01 January 2023
Professor Gerard Carruthers explores the characteristics which bind – and separate – the national bards Robert Burns and William Shakespeare. ...
Professor Gerard Carruthers explores the characteristics which bind – and separate – the national bards Robert Burns and William Shakespeare.
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.
Originally published January 2016. Reviewed January 2023.