‘Two Bards: Burns and Shakespeare’ conference, 16th Jauary 2016

I love a good conference – interesting papers, interesting people, a decent lunch – and this was a good conference. Taking place in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, in conjunction with the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, the audience were treated to a day crammed full of excellent speakers. Here’s my run-down of the day. Check out the @bluedevilism Twitter feed for a more comprehensive coverage.



Delegates were welcomed by Prof Gerry Carruthers, co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies, and Dr David Hopes, Director of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. Both were very enthusiastic about the location for this year’s conference, and the opportunity it offered attendees to immerse themselves in the bard, both in terms of the papers to be presented and the chance to visit the various Burnsian exhibits and sites in Alloway. David also gave us a run-down of the many Burns Night events being hosted by the museum, and Gerry gave a mention to the new MOOC being launched by CRBS on the 25th.


‘Calvinism and the two Bards’ – Dr Adrian Streete

Adrian presented a very interesting paper exploring the Calvinist influences in the works of Shakespeare and Burns, exploring the ways in which both writers appropriated Calvinist doctrine and imagery as a means of commentary on the State, politics, religion and society.

He looked at the fine line Shakespeare had to tread within the ever-changing religious landscape of Elizabethan and Jacobean England as he used Calvinist imagery and references to create character and to comment on the state of the country, politics, society and it’s leaders, and the nature of kingship and authority.

Adrian then moved on to look at some of the ways Burns incorporated Calvinist rhetoric and attitudes into his work, sometime as an expression of his own beliefs, sometimes as a commentary on the beliefs and attitudes of others. It’s something that often appears in his more satirical works, such as ‘The Ordination’ and ‘Holy willie’s Prayer’.

Burns’s religious belief, particularly his engagement with Auld Licht and New Licht doctrines is something which greatly influenced his life and work, and is certainly something you’ll read about in Blue Devilism again.


‘”Whaur’s Yer Willie Shakespeare noo?”: Comparing Commemoration and Celebration of the National Bards – Prof. Michael Russell

Next up, we were treated to a whistle-stop tour of various celebrations through history of the two bards, exploring the different ways and attitudes towards commemoration of these two literary greats.

‘Bard’ is a term that Burns uses to describe himself, and was picked up by his supporters as one of the titles used to memorialise him. I was certainly surprised to learn that is was this use of the term for Burns that led to the labelling of Shakespeare in a similar way, despite Burns being coming later.

Mike explored the almost-constant memorialisation of Burns since his death, with Burns Suppers, festivals and monuments. This demonstrates the ongoing love that people have for Burns and his work, as does the continued reprinting of his poetry and songs, the issuing of stamps and souvenirs, not to mention the growing academic community studying the bard.

But Shakespeare is a different kettle of fish. Burns is as much celebrated as a person as a poet. However, almost nothing is known about Shakespeare’s life in comparison, so celebration of his plays tend to be central to memorial, explaining why there are more Shakespeare festivals. Notably, Shakespearean commemoration has even made it into space, with the moons of Uranus all named for characters from his plays, particularly The Tempest. Prof. Russell still holds out hope for a moon named Tam or Kate one day. I quite fancy Meg, or maybe Poosie Nancie!

Both bards are adored by their enthusiasts, and have been influential in shaping the writing of subsequent authors, poets and playwrights. The ongoing passion for commemorative events suggests no chance of such enthusiasm letting up any time soon, and at the root of it is the writing. Both Burns and Shakespeare capture what it is to be human; we recognise ourselves in their words, and are enriched by that recognition.


‘Burns, Shakespeare and Freemasonry’ – Prof Andrew Prescott

Andrew’s paper today wasn’t about exploring the Freemasons in the lives of Shakespeare and Burns, but exploring Shakespeare and Burns within the organisation – the ways in which Freemasonry has appropriated and established links with both writers through out their history.

There is no direct evidence that Shakespeare was a mason, although some argue there are clues within his plays. In contrast, it is well known that Burns was a free mason. He was inducted in Tarbolton Lodge, and subsequently made a member of several others. After Burns’s death, several further lodges sought to claim some connection with the poet.

The two bards were first connected masonically with the consecration of two new Manchester lodges during the 1864 festival commemorating the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. The founding of these two lodges is indicative of the community identities in Manchester at the time, and the desire for something to mark these out.

Since then, the freemasons have been involved in a wide range of events to commemorate both writers; they have contributed financially to memorials and participated in foundation stone laying ceremonies.

Ultimately, Andrew argues, the freemasonic appropriation of the two bards is an example of the way in which communities use them to project their identity and organisational memory. They want to be seen as part of the historical and cultural tapestry, and part of the definition of what it means to be British, English, Scottish etc.


‘Celebrating Centenaries: Burns in 1859, Shakespeare in 1864’ – John Burnett

Taking us into lunch was John Burnett with the annual Burns Scotland lecture. An experienced writer and journalist, and incredibly knowledgeable Burns enthusiast, John gave us an insight into the similarities and differences between the events held in 1859 to celebrate Burns’s centenary and 1864 to celebrate Shakespeare’s tricentenary.

Interestingly, the celebrations of Shakespeare at this time tended to focus on his work as a poet – 154 sonnets and 5 narrative poems – as Victorian morality considered all things theatrical dissolute and improper. However, there was freedom within the Shakespearean celebrations. Not only were there dinners and public orations and recitals, one tree-planting ceremony turned into a political meeting!

Burns celebrations, in contrast were a little more constrained. Public celebration was still a relatively new phenomenon in Scotland, really only taking off with the Edinburgh visit of George IV in 1822. Celebration of Burns tended to be very controlled, with subscription dinners attended by significant local figures, and with many loyal toasts being made. Speeches were given by those deemed ‘worthy’ rather than by those who were knowledgeable or entertaining (or both!).

However, this wasn’t the case everywhere. Celebrations in Ayrshire, Burns’s own country, included a public procession which involved people of all classes and backgrounds. Auchterarder staged a production of ‘Tam O’Shanter’, complete with horse with detachable tail.

However, relaxed or formal, public or subscription-only, celebrations of the two writers in their respective anniversary years demonstrate the incredible enthusiasm of the public for them, an enthusiasm which is still evident today (although only Burns gets to have his own special day all to himself).


After lunch, we had an informative presentation by Robert L. Stevenson on the history of The Jean Armour Burns Trust, and the wonderful work it does to promote and support projects related to all things Burnsian, and a wonderful musical interlude from Fiona NcNeill of Reely Jiggered, who sang and played a selection of arrangements of songs from both bards. A welcome rest for the brain before the afternoon session.


‘Volkischness from Alloway to Stratford: Shakespeare after Burns’ – Prof Michael Dobson

Michael explored the idea of locating Shakespeare and Burns within the populist movement which focuses on folklore and links with the land and the people, rather than sophisticated society. The idea of the ‘bard’ is tied up in this, someone local who cherishes the folk traditions and superstitions and writes in the local vernacular.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Burnsians seem more comfortable with this than Shakespearean scholars. Shakespeare lived in a confusing time – he was Elizabethan and Jacobean, English and proto-British, his work was written as mass entertainment but was patronised by the privileged classes and was influenced by the European Renaissance – so it’s difficult to pin him down as symbolic of England.

Burns, in contrast, was born into the bardic tradition, wrote of his own people in his own tongue, and explored the very populist ideas of fraternity and equality in his poetry. As early as 1803, both home and abroad, he was held up as an example of what a poet should be – a man of the land and the people.

However, Shakespeare has now come to fill that bardic role. The vernacular voices of minor characters, the everyday issues, the supernatural and the mysterious all appear in his plays and have come to carve him a place within the body of bardic writers.


‘Tam O’Shanter and the Shakespearean Fantastic’ – Dr Rob Maslen

Contrary to the report in The Times, Rob was not claiming Shakespearean origins or English influence for ‘Tam O’Shanter’, widely held as the best of Burns’s work, but was instead looking at the influence of the Bard of Avon on the way in which Burns told his stories.

He noted that Burns was incredibly interested in the theatre, having written prologues for several productions, and read several plays. Rob argued that, had he lived longer, Burns may well have moved into writing for the stage, drawing on the wealth of material from Scottish history, not to mention his own works such as ‘Tam O’Shanter’ and ‘The Jolly Beggars’.

Many parallels can be drawn between the works of Shakespeare and of Burns, from Falstaffian characters and story arcs mirroring those of the Henry plays. In particular is Falstaff’s supernatural adventure from The Merry Wives of Windsor and Tam’s midnight ride from Alloway Kirk. Both bring supernatural fears, the pitfalls of married life and alcohol-induced hallucination together in a moralistic tale warning against too much alcohol and the dangers of mistreating women.

For me, this was a particularly fascinating paper. I’m already aware of some references Burns makes to Hamlet in some of his darker moments, and I think there’s more to explore here.


‘Shakespeare Buried and Burns Dug Up: Posthumous Adventures of Bardic Bodies’ – Prof Nicola Watson

Last, but definitely not least, was Nicola’s exploration of the fascination we have with the mortal remains of writers, and particularly with those of Shakespeare and Burns.

Nicola talked about the particular Victorian fascination with the phrenological examination of Burns  – using the lumps, bumps and measurements of the skull to work out the character, personality and intelligence of the individual in life. His skull had been exhumed, measured and a cast made when the mausoleum was opened to bury Jean Amour in 1834. Nicola argued that that this interest was about attempting to create a link between the poet and his readers as he moved out of living memory, and asked whether the 2013 facial reconstruction by Dundee University was an attempt to create a similar link for a 21st century audience.

In contrast, Shakespeare is equally fascinating because he has never been exhumed. There are clearly concerns around whether his remains are where they should be, if they are even his, and that they are buried in a place fitting for someone of Shakespeare’s standing. There’s also a desire to bring modern science into play with DNA analysis for various conditions and confirmation of identity.

It’s unlikely Shakespeare will ever be exhumed. Similarly, it’s unlikely that Burns’s tomb will ever be opened again. Which only makes it all the more fascinating!


And so, the day drew to a close. There was a small reception and a display of Burns’s own copies of Shakespeare to enjoy while people chatted and sais their goodbyes before heading off into the snow.

I was utterly exhausted by the time I got home, but in the best possible way. I’ve already been making contact with some of the speakers to explore points raised further…there’s the possibility of some interesting side projects relating to the core work of Blue Devilism.

Watch out for information later in the year about the 2017 conference. I definitely recommend the trip, especially if the Birthplace Museum is hosting again. Their scones alone are worth the journey.


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