The Influence of William Shakespeare and Robert Burns Essay

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William Shakespeare and Robert Burns are both iconic figures in the UK. Also known as the Bard of Avon, Shakespeare is often regarded as England’s national poet. Shakespeare is also considered the world’s greatest English writer and dramatist. During his time, Shakespeare authored tens of plays, over a hundred sonnets, and several narrative poems and verses (Marche, 2012). Shakespeare’s work has been translated into virtually all major languages of the world. Also, his work is performed more regularly than any other work. Robert Burns, born close to one and a half centuries after the death of Shakespeare, was also a prominent poet. Similar to Shakespeare, Burns is regarded as Scotland’s national poet (Hogg, 2008). Referred to as the Bard of Ayrshire, Burns is also recognised worldwide for his work (Cairney, 2000). As poets and playwrights, both Shakespeare and Burns have substantially influenced English literature and language as well as the British national identity. How did they come to acquire this status? This question constitutes the focus of this paper. The paper specifically demonstrates how Shakespeare and Burns became national bards, and their influence on English, Scottish, and British national identity.

William Shakespeare: A Brief Account of His Life and Work

Shakespeare was born and grew up in Warwickshire’s market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. As much of Shakespeare’s personal life remains a mystery, it is not known exactly when he was born. However, biographic records indicate that he was baptised on the 26th of April, 1564 (Ellis, 2012). Shakespeare is believed to have begun his writing and acting career in London sometime between the late 1580s and the early 1590s. By 1592, Shakespeare was a popular figure in the London theatre scene. Richard III and Henry VI were some of his earliest plays. Shakespeare would later establish an acting company – Lord Chamberlain’s Men – alongside other partners. He allegedly died in 1616, leaving behind an unmatched legacy of poetry and drama (Marche, 2012).

Over the course of his 20 years as a playwright, Shakespeare authored a total of 38 plays and 154 sonnets, covering themes as diverse as histories, tragedies, and comedies (Ellis, 2012). Some of the popular works he authored include Rome and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and Macbeth (Fernandez, 2016). His works captured the entire spectrum of human emotion – love, romance, beauty, reconciliation, forgiveness, betrayal, tragedy, politics, and so forth. For example, most of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, especially Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard II, depicted the destruction associated with corrupt rulers. Further, In Hamlet, Shakespeare portrays human temperament, betrayal, revenge, and moral collapse.

As a playwright, Shakespeare has a reputation for a distinctive style of writing. He is well known for his outstanding utilisation of metaphors, lyrical techniques, rhetorical devices, and reflective soliloquies in his work (Ellis, 2012). Shakespeare is also honoured for his ingenious choice of words and his creative construction of English words and phrases. Additionally, Shakespeare is recognised for his imaginative combination of different categories – comedies, tragedies, and histories – in a single work (Marche, 2012). His flawless work has made some historians wonder how a man with an unknown educational background unlike other famous poets could pen poems and plays with such perfection (Fernandez, 2016).

Shakespeare did not receive as much admiration in his lifetime as he did after his death. Several years following his death, Shakespeare was crowned the title Bard of Avon and recognised as England’s national poet. In the last four centuries, his work has robustly influenced literature and theatre fields, specifically with respect to the English language, romantic poetry, and drama. Even when details of Shakespeare’s personal life remain scanty, his poems, sonnets, and plays have been performed in numerous villages, cities, and countries around the world. His plays are recognised worldwide for their appeal to virtually any known human emotion. Also, his plays carry universal themes, making them appeal to a global audience – they appeal to peasants and kings alike. To date, there have been more than 400 films adaptations of Shakespeare’s work (BBC, 2017a). Some of the contemporary films that depict Shakespeare’s plays include Throne of Blood (1957), Tombstone (1993), Rome + Juliet (1996), and Band of Brothers (2001).

Shakespeare’s Rise to Fame: Wins and Losses

By the late 1590s and early 1600s, Shakespeare had made a strong name in England as a poet and dramatist. He even attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth I, performing before her on several occasions. Following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, King James I awarded Lord Chamberlain’s Men a royal patent (BBC, 2017a).

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The company as a result changed its name to King’s Men. It is during King James’s reign that Shakespeare’s sonnets were published, further building his reputation. Sonnets were quite popular during the Elizabethan era (Ellis, 2012). Today, most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are some of the widely recognised poems in English literature.

Seven years after the demise of Shakespeare, a collection of most of his works was published by his allies Henry Condell and John Heminge. The publication, commonly known as the First Folio, was a major boost to Shakespeare’s popularity in his death as it accelerated the distribution of his work in England and beyond (Ellis, 2012). In fact, many historians agree that without Condell and Heminge, most of Shakespeare’s work would probably have disappeared (Fernandez, 2016; Marche, 2012). This is particularly true for works that had not been published during Shakespeare’s lifetime, such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest. The First Folio made it easier for Shakespeare’s work to be read, disseminated, produced, and studied in future. Most of Shakespeare’s rivals such as Christopher Marlowe did not get such an opportunity, which perhaps explains why it was much easier for Shakespeare to rise to national bard status.

Shakespeare was without a doubt an influential poet and dramatist, but his journey to national and global prominence was not as straightforward as one may think. The circulation of his work suffered a major blow in 1642, when Puritans banned plays and theatres in England (Marche, 2012). Following the ban, performances depicting Shakespeare’s work were no longer allowed in public. The ban even led to the demolition of the Globe. However, the ban was lifted in 1660 during the Restoration of Charles II (BBC, 2017a). Shakespeare’s work came back to the public limelight after close to two decades of suppression. In the next one century, Shakespeare’s work spread far and beyond, growing his eminence across England. Samuel Johnson, an 18th century English writer, cited Shakespeare’s work countless times in his 1755 English dictionary, particularly acknowledging the thousands of words and phrases Shakespeare contributed to the English language (BBC, 2017a).

In 1769, actor David Garrick organised a jubilee to commemorate Shakespeare’s life (BBC, 2017a). The jubilee added thrust to Shakespeare’s fame. Garrick became a star following his role in Richard III. He would later devote his career to promoting Shakespeare’s work. His work was especially instrumental to Shakespeare’s rise to iconic status. Though the publication of Shakespeare’s work in 1623 by his two friends provided a crucial foundation for his fame journey, it was not until the 18th century that Shakespeare began earning the prominence he enjoys today (Fernandez, 2016). Garrick’s efforts in the 18th century helped Shakespeare gain recognition in English literature.

The influence of Shakespeare influence grew further during the 19th century. It is mostly during this era that Shakespeare became a symbol of national pride and that his fame went beyond England (Marche, 2012). By this time, the British Empire was the strongest empire in the world, with colonies all over the world. Without the British Empire, it would have been quite difficult for Shakespeare’s work to spread internationally. As the empire spread, the English language spread as well. The British government found Shakespeare’s work a valuable tool in spreading its imperial power. His work was taught in schools throughout the British Empire, helping build a sense of cultural patriotism across the empire (BBC, 2017a). Several centuries down the line, and even after the end of British colonial rule, Shakespeare’s work continues spreading throughout the globe, an embodiment of the robust influence he has commanded since the 16th century. The reconstruction of the Globe in 1997 further confirmed that Shakespeare’s influence remains vigorous more than 400 years after his death. In 2014 alone, the new Globe sold over 365,000 tickets (BBC, 2017a).

Shakespeare’s prominence was driven by not only his poems and plays, but also his wealth. In 1598, his company Lord Chamberlain’s Men built its own theatre known as the Globe, making Shakespeare wealthier (Marche, 2012). Shakespeare also had investments in real estate. Wealth meant that Shakespeare had the resources to support the advancement of his career. This is probably an advantage other poets of his time did not have, making….....

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BBC, 2017a. William Shakespeare: The life and legacy of England’s bard. [online] Available at: [Accessed October 24, 2017].

BBC, 2017b. Why is Robert Burns’ work still so popular today. [online] Available at: [Accessed October 24, 2017].

Brown, M., 2017. Robert Burns. [online] Available at: [Accessed October 25, 2017].

Cairney, J., 2000. On the trail of Robert Burns. Edinburgh: Luath Press.

Ellis, D., 2012. The truth about William Shakespeare: Fact, fiction and modern biographies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Fernandez, J., 2016. Illustrated biography of William Shakespeare. New Delhi: General Press.

Hogg, P., 2008. Robert Burns: The patriot bard. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.

Marche, S., 2012. How Shakespeare change everything. New York: HarperCollins.

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