By Vimala C. Pasupathi
For a Hofstra professor currently teaching English 60, “Constructing British Literature,” Thursday’s vote on a referendum on Scottish Independence from the United Kingdom is an exciting event that reinforces many of the points I make for my (usually) American students about the status of “The United Kingdom” and its relationship to “Britain”––in particular, it reminds us that these are political designations as much as geographical ones, and that these terms we use in class to describe geographical regions are not stable terms. The Referendum also helps make clear that the shifting relationships we see in our investigation of literature from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in the period the course covers (rather improbably, about 800 to 1798) continue to shift even now.
As a scholar who has studied the relationship between Scotland and England for more than a decade in my research, I find the news about the Referendum interesting for reasons that extend beyond the classroom. Over the past ten years, I’ve written about Anglo-Scottish relations in a variety of contexts, though primarily my interests center on how they are represented in 16th- and 17th century works composed for dramatic performance. For instance, examining plays like Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1605) and 1 Henry IV (1596) and Henry V (1599), I’ve noted that the playwright’s Scotsmen are almost exclusively soldiers, and that Shakespeare identifies these men as powerful martialists with changeable loyalties––an instability rooted in Scotland’s military traditions and in what English writers saw as a mercenary culture that could not be trusted. I’ve also written about an amateur playwright, parliamentarian, and horse-racing enthusiast, John Newdigate, who removed the character of a Scottish jockey from one of his plays as tension between the English and the Scots mounted in the 1630s over Charles I’s imposition of an Anglican prayerbook in the Scottish church. The two versions of Newdigate’s play that we’ve found show that even a private citizen might feel pressure to censor himself in creating entertainment for his friends and family, excising from the later version of the play all references to “the North” as well as the joking jockey with a distinct Northern or Scottish dialect.
I’ve also written about another play called The Valiant Scot (composed in the 1620s), which features the Scottish “freedom fighter” William Wallace and depicts his rebellion against the English monarch who took the throne in 12th Century Scotland by way of military force. This play, a seventeenth-century analog to the American film Braveheart, takes up the issue of union and broken alliances in explicit fashion, encouraging audiences to consider the political status of both countries from its very first scene. In its opening, we see English noblemen boast about their new status as “rulers over Scotland” (1.1.2-3); one observes, “they are a Nation / Haughty and full of spleen, and must be manag’d /With straighter reins and rougher bitts.” (1.1.6-10).
Another disagrees; “I find them easie, tractable and mild,” he asserts, and insists that “Authority may with a slender twine / Hold in the strongest head” (1.1.11-17) Continue reading