had a beard I think?’

When the book came out Campbell returned to his theme and this time had evidence to back it up.

Brecon has also furnished a character for the drama of Shakespeare, namely, that of Sir Hugh Evans, that ‘remnant of Welsh flannel’ in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’. He was curate of the priory of Brecon in the days of Queen Elizabeth. He died in 1581, and by a will, which is still among the records of Brecon, left a library which must have been at that time thought considerable, and which bespeaks him to have been a man of reading. In the same will, he bequeaths his swash-buckler to one of his friends, and appoints Richard Price, Esq. to be overseer of his testament. The last-named gentleman was the son of Sir John Price, of the Priory, a great patron of Sir Hugh Evans.

So far everything is in order, but now watch as this theory drives Thelma-and-Louise style off the edge of the canyon.

The younger Price, Evans was presented, in 1572, to the living of Merthyr Cynog, and was doubtless introduced also to Shakespeare. At least so says my learned Cambrian friend who adds, that this Richard Price was a favourite at the court of Elizabeth; and, on the authority of the family records, is stated to have held a correspondence with Shakespeare. It is so delightful to identify anything appertaining to the poet of poets with the birth-place of our heroine [an actress], that I am fain to indulge a pleasing belief in the probability of what my correspondent says further. He states ‘that, from the intimacy which subsisted betwixt Shakespeare and the Prices of the Priory, an idea prevails that he frequently visited them at their residence in Brecon, and that he not only availed himself of the whimsicalities of old Sir Hugh, but that he was indebted to this part of the kingdom for much of the machinery of Midsummer Night’s Dream. This idea is confirmed by the similarity which the frolics of Puck and his companions bear to the goblins and fairies of this portion of the Principality ; there being in Breconshire a valley which bears his name, Cwm Pwica. Here this merry sprite is said still to practise his gambols with all the energies of the sixteenth century; and certainly, if beautiful scenery have any influence in localizing these beings, they could find few better places than the deep romantic glen of the Clydach.

In conclusion then the only bit of evidence that matters here is that the Price family records show that Shakespeare wrote to them: though no actual reference is given to the nature of the evidence. From there we learn that there is a Puck Valley (Cwm Pwica) though it must be remembered that Puck and Pwca are recalled through Wales and the borders all the way down to Warwickshire.

In any case, from another source we learn that ‘in the sylvan days before Frere and Powell’s ironworks were set up there’ – don’t you hate it when that happens –  [Cwm Pwicca] is said to have been as full of goblins as a Methodist’s head is full of piety.’ And may it be again!

A later writer weighs up the evidence

The theory of Shakespeare’s supposed connection with Brecon seems to have originated with the Breconshire county historian, Theophilus Jones, who was influenced by the fact that one Hugh Evans, who was Rector of Merthyr Cynog in Breconshire, and whose executor was Mr. Richard Price of the Priory, Brecon, bore the same name as the schoolmaster-parson in the Merry Wives of Windsor  ‘Carnhuanawc’ (the Rev. Thomas Price), author of Hanes Cymry, was much with Theophilus Jones in his youth, and communicated this idea to Thomas Campbell, who had some correspondence with the Rev. Thomas Price when writing his Life of Mrs. Siddons.

If anyone can supply the Price family correspondence with Shakespeare though, we’ll rethink everything: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com