11/01/2016
Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Robert Burns and William Shakespeare - similarities and differences

9803d18c-2164-4a56-90d2-b6b714e82330

Professor Gerard Carruthers explores the characteristics which bind – and separate – the national bards Robert Burns and William Shakespeare. For more on Robert Burns, see the dedicated section of our website.

William Shakespeare and Robert Burns each occupy a somewhat odd status as ‘national bards’. Shakespeare was in many ways an outsider in his own day, frowned upon by one powerful, hostile contemporary as the ‘upstart crow’ and perhaps even harbouring a secret Catholic identity.

Similarly, Burns brought to Ayrshire a Scots poetry mode more associated with Edinburgh, the north east of Scotland and even Jacobitism. Shortly after his death one of his many outspoken adversaries lamented the ‘Burnomania’ that had accompanied the poet’s success. Shakespeare and Burns, then, are awkwardly-fitting, deemed unhealthy presences in their own lifetimes, and yet become solid pillars of English, Scottish and – in the case of both – British identity in the centuries that follow.

Part of the story for the successful ‘afterlives’ of both writers is that these are borne on imperial reach. During the nineteenth century Shakespeare becomes foundational, for instance, in the Indian educational system. The posthumous Burns also travels far and wide via the satchels of expatriate Scots and into many Caledonian societies in North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. However, this is not the whole story as each becomes a ‘World Writer’ in less ‘British’ fashion. Nelson Mandela treasured his copy of Shakespeare while incarcerated on Robben Island.   

Burns became a darling of the Soviet Union and indeed to some extent in the radical circles of the Indian sub-continent. Perhaps it is a case of the remarkable linguistic ability of both writers that has led to the situation that they have become so useable for both establishment and dissenting politics. 

Similarities and differences

Thematically, there are commonalties in the writings of the two ‘bards’: each write against puritanism and politically extremism, and both have a remarkable sympathy for reaching out to and ventriloquizing  marginalised identities. Shakespeare and Burns both know that there is more than one way of being British, of being human.

Burns, like so many writers, returned time and again to Shakespeare, being inspired by King Lear, for instance, in his meditative poem ‘A Winter Night’ and he refers dozens of times in his correspondence to the English writer, drawing upon sixteen of his plays.

Professor Gerard Caruthers is Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.


 

Back to "Burns Night" Category

11/01/2016 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

Glasgow Queen Street Station opened - On this day in history

Glasgow's Queen Street Station was officially opened on 18 February 1842.


Covenanter James Renwick was executed - On this day in history

Scottish Minister James Renwick was executed on 17 February 1688 for refusing to swear fealty to King James ...


On this day in history - Government forces attempted to capture Prince Charles Edward Stuart

Government forces, under the leadership of Lord Louden, failed in their attempt to capture Charles Edward ...


The Caledonian Railway Company opened - On this day in history

The Caledonian Railway Company opened on 15 February 1848, running trains between Glasgow and London.


Other Articles

'Significant milestone' as full survey results of German Fleet salvage sites archaeology project published online

The extent and composition of the salvage site of the German High Seas Fleet, that was scuttled almost a ...


Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for the telephone - On this day in history

Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for the telephone on 14 February 1876.


The Glencoe Massacre took place - On this day in Scottish history

The Glencoe Massacre took place on 13 February 1692.


Reverend Henry Duncan died - On this day in history

Reverend Henry Duncan, founder of one of the world's first commercial savings banks, died on 12 February ...