This post doesn’t focus on fantasy – though it gets there in the end. I’m putting it up in honour of Burns Night, 25 January; and in response to this recent piece in The Times, which may have slightly over-sensationalised what I’ve been saying about the relationship between Burns and Shakespeare. It’s more or less the paper I gave at the Two Bards Conference on 16 January, which brought the two national poets together in an atmosphere of friendly revelry and rivalry. We had a fantastic day, thanks to all concerned: especially Gerry Carruthers, David Hopes, and whoever was responsible for making it snow while we were standing on Brig o’ Doon.
As everyone knows, Burns was a passionate lover – of the stage. When a new Theatre was built in Dumfries in the 1790s he gave its actor manager, George Sutherland, his full support, and commissioned his friend Alexander Nasmyth (the man who painted his portrait) to design some scenery. He also wrote prologues for play productions at Dumfries both before and after the theatre was built, and these contain a number of clues to his theatrical tastes. One of them, written for a New Year’s Eve performance in 1789-90, offers the young men and women in the audience sage advice in the person of Father Time, in unmistakable tribute to The Winter’s Tale. Another, written for Mrs Sutherland’s Benefit night in March 1790, gives us a tantalizing vision of a potential canon of Scottish plays to rival Shakespeare’s. ‘Why is outlandish stuff sae meikle courted?’ the prologue asks; there’s ample material for comedy, at least, in Scotland, since ‘A knave and fool are plants of every soil’. But Burns waxes especially eloquent on the theatrical possibilities of topics from Scottish history:
Is there no daring Bard will rise and tell
How glorious Wallace stood, how hapless fell?
Where are the Muses fled that could produce
A drama worthy o’ the name o’ Bruce? […]
O, for a Shakespeare, or an Otway scene
To paint the lovely, hapless Scottish Queen!
For a moment, there, the alluring possibility of a dramatic works of Robert Burns raises its head. Wallace, we know, was a subject he loved, and Mary Queen of Scots could hardly fail to appeal, dying as she did at the hands of a ‘rival woman […] As able – and as cruel – as the Devil’. But it’s hard to think of Burns as a tragic playwright; and another of his prologues, written for the comic actress Louisa Fontenelle (pictured right), dismisses tragic subjects out of hand. The poem depicts Fontenelle approaching a famous poet with a request for a prologue, only to be told that he will only write on serious subjects, and is afraid she will not be able to cope with them:
‘Ma’am, let me tell you,’ quoth my man of rhymes,
‘I know your bent – these are no laughing times:
Can you – but, Miss, I own I have my fears –
Dissolve in pause, and sentimental tears?’
Fontenelle at once rejects his services and ends the prologue by enjoining the audience to follow her example in preferring comedy to tears, sentimental or otherwise: ‘be merry, I advise; / And as we’re merry, may we still be wise!’. Merriment is Burns’s as well as Fontenelle’s forte, and if he’d turned his talents to the theatre it seems likely he would have excelled in comic rather than historical or tragic subjects.
But Shakespeare has shown us that history doesn’t need to be divorced from the comic, any more than tragedy does. The closing words of Fontenelle’s prologue invoke the comedy of Shakespeare’s that’s most closely associated with history, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which teaches that ‘Wives may be merry, and yet honest too’ (IV.ii). The star of the Merry Wives is, of course, Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s unruly companion in the two parts of Henry IV; and Burns had written a prologue for an Edinburgh production of the comedy in 1787. The Merry Wives therefore has the distinction of being the only known Shakespeare play to have been performed in Burns’s lifetime with Burns’s verses attached to it. And it’s my contention that the play continued to resonate in the poet’s mind long after that Edinburgh performance. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that a memory of the Merry Wives lies behind Burns’s favourite poem, Tam o’ Shanter (1790), and helps to lend that poem some of its distinctively theatrical qualities.
If Burns loved the stage, he could also be described as a dramatic poet. His lyrics often resemble miniature plays, as any singer can tell you: in part because they so often involve direct address to a specific listener, or invoke specific actions (think of ‘Ae fond kiss’ or the joining of hands in Auld Lang Syne), or paint vividly realized characters – from Holy Willy to Burns himself. For my money, though, there are two of his works that show us most clearly what we lost when he died without writing anything but prologues for the stage. The first is his cantata, ‘Love and Liberty’ or ‘The Jolly Beggars’ (c. 1785); and the second is Tam o’ Shanter. The cantata has often been compared to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, though there’s no hard evidence Burns knew it. It’s hard to believe he didn’t, however, since Gay’s work was probably the most successful play of the eighteenth century, and the one most calculated to appeal to Burns, both in subject matter and form. And as it happens, Louisa Fontenelle was famous for playing two roles in The Beggar’s Opera: Lucy, which she performed in Edinburgh in 1793, the year when Burns wrote his prologue for her; and Macheath himself in London a few years earlier, in a performance described by the Theatre Journal as ‘offensive to decency’.
‘Love and Liberty’, too, could be described as offensive to decency, with its serial lovers and sometimes explicit lyrics; but it seems to me that it has as much in common with Shakespeare as with Gay. Burns’s little company of homeless drinkers and singers meets in a tavern like the Boar’s Head in Shakespeare’s Cheapside, on a night that recalls the chill of winter invoked in one of Shakespeare’s most popular lyrics (compare ‘When lyart leaves bestrow the yird’ to ‘When icicles hang by the wall’, Love’s Labour’s Lost V.ii). The female innkeeper Poosie-Nansie takes on the role of the hostess of the Boar’s Head, Mistress Quickly, in Henry IV, and the company freely bandies about the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’, as Carol McGuirk has pointed out, despite their obvious contempt for law and sexual fidelity – very much like Falstaff’s gang of self-styled ‘minions of the moon’ (1 Henry IV, Act 1 scene 2). A maimed soldier celebrates the ‘gallant game’ of war and swears to ‘clatter on my stumps’ to serve his country in time of need. His mistress describes him as a ‘hero’, the latest and best in a succession of fighting men she has loved and let go; while her pickpocket friend sings of living ‘like lords and ladies gay’ with her dead lover, the ‘gallant, braw John Highlandman’ who was hanged for breaking the ‘Lalland laws’ despite his unimpeachable adherence to those of his clan. John’s widow is comforted by a pygmy fiddler, who praises her ‘heaven o’ charms’ and promises her a pastoral life of picking over old bones and sunning themselves on dry stane dykes. But his wooing is cut short by a swaggering tinker, who threatens to ‘speet him like a pliver’ with his ‘roosty rapier’ if he doesn’t give her up. The fiddler comforts himself for the loss of the widow by raking ‘fore and aft’ the lover of a penniless poet, a ‘bard of no regard’ who nevertheless sings of his willingness to give women ‘my dearest bluid, to do them guid’ whenever the inclination takes him. The cantata closes with the verses Burns liked best in the sequence, a praise of the vagabond life with a utopian chorus that dismisses the establishment as a bunch of money-grabbing self-servers:
A fig for those by law protected,
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.
‘Love and Liberty’, then, resembles an old-fashioned coronet or garland of verses in which the last line of one poem forms the first of the next. The resemblance is not so much in form as in content, one lover giving place to another in successive songs, just as one gives way to another in the singers’ makeshift beds. Undaunted by this culture of unfaithfulness, the singers praise promiscuity as equivalent to political liberty, and drink as a bottomless source of artistic inspiration. In doing so they recall the quasi-utopian evocation of Merry England in Justice Shallow’s orchard (Henry IV Part 2), where Falstaff regales his friends with promises of riches and influence when his friend Prince Hal succeeds to the throne. In the Land of Plenty that follows Hal’s coronation, he tells them, thieves will no longer be hanged and cowards no longer questioned when they praise their own valour; justice will be in the hands of the lawbreakers, and loyalty to one’s criminal friends will be rewarded, not punished as it was in John Highlandman. The notion of a company of drinkers, thieves and promiscuous lovers as an alternative court is evoked by the presence in Burns’s company of stock characters from chivalric romance: soldiers, musicians, poets, amorous couples. Falstaff too holds mock court, donning a crown in Henry IV Part 1 as he acts the part of Prince Hal’s father (Act 2 scene 4), and Burns’s company seems to echo Falstaff’s. I’ve already mentioned the Poosie-Nansie/Mistress Quickly connection. The tinker – who is also a deserter – recalls the swaggerer Ancient Pistol, while the maimed soldier tells us he displays his wounds, presumably for money, exactly as Pistol plans to do in Henry V. The hanged Highlandman evokes the hanging of Hal’s old friends Bardolph and Nym for pillage in the same play, while the various unfaithful lovers might make us think of Falstaff’s unkept promises of marriage to Mistress Quickly. The sentimental reminiscences of the pickpocket and the poet mimic Justice Shallow’s false recollections of his own youthful gallantry in Henry IV Part 2. Even the final chorus, which questions whether the ruling classes have any reason to think themselves more virtuous than Poosie-Nansie’s clients, reminds us that Falstaff’s plots to gain power and influence in Prince Hal’s England have a bloodier counterpart in the martial plots of the nobility during the civil wars of the fifteenth century. The presence of Hotspur, that hot-headed northern rebel, can be detected behind the fiery attitudes of the soldiers, tinkers and poets of Burns’s sequence, and one wonders whether Hotspur’s alliance with one of Shakespeare’s few Scottish characters besides Macbeth – ‘yon sprightly Scot of Scots, Douglas’ (Henry IV Part One, Act 2 Scene 4) – was one of the things that drew Burns’s attention to the Henry IV plays – especially given the local interest in the Douglas family in Dumfries and Galloway.
Burns’s song sequence ‘Love and Liberty’, then, pays homage to Shakespeare’s Henriad, the Second Tetralogy. That the poet was interested in these plays is confirmed by his poem ‘A Dream’ (1786), written one year later, in which he compares the pleasure-loving Prince of Wales to Prince Hal, who idled away his youth with ‘funny, queer Sir John’. And four years later he produced his own version of Sir John in Tam o’Shanter, whose adventures at Alloway Kirk bear no little resemblance to Falstaff’s only supernatural adventure, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be set in England, and in a locality as specific as Burns’s Alloway. It features Falstaff and a number of his cronies from the history plays: Mistress Quickly, Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Justice Shallow, Master Slender – and tells of Falstaff’s attempted seduction of two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, in the hope of financial gain. The women, who have no interest in the fat knight, subject him to successive humiliations before he’s finally discouraged; and it’s the last of these humiliations that’s called to mind by Tam o’ Shanter.
I’ve described the Herne the Hunter episode as supernatural, but from the first we hear of it the tale’s supernatural dimension is clearly a sham. The incident is based on an ‘old tale’ told in Windsor Forest about the spirit or ghost of a hunter who haunts Herne’s oak in winter time, at midnight, wearing ‘great ragged horns’ like those of a stag; but only superstitious old folk tell this story ‘for a truth’, and intelligent people of the next generation don’t believe it (Act 4 Scene 4). Tam o’Shanter’s story, too, is full of food for scepticism. The product of long nights of hard drinking and a culture of extravagant tale-telling, the poem invites its readers to consider whether Tam’s encounter with the devil and a coven of witches might be a hallucination, engendered in Tam’s mind by a combination of booze, the dire warnings of his wife against late-night boozing, frustrated lust, and the dreadful fates of other legendary boozers. Burns’s poem pits what it calls ‘truth’ –that is, the tendency of topers to forget the ‘lang Scots miles’ that lie between the pub and their houses – against the ‘queerest stories’ of Tam’s friend Souter Johnnie, the ‘sage advices’ of Tam’s ‘sulky sullen dame’ against Tam’s own superstitious fear, as he sets off on the journey home, of the bogles, ‘ghaists and houlets’ who may lie in wait for him along the way. But unlike Shakespeare’s play, Tam o’Shanter finally vindicates the supernatural events it relates as another kind of ‘truth’ with a bit of hard evidence; evidence that identifies Burns’s poem, unlike Shakespeare’s play, as a work of Gothic, heroic and erotic fantasy, which frees itself in the end from the influence of its sources.
Like the incident in Alloway kirk, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives springs out of a culture of tale-telling and fear of the supernatural; and in it, as in Tam o’Shanter, tales and superstition are woven in with the tensions and conflicts of married life. If the party pooper in Tam’s world is his wife Kate, in the Merry Wives it’s the jealous husband Master Ford, who’s convinced his wife is having an affair with that ‘gross fat man’ Sir John Falstaff. Ford’s jealousy turns him into a kind of devil, as he himself confesses: ‘Amaimon sounds well,’ he says when he first succumbs to it; ‘Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils’ additions, the names of fiends. But Cuckold! Wittol! Cuckold! The devil himself hath not such a name’ (Act 2 Scene 2). And his acquisition of a cuckold’s horns links him not only to the devils he lists here but to the would-be adulterer, Sir John. He calls the fat knight an ‘Epicurean rascal’, that is, a sub-standard stag not worth the hunting; and he assumes he must be in league with the ‘devil’ to have frustrated all Ford’s attempts to catch him red handed. The jealous husband grows more superstitious, in fact, as his suspicions grow. His first search for Falstaff in his house is prompted by a dream, he tells his wife (‘I have dreamed tonight’, Act 3 Scene 3); and when he encounters the fat knight disguised as ‘the fat woman of Brentford’, he assumes at once that the woman is a witch as well as a bawd or madam. ‘She works by charms, by spells’, he insists, to ply her double trade, and he beats her soundly to exorcise her ‘daub’ry’ or magic (Act 4 Scene 2). In Shakespeare’s play, imagining adultery spawns other imaginings, immersing the jealous man in a maelstrom of groundless fear and loathing.
So the final plot laid by the merry wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, against Sir John Falstaff involves plunging him into the supernatural element to which his own adulterous plots have subjected Master Ford. By convincing Falstaff to dress up as Herne the Hunter – his antlers giving substance to his association with stags and devils – the wives turn him into an image of what he would have made Ford has his plots to cuckold him succeeded; and by having the neighbourhood boys and girls dress up as fairies and the priest as a ‘Welsh devil’ (Act 5 Scene 3) they ensure that the whole community is involved in the magical performance that exposes his adulterous designs. The whole set-up, in fact, looks very like Tam’s encounter with the magic population of Alloway. It takes place at midnight; it’s presided over by an evil spirit; it involves music and dancing (‘twenty glow-worms shall our lantern be / To guide our measure round about the tree’, Act 5 Scene 5); it has a hunting theme (hunting horns accompany Falstaff’s humiliation, just as Tam becomes the quarry when the witches give chase); and in theory it involves the chastening of a notorious wrong-doer (Falstaff or Tam). More strikingly still, the leading lady in each case has the same name. Mistress Page’s daughter Nan plays the fairy queen in The Merry Wives, while the best of the dancers in Alloway kirk is Nannie, the ‘Cutty-sark’ who drives Tam to shout out and reveal his presence. Much play is made of this leading woman’s clothes in both texts – Nan must be dressed in white or green so that she can be identified, despite her fairy disguise, by one or other of her suitors, while Nannie is famously dressed in the scanty clothes made for her in childhood by her grandmother, which makes her stand out from the other dancers. And both Nan and Nannie have outgrown the control of their elders; Nan in that she elopes with a man of her own choosing instead of the suitors chosen for her by her respective parents; Nannie by virtue of her presence at the midnight coven.
The plot links between poem and play, then, are self-evident; but it’s the ambiguous ‘moral’ of each text that most strikingly links them. Tam o’Shanter poses as a kind of parable, enjoining men like Tam to heed their wives’ advice, and to think hard before over-indulging in drink or the contemplation of cutty sarks. But the narrator is clearly in sympathy with his boozy protagonist, ready to shed his own ‘breeks’ like a shot for ‘ae blink’ of a ‘winsome wench’ like Nannie. The epic similes Burns attaches to Tam’s exploits elevate the man from local soak to classical hero. And a similar double standard governs Shakespeare’s comedy. Falstaff’s persecution by fairies is conceived by the merry wives as punishment for his treading of ‘sacred paths […] in shape so profane’ (Act 5 Scene 5) – in other words, for his lechery and greed. At the same time the assault on Falstaff serves as cover for a second plot, whereby a disreputable courtier named Fenton takes advantage of the general confusion to elope with his girlfriend, Nan. The young couple fool Nan’s parents, Master and Mistress Page, by getting married without their consent, and the parents are forced accept the marriage with good grace, conscious that their own tricks have exposed them to this trickery, their punishment of Falstaff’s desires opened up a space for the desires of the next generation. Falstaff closes the action by pointing out with satisfaction that he has not been the only quarry pursued by hunters on this night of wonders: ‘When night-dogs run,’ he concludes, ‘all sorts of deer are chased’. Horns have been distributed all round – and horns, of course, are associated with hunting as well as with cuckoldry. In this play, as in Burns’s poem, moral probity does not mean restraining desire or forgoing liberty. And it’s for this reason, I suspect, that Burns found himself drawn to it.
But there was another reason, perhaps, why Burns might have been attracted to The Merry Wives. I said earlier that the supernatural elements in the final scene were ‘clearly a sham’; but I’m not sure they come across that way on stage. In old editions, the performers who play the fairies are named as characters we’ve encountered in the course of the comedy: old friends such as the parson Sir Hugh Evans, the braggart soldier Pistol, the schoolboy William Ford, and Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head who can’t manage long words. Mistress Quickly is often identified as playing the role of the Queen of the Fairies in place of Nan, who is busy eloping with Master Fenton. But who could actually imagine Mistress Quickly managing that role without mangling it as thoroughly as the craftsmen mangle their roles in the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, which occurs at exactly the same point in that earlier fairy play of Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? But she doesn’t. Instead, she speaks unstumblingly some highly complex verses with the genuine fairy flavour, commanding her fairy minions to bless Windsor castle and ‘scour’ its ceremonial accoutrements ‘With juice of balm and every precious flower’. The speech would have reminded the play’s first audiences of the moment in that earlier fairy play when Oberon and Titania pronounce a blessing over the sleeping forms of Theseus, Hippolyta and the young lovers, in a speech that ritualistically erases the bitterness of the squabbles and confusions that preceded it. Like this speech, the song Mistress Quickly sings as the Fairy Queen could be taken as a riposte to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, who chastised the London players as inciters of lust and other kinds of sensual excess. This particular player, who takes the double role of a female spirit and the landlady of a pub, sings only of chastity (‘Foe on sinful fantasy! / Fie on lust and luxury!) – though she cannot prevent the young lovers from pursuing their fantasies, any more than Titania and Oberon could.
I said earlier, too, that ‘Tam o’Shanter’s story […] is full of food for skepticism’, since it occurs in an atmosphere of excessive drink and superstition. But the veracity of the poem is never questioned by its narrator, who seems to be besotted by Tam and his vision. And at the end of this mock epic, at the very point when the ‘moral’ is pointed up, we are reminded of the one extant piece of material proof that Tam’s experiences really took place. ‘Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed’, the narrator cries,
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare.
The reference is of course to the stump of poor Meg’s grey tail, which was seized by the vindictive Nannie as she galloped across the bridge and pulled off with such force that the horse was left with ‘scarce a stump’. The narrator turns the tailless horse into an eerie warning against self-indulgence; but her taillessness is also something else: a sure sign (within the world of the poem) that Tam’s vision was true, a vindication of the facts of his heroic escape, scot free, from a voyeuristic brush with the devil and his voluptuous accomplices. If we are to remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare it need not be as a deterrent from similar feats but an incitement to them: if Tam could take his pleasure as he did and get away with it so lightly, why not me? Shakespeare’s unexpectedly convincing fairies in The Merry Wives say something more didactic; but their celebration of chastity can also be read, like Tam o’Shanter, as a vindication of the world of sensual delight and imaginative exuberance – in this case, the world of the theatre. And the transformation of the drunken doyens of the Boar’s Head in Cheapside into a fairy ballet de corps could well have sparked off Burns’s poetic act of defiance against the puritanism of his own very different time and place.
 For the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’ see Carol McGuirk (ed.), Robert Burns: Selected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 221. On this page, too McGuirk says Burns had probably never read The Beggar’s Opera, but his friendship with Fontenelle makes it likely he was familiar with it one way or another.
 The most famous example of this form is Donne’s devotional sonnet sequence ‘La Corona’.
 For more on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a response to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical prejudice, see my essay ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44. It can be found here: