William Shakespeare and Robert Burns are both iconic figures in the UK. Also known as the Bard of Avon, Shakespeare is often regarded as Englands national poet. Shakespeare is also considered the worlds 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). Shakespeares 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 Scotlands 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.

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William Shakespeare: A Brief Account of His Life and Work

Shakespeare was born and grew up in Warwickshires market town of Stratford-upon-Avon. As much of Shakespeares 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 Chamberlains 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 Nights 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 Shakespeares 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 Englands 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 Shakespeares 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 Shakespeares work (BBC, 2017a). Some of the contemporary films that depict Shakespeares plays include Throne of Blood (1957), Tombstone (1993), Rome + Juliet (1996), and Band of Brothers (2001).


Shakespeares 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 Chamberlains Men a royal patent (BBC, 2017a). The company as a result changed its name to Kings Men. It is during King Jamess reign that Shakespeares sonnets were published, further building his reputation. Sonnets were quite popular during the Elizabethan era (Ellis, 2012). Today, most of Shakespeares 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 Shakespeares 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 Shakespeares work would probably have disappeared (Fernandez, 2016; Marche, 2012). This is particularly true for works that had not been published during Shakespeares lifetime, such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest. The First Folio made it easier for Shakespeares work to be read, disseminated, produced, and studied in future. Most of Shakespeares 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 Shakespeares 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). Shakespeares work came back to the public limelight after close to two decades of suppression. In the next one century, Shakespeares work spread far and beyond, growing his eminence across England. Samuel Johnson, an 18th century English writer, cited Shakespeares 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 Shakespeares life (BBC, 2017a). The jubilee added thrust to Shakespeares fame. Garrick became a star following his role in Richard III. He would later devote his career to promoting Shakespeares work. His work was especially instrumental to Shakespeares rise to iconic status. Though the publication of Shakespeares 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). Garricks 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 Shakespeares work to spread internationally. As the empire spread, the English language spread as well. The British government found Shakespeares 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, Shakespeares 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 Shakespeares influence remains vigorous more than 400 years after his death. In 2014 alone, the new Globe sold over 365,000 tickets (BBC, 2017a).


Shakespeares prominence was driven by not only his poems and plays, but also his wealth. In 1598, his company Lord Chamberlains 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 it quite difficult for them to achieve the status Shakespeare achieved.


In spite of his prominence, Shakespeare has been the subject of immense criticism right from the time he was alive, with fellow poets, biographers, and historians severally questioning his credibility. One of Shakespeares earliest critics was Robert Greene, a poet who described Shakespeare as a poet whose credentials could not match those of Greene himself, Thomas Nashe, Christopher Marlowe, and other more educated writers of his time (Fernandez, 2016). In the 17 century, another poet John Dryden described Shakespeares work as rubbish (Marche, 2012). There have also been questions of whether Shakespeare actually penned all the works attributed to him (Ellis, 2012).


Shakespeares Influence on English and British National Identity

Amidst the intense criticism, Shakespeare is today regarded as Englands national poet and the Bard of Avon. He has received this title particularly because of his influence on English and literature as well as the immense cultural value his work holds. His contribution to the English language and literature is especially phenomenal. From his style of writing and choice of genres to his wordplay and artistic talent, Shakespeare has undoubtedly influenced the English language and literature in a way no other poet has. Prior to Shakespeares lifetime, much of the English language (especially with respect to vocabulary and structure) was constantly evolving unlike Latin and Greek (Fernandez, 2016). In other words, the English language lacked a standardised format. However, with increased popularity of Shakespeares works in the 17th and 18th centuries, English became much more standardised (Marche, 2012). Many of the words and phrases invented by Shakespeare became common English words and were even incorporated into the English dictionary.


Shakespeare enriched the English language by transforming nouns into verbs, transforming verbs into adjectives, joining two words to form one word, inserting prefixes and suffixes, and even creating entirely new words by borrowing from other languages (Marche, 2012). These creations are now used in everyday communication. Whether or not one has ever read or watched any of Shakespeares work, one is likely to use a word or a phrase whose origin is attributable to Shakespeare. Some of the most famous words and phrases attributed to Shakespeare include a wild goose chase, with bated breath, a heart of gold, bedazzled, sanctimonious, and fashionable (Ellis, 2012; Fernandez, 2016). Today, thanks to Shakespeare, the English language is much more colourful than it was prior to the 17th century. English speakers now have more vivid ways of communicating and expressing emotions. More importantly, the English language now has a more standardised grammatical structure. Some historians have contended that Shakespeare improved the English language so profoundly that it is even difficult to measure his influence.


Shakespeares work has had an even greater influence on Britains national identity. England was grappling with an identity crisis in the 16th century, especially following the Reformation (Fernandez, 2016). With independence from the Roman Empire, England abandoned Roman Catholicism in favour of Protestantism. This meant adopting a new identity. Reference to history was crucial in forming this identity. Nonetheless, the chronicles existent at the time could only be understood by the educated (Marche, 2012). This was a problem as most English people during the Elizabethan era were uneducated.

Traditionally, ordinary people learned history through songs, poems, myths, as well as visiting historical monuments such as monarch graves. However, a new way of learning history emerged when poets like Shakespeare and Marlowe came into being public theatres (Fernandez, 2016). Through theatrical performances, ordinary people could learn history and get entertainment at the same time. Plays depicting the history of England were especially popular among ordinary people due to the large audiences they attracted. It is recorded that thousands of Londoners flocked theatres every week at the height of Shakespeares career (Ellis, 2012). With a significant portion of his work centring on histories, Shakespeare played a particularly important role in educating Englanders about their history.


As mentioned earlier, Shakespeare became a national pride in the 19th century and his work was broadcasted throughout the British Empire. This provided a mechanism of spreading the British culture to many parts of the world (Fernandez, 2016). For instance, Britains romance culture as depicted in Shakespeares plays and poems is popular across the world. Virtually anywhere in the world, the mention of the phrase Romeo and Juliet inevitably connotes a romantic or love message. On the whole, Shakespeares contribution to the knowledge of English history, coupled with his contribution to the English language and literature, makes him an iconic figure for English-speaking people not only in the UK, but also worldwide. His work has tremendously transformed UKs language and culture. Without Shakespeare, it is quite hard to imagine how the English language would be like today.


Robert Burns: A Brief Account of His Life and Work

Another celebrated poet in the UK is Robert Burns. Unlike Shakespeare, details of Burns personal life are much more known. Burns was born on January 25, 1796 in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland, 143 years after the death of Shakespeare (Cairney, 2000). Burns attended formal school in the late 1760s and mid 1770s in Alloway, from where he started his writing career. In 1774, Burns wrote his first poem O, Once I Lovd A Bonnie Lass, a poem he wrote to pronounce his love for a local girl. The following year, he attended further schooling and authored two songs. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s, Burns wrote more songs and poems. Some of his most popular works include Love and Liberty, The Holy Affair, To A Mouse, To A Louse, Ae Fond Kiss, and The Battle of Sherramuir (Cairney, 2000). These works have been translated into more than 40 major languages. Burns died on the 21st of July, 1796, a much younger age than Shakespeares (BBC, 2017b).


Burns is widely recognised as a Scots poet, although he authored many of his works in English. He even authored some works in both languages e.g. Love and Liberty. His literary style was largely characterised by spontaneity, honesty, and humour (Brown, 2017). Borrowing heavily from English, biblical, and classical literature, Burns dwelled on themes such as patriotism, gender roles, sexuality, romance, class inequality, cultural identity, hardship, religion, and nature. Essentially, Burns writings focused on the everyday struggles of ordinary people. Romance was especially one of his favourite themes. Indeed, Burns legacy of romance-themed poetry is unparalleled (Hogg, 2008). His preference for romantic poetry has been attributed to his love for women. Though he died at a relatively young age, he was father to 12 children eight with his wife and four with other women. Burns love for women was simply extraordinary. Nonetheless, Burns was not always a womaniser he had respect for women at the same time. For instance, he drew a lot of inspiration from female poets of his time like Mary Wollstonecraft (BBC, 2017b).


Burns Rise to Fame

Burns work was first published in 1786. The publication popularly known as the Kilmarnock Edition mainly included poems in the Scots language (Brown, 2017). All the copies initially published sold within just a few weeks, an indication of the popularity of his work amongst his audiences. Edinburgh was one of the places Burns book sold with overwhelming success. At Edinburgh, Burns literary expertise was recognised tremendously. Many people lauded him, describing him as a literary phenomenon (Cairney, 2000). Burns acknowledgement in Edinburgh resulted in the publication of an Edinburgh edition of his first book.

Owing to financial difficulties, Burns had planned to migrate to Jamaica (BBC, 2017b). He, however, abandoned the plan following the unanticipated success of his first publication. This success marked a defining moment in Burns career. He quickly gained considerable fame in the Scottish literary arena, inspiring him to publish a second collection. Burns subsequently made a number of tours in Scotland in an attempt to promote his work. Unlike Shakespeare, however, Burns fame did not increase his wealthy. He still had to work outside the writing field, specifically in farming, to supplement his income. Nonetheless, his occupation in farming took a toll on his health, ultimately leading to his death in 1796 (Brown, 2017).


Did Burns relatively earlier death mark the end of his legacy? It did not. Similar to Shakespeare, Burns gained greater popularity after his death than he did during his lifetime. Historians regard him as the father of the 18th century Romantic Movement a movement that later formed the foundation for socialism and liberalism (Cairney, 2000; Hogg, 2008). Burns gained even greater popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries. During this era, the commemoration of his work turned out to be some form a nationwide cultic movement. His popularity mainly stemmed from the language and themes depicted in his work. His work was full of humour and expressed big ideas in small ways. In To A House, for instance, Burns compares men to mice (BBC, 2017b). Also, Burns had an exceptional way of appealing to human emotions through his poems and songs (Brown, 2017). More than two centuries after his death, Burns has become a universally acknowledged poet and song composer.


Burns became famous not just for his poems, but also his songs. He was a prominent songwriter, whose songs are probably more popular than his poems. During his career, Burns wrote more than 300 songs, with most of them being adapted from traditional Scottish folklore (Cairney, 2000). Auld Lyne Syne is one of the most popular songs written by Burns. Today, the song is sung in Scotland and other parts of the world to welcome the New Year (BBC, 2017b). Also, Burns song Scots Wha Hae was for a long time sang as Scotlands unofficial national anthem. Burns lyrical prowess is perhaps the best Scotland has ever had with the exception of McCartney and Lennon.


Burns Influence on Scottish Identity

Though Burns lived a much shorter life compared to Shakespeare, he is a figure with the same stature as Shakespeare. Today, Burns is recognised as the Bard of Ayrshire and Scotlands national poet (Hogg, 2008). He carries this title predominantly because of his robust influence on Scottish literature. His work was instrumental in thrusting the Scots language into the literary world. At the time Burns started his writing career, the Scots language was diminishing in popularity. The language had largely been abandoned as a medium of literary work, mostly in the wake of growing English hegemony. With James VI of Scotland becoming James I of Great Britain in 1603 following the Union of the Crowns, a major shift towards the English language and culture was seen (Brown, 2017). English quickly became the dominant literary medium, with its hegemony gaining even greater strength in 1707 after the merger of English and Scottish parliaments.


Burns revived the dying Scots language. He wrote in the dialect, making him an unparalleled Scots literary champion. His work inspired other Scottish writers such as Irvine Welsh, James Robertson, and James Kelman to write in the Scots language (BBC, 2017b). Other Scottish writers influenced by Burns include Robert Ferguson, William Wordsworth, Allan Ramsay, Percey Bysshe Shelley, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Samule Taylor Coleridge (Cairney, 2000). Just like Burns, most of these writers were major contributors to the Romantic Movement. Today, thanks to Burns, the Scots language remains popular in the literary world. Without Burns, there would probably be little or no literary works written in the Scots language.


Due to his influence, Burns is one of the most celebrated cultural icons in Scotland (Cairney, 2000; Hogg, 2008). Many landmarks, organisations, and events have been established in Burns honour. For example, Burns Cottage in Alloway is a public museum founded to commemorate his birthplace. Other establishments that honour Burns include Robert Burns Centre, Robert Burns Fellowship, Ellisland Farm, street names, stamps, and currency. Burns is also honoured via cultural events. A particularly popular Scottish cultural event through which Burns is honoured is Burns Night, a national day observed on the 25th of every January to celebrate his birthday. Burns Night, popularly known as Burns suppers, features traditional cuisines, whisky, and presentations of Burns best works. Scots as well as Burns descendants in Scotland and across the globe gather in their homes to honour a figure that remains so dear to them. Burns Night has turned out to be even more popular than St. Andrews Day Scotlands official national day.


The first Burns birthday celebration was held in 1802 by members of the Greenrock Ayrshire Society (Cairney, 2000). Most of the members were Burns friends. The organisation formed the first Burns Club in 1801. The club was dedicated to honouring Burns writings and promoting Scottish literature. Since then, Burns birthday is celebrated annually. Also, several other Burns clubs have been established in other cities in Scotland and beyond, including Alexandria, Edinburgh, Paisley, Winnipeg, London, and Irvine. These clubs are some of the major establishments in which Burns suppers are held. The popularity of Burns Night without a doubt exemplifies the influence Burns has had on the Scottish identity. More than two centuries after his death, Burns remains an identity icon in Scotland.


From a political perspective, Burns poems and songs portray a man deeply saddened by Scotlands loss of independence after the events of 1603 and 1707 a loss he portrays as a threat to the continuity of the Scottish identity (Hogg, 2008). Following the Union of Crowns and the merger of English and Scottish parliaments, Scotland had lost its autonomy. For people like Burns, this sense of loss was troubling. Burns and whether Scotland would still have a national identity after the unification and whether Scotlands unique culture would be eroded after adopting the English language and culture (Brown, 2017). Burns was a pioneer of a nationalistic movement that sought to preserve the culture of the Scottish people. Written in the Scots dialect, his songs and poems safeguarded a culture that would probably be unheard of today.

Burns writings also came at a particularly politically tensed period. With the French Revolution beginning in 1789 and lasting through the end of the 18th century, political tensions in Europe were high at the time (Brown, 2017). At the same time, emotion and individualism started dominating literary and intellectual work, eventually leading to the birth of Romanticism. The movement was not just about romance and emotion, but also against the aristocracy and with the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment (Cairney, 2000). Burns was a key figure in the movement. He fiercely advocated for freedom and was vocal in challenging authority. Aimed at forging a better society, the movement inspired liberalism and socialism it turned out to be a cultural revolution (Brown, 2017). Liberalism and socialism are values that have immensely shaped the Scottish identity. Indeed, it is, arguably, during the Romantic Movement that the Scottish national identity was born.

Many historians have described Burns as a romantic poet, but he was more than that. He was at the same time politically radical a socialist, a nationalist, and a liberalist (Brown, 2017; Cairney, 2000). Many of his compositions carried politically-oriented themes such as patriotism and class inequality. In fact, some of Burns writings could not be published during his existence in large part due to their political content (Hogg, 2008). This, however, did not stop the influence Burns political content had in defining the Scottish national identity.


To a significant extent, the upheavals Scotland was experiencing during Burns lifetime directly affected him. For instance, his fathers agricultural venture collapsed as a result of the political and economic transition Scotland was going through at the time (Brown, 2017). Burns himself also experienced significant challenges in his farming endeavours (Cairney, 2000). Some of his works capture these ordinary experiences. He especially became a prolific writer because of his unique ability to reflect his immediate world in his writings. His work reflected certain political and social ideals that would later chart the course of Scottish identity.


Some historians have described Burns as one of the most intriguing cultural phenomena of 18th century Scotland (BBC, 2017b; Hogg, 2008). Through his poems and songs, Burns has effectively brought out Scotlands romantic image an image that has remained vivid till date. In a career that spanned just 22 years, he not only authored songs and poems, but also shaped Scotlands identity. His work inspired confidence in Scotland by depicting how the Scottish people are connected to their land. Over 200 years after his death, the Scottish people still espouse the values he promoted in his work social equality, hard work, sincerity, and so forth. Burns truly deserves his stature as a national bard and a cultural icon.



Born in different eras, both William Shakespeare and Robert Burns are regarded as national bards in the UK. Both have unique histories, but they enjoy virtually the same status. On one hand, Shakespeares personal life remains a mystery, with his educational background largely being a matter of speculation. Nonetheless, Shakespeare is today described as the greatest poet and dramatist of all time. His work was particularly instrumental in building the English language and literature. He is the father of many words and phrases used in everyday communication today. Shakespeare also helped in standardising the English language. Dissimilar to Shakespeare, Burns evidently received formal education, albeit he came from a poor background. He lived a much shorter life compared to Shakespeare, but his contribution to Scottish literature is incomparable. He was especially influential in reviving the Scots language and propelling it back to literary circles. Today, the Scots dialect is alive, thanks to Burns.


Perhaps the greatest contribution Shakespeare and Burns have made is shaping the British identity, although in different ways. Shakespeares work was used as a tool for spreading English history and identity not only in the UK, but also across the British Empire. For this reason, Shakespeare is today a source of national pride in the UK. On his part, Burns has shaped the Scottish identity by preserving the culture of the Scottish people. Without Burns work, there would be little knowledge and existence of the unique Scottish culture. On the whole, both Shakespeare and Burns deserve the titles they hold today. Several centuries after their death, their works continue being even more influential than they were during their lifetime. For centuries, Shakespeares and Burns work will remain vivid.







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