12 September 2014

"Stands Scotland where it did?" - On Shakespeare & Scotland

Reprinted from Focus Magazine, September 2014

“Stands Scotland where it did?”

On a summer’s day that might be best described as both ‘foul’ and ‘fair’, I found myself in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, under the watchful eye of William Shakespeare. Not literally, of course. His image, in alabaster, holds pride of place upon a fine marble plinth, and oversees the comings and goings of this magnificent place. (A bibliophile’s heaven on earth.) Shakespeare’s slightly quizzical gaze is bent towards a rather dimly lit chamber holding a few of the Library’s most treasured artefacts.

One such rarity is a copy of the “Articles of Union”. The delicate, vellum manuscript, signed and sealed on 22nd July 1706, ratified a united Anglo-Scottish parliament. It appears that the English and Scottish Commissioners who signed the document used two distinct batches of sealing wax. The message of the document, textually and contextually, is quite clear: the two nations are separate, but equal, and fundamentally better off together, than apart.

Of course, the first act of union took place a century earlier, with the accession of King James VI and I in 1603. James’s arrival in London, along with the stream of Scotsmen and women who followed him, heralded a time of great change in the capital and the nation. Unsurprisingly, this major shift in the political landscape elicited a fair amount of hostility, with a few daring wits of the day expressing their disapproval by openly satirizing the new King, his court, and countrymen on the page and the stage. Shakespeare, rather wisely, saw things differently – or, more opportunistically, at any rate. Shakespeare embraced the new regimen, and the new regimen embraced him, with quite dramatic results. (Pun intended.)

Shortly after James’s accession, Shakespeare’s company were granted a performance license and styled “The King’s Men”. 

Macbeth, Shakespeare’s dark, powerful and popular “Scottish play” – almost certainly written at the King’s request – is nothing less than a tribute to his new king and patron. James was a real theatre lover, with a taste for Scottish history, magic, witches and demonology.

There is an elusive bit of folklore that suggests that Shakespeare became acquainted with Scotland – and its sovereign – during a successful tour North with his theatre company. There may be some truth in this - who knows? One wonders: does his famous quote, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (Macbeth, 1.3.38), imply an intimate knowledge of Scotland’s climate and variable weather – dismal, down-pouring days giving way to the fairest, most pleasant and balmy of nights, meriting the phrase “a Scottish evening”?

I had opportunity to sit and ponder such thoughts on a recent coastal holiday at Monreith, in Dumfries and Galloway, as I sat by the sea – amid sudden squalls and spectacular sunshine, watching the weather rolling in from Northern Ireland, with the Isle of Man just visible on the horizon and wrapped in a blanket of mist. In moments such as these, one has a palpable and deeply moving sense of Britain being Britain – large, rich and diverse. 

Long may it remain so.

1 comment:

Jeffrey Kahan said...

You write beautifully! J.