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Robert Burns Lives!
The Twa Bards: Robert Burns and William Shakespeare by Patrick Scott

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

I have met several men in my lifetime that I hold in deepest respect and, ironically, many of them are in academic affairs and are much more than gentlemanly scholars. Their work is not a burden to them or their families, and it is a joy to be in their midst whether it be at club meetings, conferences or social gatherings. One of those special persons is Professor Patrick Scott who recently retired from the University of South Carolina and who has written many articles for magazines, journals and books throughout his career. Patrick may be retired but he is still working, cranking out articles for various publications, books and quarterly reviews. He has been a staunch supporter of the Robert Burns Lives! website from inception many years ago. Again, it is an honor to welcome Patrick to the pages of our humble site! (FRS: 8.17.16)

By Patrick Scott

April 23, 2016, marked the four-hundredth anniversary of the Other Bard, William Shakespeare. In the early and mid-19th century, comparisons between Burns and Shakespeare were fairly common. Both were authors with worldwide significance, both seemed to transcend narrow particularities of time or ideology, and both produced many memorable lines that have passed into common speech. As Walter Scott once commented in his journal, “Long life to your fame and peace to your soul, Robert Burns! When I want to express a sentiment which I feel strongly, I find the phrase in Shakespeare—or thee” (Low, p. 260). This year, at the Birthplace Museum, the annual January Burns conference associated with Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies marked the Shakespeare anniversary by discussing the Two Bards, the first academic conference ever to do so, and in April, when our library was mounting a major Shakespeare exhibition, we therefore included a case on Burns illustrating their literary relationship.  The Shakespeare exhibition included a borrowed copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio (under armed guard); it is worth noting that the Burns Kilmarnock is three times rarer than the Shakespeare folio.

The iconic status of Shakespeare and Burns as National Bards can be summed up by their best-known portraits. Droeshout’s frontispiece portrait of Shakespeare, in the first Folio, and the Nasmyth/Beugo frontispiece portrait of Burns, in the Edinburgh edition, are both instantly recognizable in a way matched by the portraits of no other British writer.

For both poets, also, their reputation as national figures has been closely related to the parallel development of the two birthplaces, Stratford-on-Avon and Alloway, as places of literary pilgrimage, helped by the nineteenth-century spread of the railway network.

Image courtesy of the G. Ross Roy Collection,
University of South Carolina Libraries.

This development even encouraged the production of similar souvenirs for the visitors, like the two Mauchline Ware boxes shown above. Mauchline Ware souvenirs were first produced in Mauchline, Ayrshire, for Burns, before diversifying to mementoes of many other places, including Scott’s Abbotsford and Shakespeare’s Stratford (Trachtenberg and Keith, pp. 26-31, 130-140: James Mackay, pp. 140-145; Pauline Mackay). The Burns Mauchline Ware box on the left was a gift to the Roy Collection by Thomas Keith, and an elderly neighbor gave me the Shakespeare box on the rght in the early 1950s.

As Donald Low’s invaluable Critical Heritage volume shows, the comparison between the two poets dates back to Burns’s first appearance in “guid black prent.” Reviewing the Kilmarnock edition in 1786, Henry Mackenzie saw in Burns “that intuitive glance with which … Shakespeare discerns the characters of men” (Low p. 69), and James Anderson commented that Burns’s poetry “charms like the bewitching though irregular touches of a Shakespeare” (Low, p. 72). William Pitt, the Prime Minister, remarked to a cabinet colleague “I can think of no verse since Shakespeare’s which came so sweetly and at once from nature” (Low, p. 410). Byron applied to Burns a phrase from Thomas Campbell’s Pleasures of Hope about the patriot-poets who “rival all but Shakespeare’s name below” (Low, p. 326). Murray Pittock’s essay on Burns’s reputation includes several such comparisons by major writers or critics.

There have always been dissenters, or at least critics who felt the comparison might appear asymmetric. Notoriously, at the first Edinburgh performance of John Home’s play Douglas (1756), a triumphant Scot had drawn lasting ridicule by shouting out from the pit “Whaur’s your Wullie Shakespeare noo!” (or perhaps “Weel lads, what think you of Wullie Shakespeare now?”). No one wants to risk that kind of ridicule. The English critic William Hazlitt wrote that Burns showed “something of the same magnanimity, directness and unaffected character,” but that he “is not like Shakespeare in the range of his genius” (Low, p. 297). Campbell himself disclaimed “any comparison between the genius of the two bards” (Low, p. 323). Allan Cunningham’s dissent took a different tack, rooted in national pride. Cunningham wrote that “in ease, fire and passion” Burns was “second to none save Shakespeare,” but he was anxious to show Burns as a “thorough Scotchman” who “owes nothing … of the materials of his poetry to other lands.” Burns read Shakespeare, Cunningham noted, “yet there is nothing of … Shakespeare about him” (Low, pp. 413, 411).

By the twentieth century fewer and fewer critics risked such comparisons at all. As Pittock notes, in 1936 the American Burns scholar F. B. Snyder observed that “No-one today links [Burns’s] name to Shakespeare as eulogists were inclined to do not long ago” (qtd. in Pittock, p. 34). Nonetheless I was surprised by the sparseness of modern scholarly discussion. There was no essay about Shakespeare in the recent collection Burns and Other Poets, and no entry about Shakespeare in the Burns Encyclopaedia (which has entries for Beattie, Shenstone, and Young, though none for Milton). In the 120 plus years of the Burns Chronicle, I could find only one, very old, article with Burns and Shakespeare in the title, about their portraits, and that turned out only to print the part of the article about Burns (Keith, 1915). A search for “Burns” and “Shakespeare” through eighty years of the standard database listing literary scholarship yielded just two items, by Robert Crawford and Nicola Watson. Both focus on a single aspect of the comparison, the institutionalization of the Two Bards as national icons or symbols: Robert Crawford’s essay argues that Burns’s self-identification and rapid recognition as Scotia’s Bard set the pattern on which Shakespeare too could be shaped as Bard rather than playwright, and Nicola Watson makes a similar argument about the recreation of the two poets’ birthplaces as places of pilgrimage. Comment within books or essays on more general topics is harder to track down, but two critics seem to me particularly astute, Christopher Ricks in his book about literary allusion, and Carol McGuirk in her essay on the aphoristic Burns. But the only recent overview of the topic I have found (and which I warmly recommend) is a short, lively newspaper article this past January in the Independent by Gerard Carruthers.

There is abundant evidence that Burns had indeed read Shakespeare extensively. In the First Commonplace Book, he argues that the study of Shakespeare (or other poets, or indeed shooting or music or “some heart-dear bony lass”) is at least as conducive to piety as “bustling and straining after the world’s riches and honours” (Leask, OERB I:50). The reconstruction of which Shakespeare plays Burns read rests not only on the survival of individual books that he owned, but on comments or references in his letters, as cited the index to the Roy Letters, and allusions or echoes in his poetry, as noted and indexed in Kinsley’s third volume (cf. Thornton; Robotham; McGinty). When he moved to Ellisland, one of the first books he wanted to buy was a set of Shakespeare, writing to the Edinburgh bookseller Peter Hill in April 1789, “I want a Shakespear; let me know what plays your used copy of Bell’s Shakespear wants” (Letters, I: 391). Bell’s 20-volume Dramatick Works of Will. Shakespeare was a recent publication (in parts from 1784, in volumes from 1788), and 18 volumes from Burns’s set are preserved in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. Burns quotes in his letters from at least seventeen different Shakespeare plays, more, in fact, than would be read by the average present-day undergraduate majoring in English, and he quotes from most of them several times.

Burns was confident enough as a poet to make explicit reference to Shakespeare even in his first book. In “The Holy Fair,” for example he adapts, Scotticizes, and footnotes, a phrase from Hamlet: “His talk o’ H-ll … Our vera Sauls does harrow” (Kinsley, I: 135, line 188: cf. Hamlet, I.v.15). In “A Dream,” he reminds the notoriously dissolute Prince of Wales that the wild young Prince Hal, an “unco’ shaver” when roistering with “funny, queer Sir John” in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, matured to become the hero of Agincourt in Henry V, and he provides a footnote for those who need reminding that “Sir John” was “Sir John Falstaff” (Kinsley, I: 268, lines 93-98). It is tempting, perhaps, to think of such footnotes as window-dressing, a slightly in-your-face assertion of being well-read. Certainly, they provide a counterpoint to Burns’s 1786 preface asking readers in judging his poetry to “make every allowance for Education and Circumstances of Life” (Leask, OERB I: 73). Instead, they should be seen as a sign of poetic independence, that Burns can without compromising his own voice make explicit use of so powerful a precursor. What Burns wrote in 1786 about his relation to his Scottish predecessors Ramsay and Fergusson applies equally to his use of Shakespeare: he had them “in his eye” or memory, “but rather with a view to kindle at their flame, than for servile imitation” (Leask, OERB I: 72).

Similar allusions occur in later poems. One of the new poems added in the 1787 Edinburgh edition, “A Winter Night,” not only opens with an epigraph from the storm or heath scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear, pitying the poor wretches attempting to defend their “houseless heads” against “seasons such as these” (Kinsley, I: 303; King Lear, III.iv.32-36), but also quotes Shakespeare later on, in the lines where the poem pivots from the harshness of the storm to what Burns argues is the worse harshness of man’s inhumanity to man:

Blow, blow, ye Winds, with heavier gust!
And freeze, though bitter-biting Frost!
Descend, ye chilly, smothering Snows
Not all your rage, as now united shows
More hard unkindness, unrelenting,
Vengeful malice, unrepenting,
Than heav’n-illumined Man on brother Man bestows! (lines 37-43).

As Kinsley points out, Burns here is blending together phrases and images from two different plays, Lear’s speech beginning “Blow windes” that wants the storm to put an end to “ingratefull Man” (King Lear, III.ii.1-9), and the song in As You Like It that begins:

\Blow, blow, thou winter winde,
Thou art not so unkinde, as man’s ingratitude (As You Like It, II.vii, 174-5).

Burns’s use of Shakespeare was both apposite and confident.

Such examples in the poems could easily be multiplied. Shakespearean allusions or parallels even occur in Burns’s songs. As Carol McGuirk has pointed out, behind one of the most famous stanzas in “Scots wha hae” lies a similarly-structured speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Brutus asks: “Who is here so base that would be a bondsman? … Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? … Who is here so vile that will not love his country?” (Julius Caesar, III.ii.31-36). As Prof. McGuirk comments, Burns shifts the language from formality to direct Scots speech (“Wha will be a traitor-knave? … Wha sae base as be a Slave?”), but the Shakespearan echo is still clear (McGuirk, pp. 173-174).

For me, the most surprising, and revealing, allusion to Shakespeare was one that Kinsley missed. I had always thought of Burns’s poem to his first-born child, “A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-Begotten Child” (Kinsley I: 99-100) as among the most direct and personal of anything he wrote, genuinely affectionate but also reflecting some inner conflict. Partly because the Roy Collection has a manuscript of the poem, I must have read it a hundred times. But Christopher Ricks has pointed out that, even in so personal a poem, Burns twice echoes and rewrites phrases from King Lear, both times from the opening scene where Gloucester talks with Kent about his first-born son, Edmund (“the Bastard”), whose mother “had a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed” (King Lear, I.i.15-16: Ricks, pp. 64-65; cf. McGuirk, p. 174 n. 20). Where Burns writes affectionately,

Welcome, my bonie, sweet, wee, Dochter!
Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for; … (lines 13-14),

Gloucester tells Kent “this knave came somewhat saucily into the world before he was sent for” (ibid., 22-23), and where Burns addresses the baby as “”Sweet fruit o’ monie a merry dint” (line 25), Gloucester recalls “there was good sport at his making” (ibid., 23-24). You can see why Gloucester’s speech would have caught Burns’s attention, and echoed in his mind when he wrote his own poem on a child that came “into the warld asklent.“ Gloucester’s dismissive man-to-man bravado encompasses also admiration and pride, but, partly because of the switch from talking about a grown son to talking to a baby daughter, Burns’s tone is quite different. The Shakespearean allusions had become so fully part of Burns’s own imagination, and so fully integrated with his own language and voice, that till Ricks’s book in 2002 no one had apparently noticed them.

This example is a reminder that Burns’s affinity for Shakespeare began early, and that it was not something he took in only as he began to interact with polite Edinburgh society. The submerged echoes from Lear in “A Poet’s Welcome” occur several years before Burns asks Peter Hill about purchasing a set of Shakespeare’s works, before Burns had visited the bookshops or drawing rooms of Edinburgh, even before his first plans to become a published writer. Burns had been introduced to Shakespeare’s verse as a boy by his tutor John Murdoch. Unfortunately, Burns’s first reported reaction was negative, and that has overshadowed Murdoch’s lasting positive effect. The reminiscences of Robert Burns’s brother Gilbert recount that when Burns was about nine years old: Murdoch, who was about to leave the area, brought to the cottage at Alloway two books, an English grammar and a copy of Shakespeare’s gory early tragedy Titus Andronicus. When Murdoch began to read the play aloud to the Burns family, they cut off the reading in disgust and distress, so that William Burnes politely declined the gift, and Robert threatened that if the book were left “he would burn it” (Currie, I: 61-63).

This well-known incident, however, has obscured Murdoch’s role in Burns’s early knowledge of Shakespeare. As Burns himself told Dr. Moore in his “autobiographical letter,” one of his schoolbooks as a boy was Arthur Masson’s A Collection of English Prose and Verse for the Use of Schools (Edinburgh: Bell, 1767; Letters, I: 135).

Image courtesy of the G. Ross Roy Collection,
University of South Carolina Libraries.

Murdoch got his students to learn passages from Masson by heart, and Masson’s anthology had included seven great Shakespearean speeches. The poetry you learn young and know well is often the poetry you quote, and playfully misquote, for the rest of your life. Masson prints in full Jacques’s speech from As You Like It, on the Seven Ages of Man, beginning “All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It, II.vii.139-166; Masson, p. 138). In his letter to Mrs. Dunlop on November 24, 1787, Burns first denies, then adapts, and then pours scorn on, Jacques’s slickly-theatrical opening lines:

Nor do I know any more than one instance of a Man who fully and truly regards “all the world as a stage, and all the men and women merely players”; and who, the dancing bow excepted only values these Players, these Dramatis Personae, who build Cities, or who rear hedges; who govern provinces, or superintend flocks, merely as they act their parts (Letters, I: 175).

Masson prints in full the ousted Cardinal Wolsey’s speech, “A long farewell to all my greatness” (Henry VIII, III.ii.351-373; Masson, p. 141). Over a four year period, Burns quotes three different parts from Wolsey’s speech: in April 1786 (“Such is the state of man: today he buds…then comes a frost,” lines 353-359; Letters, I: 37), in June 1787 (“he falls like Lucifer, never to hope again,” lines 372-373; Letters, I:123), and again in March 1789 (“Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate you,” line 366; Letters, II:381). Masson prints in full Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be, or not to be” (Hamlet, III.i.56-90; Masson, p. 139). Burns adapts phrases from it both playfully in August 1790 (“A consummation devoutly to be wished,” lines 63-64: Letters, II: 44), and more seriously on his deathbed in July 1796 (“an illness which has long been about me in all probability will speedily send me beyond that bourne whence no traveller returns,” lines 79-80; Letters, II: 387).

The longest Shakespeare extract in Masson came to have especial significance for Burns. This is Othello’s defense of his courtship of Desdemona, where Masson ran together two speeches into one (Othello, I.iii.76-94, 124-170; Masson, pp. 143-145):

Image courtesy of the G. Ross Roy Collection,
University of South Carolina Libraries.

…Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace ….
And little of this great world can I speak …
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking of myself …
I will a round unvarnish’d tale deliver (lines 81-82, 86, 88-90).

Burns clearly identified with Shakespeare’s picture of Othello as the outsider confronting Venetian society, rather than seeing Othello primarily as racial victim (but cf. Crawford, The Bard, pp. 245-246). In January 1787, he used the key lines quoted above to introduce himself to the Edinburgh bookseller James Sibbald (Letters, I: 77-78), and in April 1787, writing to Mrs. Dunlop, he uses them again to explain his omission of polite compliments (Letters, I: 105). But he also identified with the outsider’s air of danger. In January 1788, he promises Clarinda he “will make no more ‘hair-breadth ’scapes’” (line 136: Letters I: 204). Later the same month, he uses the same phrase in writing to Margaret Chalmers (Letters, I: 216). And he quotes it again, in July 1790, in writing to his old tutor Murdoch (“I have much to tell you of ‘hair-breadth ’scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach;’” Letters, II: 38).

In the years after Burns first read Masson, and first took Shakespeare to heart, he read much more widely in Shakespeare’s works, as the previous examples in this essay illustrate. But the continuing influence of what he had encountered in Masson’s Collection indicates how early and how deeply Burns had internalized Shakespeare’s verse, and how confidently and unselfconsciously he could draw on it and allude to it, without compromising his own voice.

Postscript: One special item in the Roy Collection takes us very close to Burns as he was reading a passage of Shakespeare. Burns owned a single volume, volume IV, of Richard Cumberland’s The Observer: being a Collection of Moral, Literary and Familiar Essays, in its second edition (London: Dilly, 1788-1790: see Sudduth, p. 16). It had passed from Burns to his son Colonel William Nicol Burns (1791-1872), and he had given it as a gift in 1860 to the astronomer and antiquarian Dr. Ebenezer Henderson (1809-1879), of Dunfermline. The book is signed by Burns on the title-page, and pasted in is a letter from W.N. Burns to Henderson saying he remembered this book being in his father’s library.

Image courtesy of the G. Ross Roy Collection,
University of South Carolina Libraries.

Later owners included a “Jno Davidson,” of Glasgow, and the book was apparently still in private ownership in 1911, when Duncan M’Naught described it in the Burns Chronicle. It was sold at auction at Swann Galleries in New York in 1992, and again in 2000, when Ross Roy bought it. At various points in the book, Burns had marked passages in pencil or penciled in marginal comments. For instance, against two passages in an essay on William Cowper (on pp. 17 and 18), Burns has written “fine;,” against a quotation from a Greek comedian (on p. 102) he has written “Bombastic,” and against a lengthy quotation from Ben Jonson’s Masque of the Queens (on p. 146) he has written “Stupid nonsense.” Over the years since M’Naught described the copy, however, the pencil has rubbed off and some comments have become difficult to read or illegible. The essay on Jonson had compared Jonson’s treatment of witches to Shakespeare’s, quoting from both but without mentioning the source for a lengthy Shakespeare quotation. Burns’s note against the passage (p. 144) is now very faint, frustrating efforts to get beyond “Shakespeare [illegible]” for the catalogue description. Because of the Shakespeare anniversary, John Sawvell, a student working in Rare Books, photographed the annotation for me.

Image courtesy of the G. Ross Roy Collection,
University of South Carolina Libraries (photo: John Sawvell).

Now, with some enhancement and some imagination it is just possible to confirm M’Naught’s reading and to detect, for the first time in over a hundred years, that what Burns wrote was “Shakespeare Macbeth.” He was making a note for himself of the Shakespeare play from which the quotation came. The quotation wasn’t hard to recognize, indeed the annotation may seem unnecessary (after all, how may Shakespeare plays have witches?), but it is Burns writing Shakespeare’s name, and precious for that reason.


Gerard Carruthers, “Haggis, neeps and soliloquies: the bonds that tie Robert Burns and Shakespeare,” The Independent, January 25, 2016, online at:; also on line with: The Conversation, January 25 2016, online at:

_______________, “Robert Burns and William Shakespeare: Similarities and Differences,” Celebrate Scotland, January 11, 2016:

Centre for Robert Burns Studies and Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Two Bards: Burns & Shakespeare, Annual Burns Conference, Alloway (January 16 2016); at:

Robert Crawford, “The Bard: Ossian, Burns, and the Shaping of Shakespeare,” in Willy Maley and Andrew Murphy, eds., Shakespeare and Scotland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 124-140.

_____________, The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Richard Cumberland, The Observer: being a Collection of Moral, Literary and Familiar Essays, 2nd edition, 4 vols. (London: Dilly, 1788-1790).

James Currie, ed., Works of Robert Burns, 4 vols. (London: Cadell and Davies, 1801).

Chris Green, “William Shakespeare vs. Robert Burns: Writers go Head to Head for the First Time,” The Independent, December 25, 2015:

Arthur Keith, M.D., F.R.S., “An Anthropological Study of Some Portraits of Shakespeare and of Burns,” Burns Chronicle, ser. 1, 24 (1915): 36-47; a partial reprint from British Medical Journal, no. 2774 (February 28, 1914), 461-467, and subsequent correspondence from March 14, March 21, and April 4, pp. 624, 685, and 793.

James Kinsley, ed., The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

Nigel Leask, ed., Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose [Oxford Edition of Robert Burns, vol. I] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Donald A. Low, ed., Robert Burns: the Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974).

J. Walter McGinty, Robert Burns the Book Lover: From Reader to Writer (Kilkerran: Humming Earth, 2013).

Carol McGuirk, “Burns and Aphorism; or, Poetry into Proverb,” in Sharon Alker, Leith Davis, and Holly Faith Nelson, eds., Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 169-186.

James Mackay, Burnsiana (Ayr: Alloway, 1988).

Pauline Mackay, “Robert Burns Beyond Text: Introducing a New Resource for Robert Burns Research,” Burns Chronicle (Spring 2011): 42-43.

_____________, “Objects of desire: Robert Burns the 'Man's Man' and material culture,“ Anglistik, 23:2 (2012): 27-39.

Duncan M’Naught, “Volume Annotated by Burns (Observer, Vol. IX <sic>, MDCCLXXXVII),” Burns Chronicle, 1st series, 25 (1916): 13-16.

Arthur Masson, A Collection of English Prose and Verse for the Use of Schools (Edinburgh: Bell, 1767).

Amy Miller, “All Hail! My Own Inspired Bard,” Finding Shakespeare, January 26, 2016:

Phil Miller, “Shakespeare and Burns: two literary giants to be compared and contrasted at special conference,” The Herald, January 15, 2016:

Murray Pittock, “‘A long farewell to all my greatness’: the history of the reputation of Burns,” in Murray Pittock, ed., Robert Burns and Global Culture (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 25-46.

Christopher Ricks, “The Poet as Heir: Burns,” in his Allusion to the Poets (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 43-82.

John S. Robotham, “The Reading of Robert Burns,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 74:9 (November 1970): 561-576; reprinted in Carol McGuirk, ed., Critical Essays on Robert Burns (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall, 1995), 281-297.

G. Ross Roy, ed., The Letters of Robert Burns, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985).

William Shakespeare, Complete Works, ed. W. J. Craig [Oxford Standard Authors] (London: Oxford University Press, 1905 etc., repr.1955).

Elizabeth Sudduth, The G. Ross Roy Collection of Robert Burns, An Illustrated Catalogue (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009).

Robert Donald Thornton, The Reading of Robert Burns as Reflected in his Letters and Poems (Unpublished BA honors thesis, Wesleyan University, CT, 1938).

David Trachtenberg and Thomas Keith, Mauchline Ware: A Collector’s Guide (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2002).

Nicola J. Watson, “Cradles of Genius,” in her The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic & Victorian Britain (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 56-89.

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