Shakespeare and Scott: the British Bards

Fashions in accolades change over time.

When he was still the anonymous author of the Waverley Novels, Walter Scott was frequently described as a new William Shakespeare. Nowadays, Scott is more likely to be credited with the invention of the historical novel. To our modern artistic tastes, in which originality is all, the comparison with Britain’s greatest Bard seems simultaneously overblown and less impressive than the invention of a new genre.

I discovered Scott, once so world-famous and now so maligned and little read, while doing my PhD on Regency Edinburgh. His novels are chunky reads, but not nearly as heavy as a Shakespeare play, and once your brain clocks into the gentle pace and Scottish dialect the rewards are great. If you’re thinking of trying one, here’s an article briefly introducing the ones I think are best.

I encountered Shakespeare long before Scott, but with the exception of the obligatory grim educational experiences, almost only his comedies. I’ve always had an impression of swathes of Shakespeare – all the “deep” stuff – of which I knew almost nothing. I resolved almost every year to educate myself at the Edinburgh fringe, but the productions offered danced myopically around the familiar handbags A Midsummer Nights Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth. So this summer, struck with Lupus and hardly able to walk, type or talk, I seized my opportunity and procured the complete BBC Shakespeare on DVD.

I was particularly keen to watch the historical plays, and as a historian, I was interested especially in Shakespeare’s portrayal of history, so I began watching them not in the order Shakespeare wrote them, nor in the order the BBC interpreted them, but in order of historical setting, a scheme on which I am sure literary scholars would pour scorn:

  • Troilus and Cressida 1190 BC
  • King Lear 800B
  • Coriolanus 490 BC
  • Timon of Athens 400 BC
  • Julius Caesar 40 BC
  • Antony and Cleopatra 35 BC
  • Cymbeline 16A
  • Titus Andronicus AD 250–450 A
  • Macbeth 1039AD

(I skipped Hamlet this time having seen it quite recently)

I was struck forcefully and unexpectedly by how much these history plays and historical tragedies reminded me of Walter Scott’s novels. Both writers were spectacularly prolific, populist, and consequently variable, or at least debatable, in quality. This is well known of Walter Scott, although many of his “second rate” novels are in fact great fun and full of excellent material. Given Shakespeare’s demigod status and the patchy information on when and how his plays were written, critics tend to conclude “second rate” plays, such as Cymbeline, must be largely by another hand, although why Shakespeare shouldn’t have off-days as much as Scott I am not sure: they were both professional writers driven by the need to make a living. Anyway personally I agree with Keats that Cymbeline is superb and undeservedly neglected, whatever the cantankerous Dr Johnson might have opined.

Where both these writers were outstanding, and where Scott’s original readers were reminded of Shakespeare, is in the characterisation. The range and depth of humanity populating the imagined worlds of these two white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males would win awards from any diversity committee. It is not only that women, foreigners and the poor play prominent roles. It is that the attributes of humanity – nobility, depravity, altruism, selfishness, wit, obtuseness, compassion, stubbornness, shyness, ambition, deviant sexual passion, strict morality – are distributed throughout humanity evenly. A woman or beggar is as likely to be clever, noble, ambitious or articulate as an aristocratic man. I have not encountered such a broad vision of humanity in any other writers, and it is what gives their work such tremendous richness. This is why Scott is worthily compared to Shakespeare.

Yet to Shakespeare may also be worthily compared to Scott the historical novelist, because their historical visions are essential to this understanding of humanity which underpins their characterisation. While all humans are equal in their moral potential, they have not been historically equal in their role in society. In choosing different historical settings, Shakespeare and Scott were able to characterise individual women, poor people, powerful men, black people, Jews, gypsies or witches, within the constraints under which members of those groups would operate in those societies. This results in rich insights both into the society and into the nature of humanity as it acts under certain social constraints. How, for example, do strong, educated women (Imogen in Cymbeline, or Jeanie in Heart of Midlothian) or innocent ones (Cressida in Troilus and Cressida or Clara in St Ronan’s Well) cope with the tremendous social pressure to remain chaste in a society determined to keep them naive? Clearly neither writer was completely free of the prejudices of their own times and circumstances, but their successful efforts to see through and over those prejudices are more extraordinary than the fact they are constrained by them. Lots of us moderns could learn from this kind of broadminded humility, I think.

The position of women differed little through most of the historical and contemporary societies Shakespeare and Scott examined. Where Scott gained his reputation as the first historical novelist, and where I think Shakespeare achieved the same two centuries earlier, is in the use of real historical research to distinguish one period from another, so characters in behave differently, despite their equal humanity, because of their different historical situations. This is evident in Shakespeare’s classical plays. Troilus and Cressida, set in the Trojan Wars, explores amongst other things the liberating and exploitative consequences of homosexuality being socially acceptable. Timon of Athens explores what happens to a man who runs his life according to the Greek philosophies of Epicureanism and Cynicism. Coriolanus is the tragedy of a shy, proud soldier who is expected to participate in populist republican politics. In Julius Caesar, the Romans are obsessed by excellent rhetoric (useful for a play) and ideas of honour. I studied this play at school, and had forgotten how we laughed at one character after another falling on his sword towards the denoument. The historical drama takes us into another world, where expectations are different, and people act in funny ways, although the humanity is the same.

The final shared quality I found in Scott and Shakespeare’s work, which follows from their characterisation and historical authenticity, is their importance as British bards. By this, I mean that they wrote about both England and Scotland, as inside and outside observers, and in doing so were deeply influential in shaping Britain’s ideas of itself. Again, this is well known of Scott. Writing at the high point of Britain, when the union of Parliament was bringing Scotland economic prosperity through the empire, and Scotland was acknowledged as a great cultural and intellectual influence on England, Scott not only created “tartan” Scotland, but through novels like Ivanhoe and Kenilworth created the idea of “Merry England”. Countless pub signs, films, village fairs, and also serious historical re-enactments and history books have been influenced by his vision of the late mediaeval and Tudor eras.

Re-watching Macbeth, having last encountered it in a GCSE exam paper (B. I hadn’t got literature yet), I realised Shakespeare had done the same. Macbeth was written about the time of the accession of James VI and I, the union of crowns, the very beginning of modern Britain. The appearance of a Scottish king on the English throne must have been of tremendous interest to the English public, and Macbeth is a hardly sympathetic but very well researched attempt to provide that public with an idea of what Scotland and Scottish kingship was about. Regarding the latter, the Stuart dynasty of James was obsessed by the idea of a line of kings, a prominent feature of contemporary Scottish histories which Shakespeare incorporated into Macbeth’s visions.

Regarding the idea of Scotland generally (I boldly propose), Shakespeare’s Macbeth gathered most of the key elements of “Scottish Gothic” which are regarded as one of the most exciting elements of indigenous Scotland’s literary heritage from the eighteenth century until today.

Before 1600, Scottish Gothic was not “a thing”. That was the era of the Scottish Renaissance: enlightened, humanist poetry in a European mindworld. The Scottish Renaissance writers like William Dunbar, Robert Henryson and Gavin Douglas are amongst my favourites, and their beautiful poetry is sadly forgotten, partly because the modern Scot has difficulty understanding their dialect: even the strongest modern Scots is gae anglicised, aye do ye ken by the way, and it’s no been used as a literary language. This was true even by the time of Burns: it had a lot to do with a convenient English translation of the Bible being available for Scots reformers to use, so they never made their own, meaning the nation’s defining sacred text from 1560 was in English.

Those pre-Shakespearean Scottish poems were distinctly lacking in gloom, witches, thistles or revenge: they preferred classical themes. Here, for example, is Gavin Douglas describing a June twilight in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid:

The licht begouth to quenschyng out and fall,The day to dirken, decline and devall;The gummis rise, doun fallis the donk rime;Baith here and there skuggis and shadows dim,Up goes the bak with her peelit leddren flicht,The larkis descendis from the skyis hicht,Singand her compline sang efter her guise,To tak her rest, at matin hour to rise:Out owre the swyre swimmis the soppis of mist,The nicht furth spread her cloak with sable lyst;That all the beauty of the fructous fieldWas with the earthis umbrage clean owerheild:Baith man and beast, firth, flood and woodis wildInvolvit in the shadows war inslyde…All creature where so them likis bestBownis to tak the halesome nichtis rest.

Despite three words for mist (gummis and donk rime should definitely get back into the vocabulary), several types of shadowy darkness, and a leathery bat (“bak”), the creatures in the fertile fields settling down for the night hardly present a spooky scene, especially as a few lines later the “merry nichtingale” launches into “mirthful nottis” all night.

But Macbeth has it all: witches hubble-bubbling on blasted heaths every second scene, ghosts, daggers, ramparts, wars with even more godforsaken outposts like Norway, and occasional escapes to the civilised refuge of England (cue greensward and sunlight). It’s hardly surprising in such a dive that the characters all go mad and murder each other.

Yet, seemingly, the Scots lapped it up. I would not like to say how far Shakespeare was responsible for any of the witchhunts of the seventeenth century. But surely the Scottish Gothic literary tradition was influenced by Macbeth. Compare Macbeth’s witches, “Tho his bark cannot be lost, yet it shall be tempest tossed”, with Robert Burns’ Nannie in Tam o Shanter, who “perished many a bonnie boat”; Shakespeare’s “finger of birth strangled babe” with Burns’ “twa span lang, wee unchristened bairns”. Scottish commentators, again giving too much airtime to the opinions of Dr Johnson, tend to speak as if everyone perceived the Scottish landscape as depressing and drab until Scottish Romantics like Walter Scott reimagined it in terms of sparkling heathery richness. Yet the blasted heaths of Macbeth are far from drab and barren: they are sublime, with their dramatic lightning and marching forests, and rich in biodiversity (“magot-pies and choughs and rooks” were my favourite) all steeped in sublime meaning and power and open to manipulation. Macbeth is determined to hear that which is full till his future whatever the consequences for sailing ships or cornfields: “though the treasure of nature’s germens tumble all together”.

I have only read a little on the origins of Scottish Gothic literature, but my impression is that the consensus is it was an indigenous phenomenon which emerged in response to the twin intellectual pressures of strict presbyterianism and rapid enlightenment. The external literary influence, German romanticism, did not appear until Walter Scott and his friends discovered it in the early nineteenth century. Yet Shakespeare was tremendously popular in Scotland, and Macbeth was surely read by Scots with literary pretensions throughout the eighteenth century. It seems extremely likely to me that just as Scott created Merry England, so Shakespeare created Scottish Gothic.

Shakespearean scholars don’t like to be told that he had off-days, or a competitor. Walter Scott scholars don’t like to be told that someone else invented the historical novel first. The guardians of Scottish literature don’t like to be told that Scotland’s image of itself was invented by an English writer, just as England’s later was by a Scot. Yet this is what my forays into Scott and Shakespeare suggested to me. This is not in any way to diminish the achievements of either. I still believe their characterisation is second to none, and intrinsically linked to their sense of humanity and history: they achieve what I as a historian aspire to. Their use of language is masterful, and should be studied by anyone aspiring to be a writer, richly repaying the initial difficulty of understanding archaic or Scottish dialect. Their trick of inserting their best humour at moments of most poignant tragedy – like the chap who brings Cleopatra the serpent (“the worm’s an odd worm”) In Anthony and Cleopatra, or the two coaches-and-six racing towards the castle in The Bride of Lammermoor – is one which charms me to pieces. They probably deserve their reputations as Britain’s greatest writers.

I believe their influence on British identity was firstly, enormous; and secondly, has been poorly and partially understood. Scott and Shakespeare were, I think, the Bards who taught us, in the words of the rather different bard Robert Burns, “tae see ourselves as others see us”. I wish in our nationalist age our literary commentators would have the generosity to acknowledge the fact. Perhaps reading more Shakespeare and Scott would give them the broadened minds required to do so.