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William Shakespeare and Robert Burns: “Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?"

Today Scots, like myself, home and afar will be celebrating Burns’ Night - enjoying poetry and song and fine Scottish cuisine.

Amy Hurst
Fictitious portrait of Robert Burns by John Burnet, after Sir William Allan - line engraving, circa 1838 - NPG D32438  © National Portrait Gallery, London
Fictitious portrait of Robert Burns by John Burnet, after Sir William Allan - line engraving, circa 1838 - NPG D32438 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Robert Burns (25 Jan 1759-21 Jul 1796) is widely regarded as the national bard of Scotland. He was a gifted poet and lyricist from relatively humble origins. Often called the ‘ploughman poet’ he was intent on exploring the human condition through joyful use of (Scottish) English and Scots language. His works speak to the heart and still resonate with audiences in Scotland and across the world.  On such a night, one might be tempted to exclaim, “Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?” (Trans. “Where is your William Shakespeare now?”). This was the response of an excited Scottish audience member after a performance of a new play in mid 18th century Edinburgh. [1] As an archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, it’s also a pertinent question. Where is “Wullie” on Burns’s Night?

The audience member’s outburst is actually quite revealing. It tells us that in mid-18th century Scotland Shakespeare had become short-hand for the pinnacle of literary excellence. It is therefore not surprising to find that Robert Burns was a great admirer of William Shakespeare. Burns’ personal correspondence (1787-1789) contains frequent quotations of Shakespeare’s works, including Lear, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. [2] In England over the 18th century we see Shakespeare becoming increasingly exalted with the first significant celebrations in his name taking place in 1769 in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, so it’s interesting to see his influence further afield. From the Scottish perspective, the later 18th century saw an intense blossoming of intellectual achievements in the Scottish Enlightenment, which explains the audience member’s hope and confidence that a Scottish poet might rival Shakespeare.  However, should we view Burns as a challenge to Shakespeare?

As you may have already picked up on, the two great bards have a number of things in common. They were both from relatively humble backgrounds, but with access to learning. They were influenced by and became leading lights in uniquely creative moments in history, the English Renaissance and the Scottish Enlightenment. They had great success in their day, but attracted criticisms of being provincial and populist and were viewed as humble outsiders by the establishments of the day- the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ and the ‘upstart crow’.   However, their literary works rise above these labels through their rich use of language, which is inventive and agile - benefiting from the influence of their ‘provincial  tongues’ – and they still have the power to excite and move audiences today.

Possibly then the answer to the question “Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeae noo?” is “he's behind you!” I think in recognising the importance of Shakespeare to Burns – both in terms of literary influence, and in perhaps defining the role of national bard itself, it makes a fallacy of any affected rivalry. I’d invite you to enjoy both national bards without contention, and I’ll leave you with a Robert Burns poem inspired by William Shakespeare’s King Lear. [3]

It’s also suitable reading for anyone stepping out into the chilly night to celebrate Burns’ Night this evening.

Amy Hurst, Collections Archivist


King Lear, William Shakespeare (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 28-33)

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm!
How shall your houseless heads, and unfed sides,
Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?

 

A Winter Night, Robert Burns

When biting Boreas, fell and doure, 
Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r; 
When Phoebus gies a short-liv'd glow'r, 
         Far south the lift, 
Dim-dark'ning thro' the flaky show'r, 
         Or whirling drift: 

Ae night the storm the steeples rocked, 
Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked, 
While burns, wi' snawy wreeths upchoked, 
         Wild-eddying swirl, 
Or thro' the mining outlet bocked, 
         Down headlong hurl.  

List'ning, the doors an' winnocks rattle, 
I thought me on the ourie cattle, 
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle 
         O' winter war, 
And thro' the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle, 
         Beneath a scar.  

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing! 
That, in the merry months o' spring, 
Delighted me to hear thee sing, 
         What comes o' thee? 
Whare wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing 
         An' close thy e'e? 

Ev'n you on murd'ring errands toil'd, 
Lone from your savage homes exil'd, 
The blood-stain'd roost, and sheep-cote spoil'd 
         My heart forgets, 
While pityless the tempest wild 
         Sore on you beats. [4]

 


[1] The play was John Home’s Douglas. McClure, J. Derrick, Scots for Shakespeare, in Shakespeare and Scotland, edited by Willey Maley and Andrew Murphy, p218.

[2] The letters can be found online: https://burnsletters.wordpress.com/ <accessed 25/01/2017>

 [3] The Canongate Burns - the complete poems and songs of Robert Burns, edited by Andrew Noble and Patrick Stewart Hogg, p13.

[4] The poem text and a partial translation can be found here: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/html/1807/4350/poem340.html <accessed 25/01/2017>