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Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson (eds.), Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance (Pagrave Macmillan, 2010)

Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson (eds.), Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance (Houndmills, Basingstoke, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-230-61642-4, xvii + 288 pp. Pbk. £20.99.

Reviewed by Willy Maley


[1]  At a moment when a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament is calling once again for the historical Macbeth, supposedly vilified by Shakespeare, to be rehabilitated in the run-up to the 2014 vote on Independence, it is interesting to consider the so-called Scottish play’s complex afterlife, not in terms of Anglo-Scottish relations or specific national agendas, but in the context of American racial politics. Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance is a fascinating collection of essays that aims to address the ways in which Macbeth, the first Shakespeare play recorded in the American colonies, has impacted on issues of race and identity ever since. On the face of it, Macbeth is not an obvious choice for a play about race. Ania Loomba’s list of Shakespeare’s ‘others’ did not include Macbeth. Indeed, although claims have been made for it as a history play its generally accepted status as a tragedy has meant that it is the Scottish play in name only, and that specific nationalist readings of it are relatively rare. If topicality is the graveyard of Shakespeare studies then this is most emphatically the case with the tragedies.

[2]  The title of this volume is taken from the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which refers to the ‘weird sisters’ as the ‘weyward sisters’. Wayward suggests something different from weird, and the question that this volume asks is this: ‘Why Macbeth and race? What is “weyward” about the intersections of race and performance in Macbeth?’ (p.3) The starting point in Ayanna Thompson’s opening essay is ‘Note on Commercial Theatre’ (1940), in which Langston Hughes states, ‘You put me in Macbeth…/ And in everything but what’s about me’ (p.9), which appears to echo both Caliban’s cursing of the language he’s been taught and Macmorris’s questioning of his own patriotic pigeonholing. What Hughes is saying here is that the 1936 ‘Voodoo’ production of Macbeth directed by Orson Welles conscripted black actors into a play that for Hughes had no real relevance to contemporary black American struggles. The rest of the volume is devoted to countering Hughes’ claim. The essays are more concerned with the supernatural than with Scotland, yet paradoxically they have more to say about the play’s complex colonial politics of civility and superstition than most Shakespeare criticism (Toni Morrison’s arguments elsewhere around rootedness and ancestry are relevant in this regard).

[3]  Celia R. Daileader looks at the way in which Middleton’s The Witch can inform racial readings of Macbeth, arguing that ‘it is to Middleton’s interpolations and alterations that we owe the ambivalent, though certainly unwitting, legacy of “racialized” interpretation’ (p.12). Daileader’s claim that Middleton rendered Shakespeare’s original ‘amenable to exoticized settings and an interracial cast’ (p.13) prompts the reader to recall that Scotland was an exotic setting for English playwrights of the period and that the preoccupation with the supernatural had a strong Scottish dimension.

[4]  Subsequent essays dwell on the ways in which Macbeth is experienced, exploited and explored in black American culture, from nineteenth-century debates on slavery to the election of Barack Obama. Heather S. Nathan observes that the play was ‘ubiquitous in antebellum American culture’ (p. 23), and was especially resonant in the years preceding the Civil War: ‘Some spectators imagined Macbeth as a democratic hero, rising up against a tyrant (like the Southern Confederacy defending its states’ rights against Northern oppressors), while others conjured parallels between the “un-sexed” Lady Macbeth and the female antislavery agitators’ (pp.24-5). John C. Briggs examines Frederick Douglass’s ‘most characteristic phrasal link to “the Scottish play”’, namely his repeated use of Macbeth’s defiant speech calling for “banners on the outward walls”, and wonders ‘why Douglass used and repeated a battle cry from an infamous tyrant to rally others around the Fourteenth Amendment and freemen’s (now new citizens’) rights’ (p.35). Briggs’s conclusion is that Douglass found in Macbeth’s speech a spirit of defiance, and in the play more broadly a struggle with sinister forces that resonated with the haunting effects of slavery.

[5]  In a fascinating essay, Bernth Lindfors looks at the ways in which the black American actor Ira Aldridge interpreted Macbeth, beginning with a remarkable performance in Paisley, Scotland, on 25 June 1830. Later, in performances in Germany and Russia, Aldridge as a whiteface Macbeth drew admiration from reviewers as an actor whose ‘histrionic equivocation’ got to the heart of ‘a conscience-stricken Scottish regicide’ (p.54). In ‘Minstrel Show Macbeth’, Joyce Green MacDonald points to ‘Christy’s Nigga Songster, a collection of songs performed by the famous blackface troupe the Christy Minstrels’, which included ‘Nigga’s Description of Macbeth’ (p.55). According to MacDonald, ‘Blackface was instrumental in performing the dislocation and alienation of the whites in 1850s New York through these skewed Macbeths, a dislocation whose depth was directly indexed to its choice of the most high culture of authors for its parodic expression’ (p.63).

[6]  Moving into the nineteenth century, Nick Moschovakis looks at the ways in which Shakespeare’s play features in writing by African Americans from W. E. B. Du Bois’s borrowing from Banquo to lament the slow pace of change since Emancipation in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), to ‘sustained allusions to Macbeth as a figure for African-American self-empowerment and self-advancement’ (p.71) such as Langston Hughes’s drama Emperor of Haiti (1936).

[7]  There follow four essays on Federal Theatre projects, before and after Orson Welles’s all-black Macbeth (1936), with Lisa N. Simmons examining an earlier all-black production of the play in Boston in 1935 by the Negro Federal Theatre of Massachusetts, Marguerite Rippy focusing on Welles’s ‘Voodoo’ version, and a characteristic Welles anecdote about him playing the lead in blackface unnoticed in Indianapolis when the lead actor fell ill, an act of ‘performative passing’ that Rippy notes is ‘unverifiable’. Rippy’s essay sharply details the way in which Welles shifts Shakespeare’s Scottish play to nineteenth-century Haiti in a move that manages to retain the colonial dimensions of the original, too often overlooked by conventional Shakespeare criticism. Scott L. Newstok investigates ‘re-do voodoo Macbeths’ in the wake of Welles, charting the ways in which that 1936 landmark theatre event opened the door for African American theatre and for a long association of that theatre with Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Finally in this section, Lenwood Sloan homes in on The Vo-Du Macbeth (2001-2005), a major collaborative revival of Welles’s project which was ultimately shipwrecked by an unforeseen tempest: ‘Hurricane Katrina came along, blowing the entire project to the four corners of the universe’ (p.110).

[8]  The collection then takes another fascinating turn in a section entitled ‘Further Stages’, as Harry J. Lennix offers ‘A Black Actor’s Guide to the Scottish Play’, starting with his own personal experience, and concluding that he remains ‘plagued by never being able to know with any certainty if my eternal awareness of race lessens or increases my own experience of a play such as Macbeth’ (p.120). Alexander C. Y. Huang discusses John R. Briggs’s Shogun Macbeth (1985) as a fusion of ‘the Scottish play, Kurosawa, and Asian America’, and while he maintains that ‘Shakespeare – however Asian – is always “white”’, he also observes that this version ‘has successfully constructed a contact zone that remains open for future inscription’ (p.125). Anita Maynard-Losh gives an account of her own experience as director of a 2003 Tlinglit version of Macbeth, using this setting of the story in Southeast Alaska to meditate on wider issues of Native American culture in relation to Shakespeare. Her exit line is intriguing in its sense of a new interpretation and sense of ownership emerging with regard to the Scottish play by ‘the ultimate “white” playwright’: ‘Jake Waid, the actor playing Macbeth, stirred everyone in the room to renew their commitment to the challenge when he declared, “We need to claim this play for Native American people’ (p.131). In a similar vein, José A. Esquea maps out New York-based Teatro La Tea’s Latino Macbeth 2029, staged in 2008, while William C. Carroll, in ‘Multicultural, Multilingual Macbeth’, explores the cultural complexities of a 2008 Hawaiian production of the play by Paul T. Mitri, a director of Egyptian descent. Carroll makes a telling point about Shakespeare’s play when he reminds readers that ‘For Shakespeare’s London audiences in 1606, the Scots were, if not a separate race, certainly thought of as an inferior people: uncivilized, too often wild and savage (revealing their descent from the Picts, as opposed to the English descent, predominantly Anglo-Saxon-Norman)’, before going on to conclude that ‘The Scottish play has rarely if ever seemed so cosmopolitan, nor have some contemporary racial issues been so directly represented as in this production’ (p.140).

[9]  A series of essays ensue on musical Macbeths, with Wallace McClain Cheatham reflecting on Verdi, Douglas Lanier dwelling on Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder (1957), and Todd Landon Barnes taking a look at hip-hop Macbeths. The next section on screen versions begins conventionally with Polanski, but Francesca Royster gives a twist to readings of this film by analysing the politics of whiteness in it and in Shakespeare studies more widely. Courtney Lehmann takes a more oblique angle in a compelling essay on Nina Menkes’s The Bloody Child, while Amy Scott-Douglass, in an ambitious and engaging intervention, looks at a range of responses including Grey’s Anatomy, with some sharp observations on the politics of nontraditional casting and interracial relationships.

[10]  The final section, ‘Shakespearean (A)Versions’, contains three essays that emphasise the inventiveness of contemporary black responses to the play, beginning with Charita Gainey-O’Toole and Elizabeth Alexander’s co-authored piece on three African-American women poets – Rita Dove, Julia Fields, and Lucille Clifton. Philip C. Kolin picks up again on Langston Hughes’s 1940 cautionary note, showing that Macbeth can be ‘about’ African Americans contrary to Hughes’s protestations. Kolin takes August Wilson’s King Hedley II (1999) as exemplifying a creative critical engagement with the play that reorients and repossesses it. These aversions end with Peter Erickson’s absorbing essay detailing the ways in which major figures from James Baldwin to August Wilson have been shaped by and have in turn reshaped Shakespeare.

[11]  The volume closes with an incisive epilogue on ‘ObaMacbeth’, by Richard Burt, which uses President Obama’s allusion to the Scottish play by its accursed proper name in relation to Lincoln’s love of Shakespeare to tease out the politics of a ‘national transition’ that is also a ‘national traumission’ (p. 257). The appendix, a list of ‘Selected Productions of Macbeth Featuring Non-Traditional Casting’, compiled by Brent Butgereit and Scott L. Newstok, sets the seal on a thought-provoking volume that had me taking enough notes to fill a whole notebook. Weyward Macbeth is an exceptionally rich and suggestive collection of essays, the kind of book that you know you’ll return to time and again to mull over the nuggets that its wide and wise contributors have unearthed. With a final nod to Langston Hughes, this is a book that not only puts something distinctive into Macbeth, but also proves Derrida’s point that ‘everything is in Shakespeare’. After reading Weyward Macbeth I went back to Shakespeare’s play and pondered Malcolm’s remark that his sins were such that ‘black Macbeth/ Will seem as pure as snow’ (4.3.53-4), and Macbeth’s cursing of the messenger bearing bad news: ‘The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!’ (5.3.11). The best critical works are ones that change the way we look at a familiar text, and this book, bristling with energy and insight, certainly does that.

University of Glasgow, February 2013

Conference Announcement and Call for Papers


Sponsored by the AHRC in its support of The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne, this is a conference which will reassess the ‘place’ of preaching in Early Modern Europe in all its aspects.

Plenary Lecture: Brian Cummings (York)

Confirmed Speakers: Hugh Adlington (Birmingham); David Colclough (Queen Mary); Joshua Eckhardt (Virginia Commonwealth); Katrin Ettenhuber (Cambridge); Lori Anne Ferrell (Claremont); Kenneth Fincham (Kent); Erica Longfellow (Oxford); Mary Ann Lund (Leicester); Peter McCullough (Oxford); Charlotte Methuen (Glasgow); Mary Morrissey (Reading); Jean-Louis Quantin (Sorbonne); Emma Rhatigan (Sheffield); Andrew Spicer (Oxford Brookes); Sebastiaan Verweij (Oxford); Philip West (Oxford)

All further conference details – including graduate bursaries to attend the conference – and information on booking will be posted on this site later: http://www.cems-oxford.org/donne

Call for Papers
The organisers welcome proposals (250-500 word abstracts) for further papers on any of the following aspects of sermon culture in Early Modern Europe: Roman Catholic preaching; architectural settings and auditories of preaching; sermons in manuscript and print; performance and delivery; sermon hearing, note taking, and commonplacing; production and reception of patristic and other theological works; rhetoric; and more.

Please send your proposals to Professor Peter McCullough and Dr Sebastiaan Verweij: peter.mccullough@lincoln.ox.ac.uk / sebastiaan.verweij@ell.ox.ac.uk


Exhibition Review: The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. 2 November 2012 – 14 April 2013.

Reviewed by Lucy Razzall


[1]  The year 2011-2012 saw not one but two major exhibitions of Leonardo da Vinci’s work in London. In an unprecedented achievement, the National Gallery managed to bring together more than half of his surviving paintings from across the world, including a newly attributed work, for their eagerly-awaited blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. At the other end of the Mall, the largest ever exhibition of the Florentine artist’s studies of the body, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist, was staged in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. These works on paper are among some of the Royal Collection’s greatest treasures, and as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, a further ten Leonardo drawings from the Collection toured regional galleries in Birmingham, Bristol, Belfast, Dundee and Hull. The two London exhibitions were both extraordinarily dazzling, each revealing in their richness just how difficult it is to pin down this iconic figure of the Italian Renaissance, but also reminding us, through the incredibly wide range of subjects, media, and intellectual concerns manifested in Leonardo’s work, how complex any definition of ‘the Renaissance’ must necessarily be. It was timely then, that by the close of the year, the Queen’s Gallery had been given over to a complementary vision of the Renaissance. The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein opened in November 2012, turning the viewer’s gaze away from the Italian focal point that the two Leonardo exhibitions inevitably encouraged, towards the artistic productions of northern Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, paying particular attention to two of this region’s most influential sons: Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

[2]  Curated by Kate Heard and Lucy Whitaker, The Northern Renaissance originally opened in June 2011, at the Royal Collection’s northernmost gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh. With over one hundred and thirty individual works on display, this is a large exhibition, although the relatively intimate atmosphere of the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace (and even more so at Holyroodhouse), with its several small side-rooms and alcoves, means that the viewer is not overwhelmed by the number of items which the curators have brought together. The significant group of paintings and drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger is one of the strengths of the Royal Collection, and The Northern Renaissance celebrates a fine selection of them, framing the whole exhibition around these pieces and a similarly impressive choice of Dürer’s works.

[3]  We are left in no doubt that Albrecht Dürer was the most outstanding printmaker of his day. The pieces selected for The Northern Renaissance demonstrate his versatility and canny entrepreneurship, as well as his virtuosic skill. The eight images from the first edition of his first illustrated book project, the Apocalypse (issued in 1498, with German text, and then in Latin the same year), would merit a whole exhibition by themselves, such is the detail crammed within each page in this terrifying series of visions of the end-times. Almost as imposing is the two-metre segment of a woodcut frieze, The Great Triumphal Cart (1522), made from eight blocks for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, as part of a printmaking project Maximilian commissioned to celebrate his own rule. This Triumphal Procession was not completed in his lifetime, but Dürer issued the Triumphal Cart after the emperor’s death anyway, partly as a gesture of posthumous glorification, but mainly as a matter of personal financial urgency. At the other end of the scale, one of the most appealing works of the whole exhibition is Dürer’s small, elegant study of a greyhound, a brush and grey-black wash preparation piece for one of the five dogs in his engraving of St Eustace (c.1501). This simple study is comparable with some of the more famous engravings included in the exhibition – A Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), and St Jerome in his Study (1514) – as an illustration of Dürer’s ‘unrivalled sensitivity in depicting texture and form through line alone’ (The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein, 73).

[4]  England’s place in the ‘Northern Renaissance’ is suggested most prominently by the beautiful array of portrait drawings and paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger. These include the three-quarter-length (a format that is rare in Holbein’s work) oil portraits of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (c. 1539) and Sir Henry Guildford (1527). The latter is one of Holbein’s most impressive surviving portraits, with lavish use of gold on the sitter’s sleeves, a vivid contrast with the simple green curtain pulled aside behind him. Most stunning of all, however, are the chalk drawings made in preparation for oil paintings of Thomas More, Sir Thomas Elyot, his wife Margaret, and others, the serendipitous discovery of which by Queen Caroline in the drawer of a bureau at Kensington Palace restored them to their deserved place as jewels of the Royal Collection. While these drawings offer us a privileged glimpse into Holbein’s artistic process, they also have a delicate integrity of their own, the faces of their sitters cautiously emerging from the surface of the flesh-coloured prepared paper. Alongside these, it is intriguing to compare the image of Sir John Godsalve (c.1532-3), with its extensive use of watercolour and bodycolour, which suggests that it was intended as a finished work in its own right, rather than a preparatory piece.

[5]  Beyond paintings and works on paper, a significant range of different media from across northern Europe are represented in this exhibition, and this is one of its strengths. Many of the paintings, such as the famous portrait of Erasmus by Quinten Massys (1517), and The Calling of St Matthew by Jans Mertens the Younger (1530s), call attention to the materiality of everyday things. Books, papers, scissors, inkpots, and coins proliferate in these paintings, with an intriguing, almost tactile quality. Sometimes, however, the apparently mundane manifests itself as more messy, and more sinister – most notably of all in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), where seventeenth-century transformations of babies into livestock, pitchers of water, and bundles of groceries reveal an attempt to rework this story of massacre into a less disturbing one of plunder. The vivid engagement with the material world in these Netherlandish works spills over into the whole gallery space, where manuscripts, printed books, sculptures, bronzes, tapestries, and pieces of armour are interspersed amongst the paintings, prints, and drawings mounted on the walls. The inclusion of these examples of moveable decorative arts also adds a striking diversity of scale, from the smallest French portrait miniature to the two large wool and silk tapestries from a Redemption of Man series, made in the southern Netherlands (c.1517-21), and measuring four metres wide and nearly eight metres high. These two examples were acquired by Cardinal Wolsey as part of his collection of over six hundred tapestries. (The bigger space available in London meant that these, as well as a few other items, could be added when the exhibition came down from Edinburgh, although they are not included in the catalogue).

[6]  The section on art in France in this period was another highlight. A series of arrestingly elegant royal portraits by Jean Perréal, Jean Clouet, and his son François, testifies to the popularity of portraiture in the French court at this time. The display, in an appropriately intimate side room, of a series of Clouet portrait miniatures alongside some exquisitely illuminated manuscript books of hours suggests the close relationship between these two forms of artistic production, both of which attracted significant patronage. It is in the French court, moreover, that we can locate some especially organic connections between the ‘Italian’ and ‘Northern’ Renaissances. Francis I was fascinated by Italian artists, and drew important painters and sculptors to his court with lavish financial rewards. Amongst their number, Leonardo da Vinci travelled to France in 1516, and subsequently spent the last years of his life there, working as a designer of architecture, sculpture, and engineering projects. He was also required to provide costume designs for the elaborate masques and tournaments that were so integral to courtly life; the exhibition includes A masquerader as a lansquenet, a figure worked in black chalk, pen and ink, and wash on rough paper, whose swirling silken sleeves suggest the exoticism (and expense) of these festivities. There are also polychromatic designs for furniture and ceilings by other Italian artists who received similar patronage from Francis I, illustrating some of the ways in which Italian ornamental fashions worked their way into the architectural fabric of northern Europe throughout the sixteenth century.

[7] The exhibition catalogue (London: Royal Collection, 2011) features additional contributions by Jennifer Scott, Emma Stuart, Vanessa Remington, Martin Clayton, and Jonathan Marsden. The organization of the volume matches that of the exhibition, with chapters on each principal geographical region (the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, and France) framed by sections focusing more closely on Dürer and Holbein. There is a pleasing attention to useful details: in the discussion of Dürer’s Apocalypse woodcuts, the eight full-page reproductions are accompanied by the relevant passages from the Book of Revelation, for example, and throughout the catalogue each main image is linked to items in the bibliography. Together, moreover, the exhibition and the catalogue shed some light on another narrative with its origins in the ‘Northern Renaissance’ – that of the Royal Collection itself, which can be said to have begun with the patronage of Hans Holbein the Younger by Henry VIII, for whom this artist produced some of his most important works.

[8]  What comes across quite clearly throughout this exhibition is a sense of the intricacy of the networks in which Dürer and Holbein, and their artistic and intellectual contemporaries, lived and worked. These networks were not necessarily confined to northern Europe, and as the selection of works produced in France in particular conveyed, the connections with the Italian Renaissance were often more integral than marginal. Thus The Northern Renaissance is an exhibition which raises more questions than it answers, but this is no criticism. It is an exhibition which subtly invites us to reconsider the paradigms of periodization and conceptualization, and thus makes an important contribution to an ongoing and wide-ranging critical venture.

Emmanuel College, Cambridge, February 2013

Editorial: Natio Scota

Editorial: Natio Scota

Alessandra Petrina

[1] Natio Scota was the name chosen for the Thirteenth International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, which took place in Padua in July 2011. It was the first time that the ‘Scottish Conference’ had migrated to Italy; by an interesting coincidence it was hosted by the first university to admit, in 1534, the existence of a Natio Scota, a group of students sharing the same Scottish national identity – even if this birth was only the result of chance, or political calculation, as a recent study has made clear (Piovan, forthcoming). This coincidence suggested the opportunity to study the meeting of two strands in medieval and early modern Scottish literature: the definition of a literary canon, and the definition of the Scottish nation. Attempting an assessment of Scottish literature means above all dealing with a definition of this literature within a strongly defined national context: literature and nation grow together, and each contributes to the other’s definition. This was what we asked conference participants to consider in the papers that were presented, and in the lively discussions that took place over those five days.

[2] With sixty papers being presented, the themes and discussions ranged widely, and the conference offered an opportunity to assess the state of critical enquiry into Medieval and Renaissance cultural production in Scotland; the theme of the existence, formation and vindication of a Scottish nation remained present throughout, and was translated into literary terms through discussions of the Scottish canon, an issue that has been the object of critical discussion since Roderick J. Lyall’s seminal study in 1991. Here Lyall contended that the Scottish literary canon had erred on the side of nationalism, ‘privileging works which foreground their Scottishness at the expense of texts which are more universal in their style and/or content’ (Lyall 1991: 2). The issue involved not simply style and theme, but also language, as poetry and prose in Older Scots tended to occupy a dominant position in critical studies, incidentally giving priority to the debate on Anglo-Scottish literary relations over a possibly more propitious setting of Scottish literature (in one of its many languages) in a wider European context. The risk, clearly envisaged by Lyall, was that of a ‘coalescence, not to say complicity, in the canon-forming processes of English and Scottish literature’ (Lyall 1991: 15), while it was certainly time to envisage medieval Scottish literature as one more vernacular contribution to the European Middle Ages.

[3] In the twenty years between Lyall’s exhortation and the Padua conference, there has been a radical change in attitude on the part of scholars and critics dealing with late medieval and early modern Scottish works, a change reflected in the papers presented here. The present issue of JNR includes a small selection of the conference papers, but even within this range it will be seen that many of the issues under discussion in Padua are being re-presented here, allowing us to gauge the progress of Scottish studies since, and partly thanks to, Lyall’s own work. The early modern period in particular has benefited from attentive study and from an increase in scholarly editions, starting with the impressive work undertaken by the Scottish Text Society and drawing on earlier, epoch-making studies such as Helena Mennie Shire’s work on the relation between politics, poetry and music at the court of James VI (Shire 1969): the conference constituted also an opportunity to present much work in progress on editions of the works of John Stewart of Baldynneis, the Maitland Quarto, the satirical literature of the Reformation, and a corpus of comic and parodic poems; at the same time scholarly research has brought about the re-discovery of late sixteenth-century poets such as Elizabeth Melville, while electronic publication offers dazzling new opportunities in the editing and analysis of texts. The relation between literature and religion has been reconsidered in a recent collection of essays studying Scottish works across the divide between Middle Ages and Renaissance (Houwen 2012); literature composed at the court of James VI has been newly assessed in the articles collected and edited by David Parkinson (Parkinson 2012), while the study of Scottish literature in Latin has received new impulse thanks to forthcoming volumes and projects (Johnson and Petrina, forthcoming; see also the ‘New Vistas’ project directed by Alasdair A. MacDonald and John Flood). More comprehensive works such as the 2012 Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature include an evaluation of the appearance and progress of Scottish studies (Carruthers and McIlvanney 2013: 248-60), while the forthcoming International Companion to Scottish Poetry promises equal attention to works in Gaelic, Norse and Latin, as well as in English and Scots (Sassi, forthcoming). Above all, we are asked to reconsider the positioning of Scottish literature within its European context, by reflecting not only on the cultural exchanges between Scotland and its close or less close neighbours, but also on the role played by politics and religion in the creation and implementation of a new literary language, thanks to its influence on collective imagery and modes of thought.

[4] Aptly enough, the present collection opens with Michael Bath’s study of the celebrations accompanying the baptism of Prince Henry in Stirling in 1594. Bath’s study draws on the description of the event written by William Fowler, who supervised the celebration and organized the entertainments in his role as Secretary to the Queen (interestingly, his description was printed, shortly after the baptism, in slightly different versions in Edinburgh and London), as well as on a tradition of studies on festivities and trionfi that has hitherto privileged English celebrations over Scottish ones (Anglo 1969; Orgel and Strong 1973). The Stirling entertainment, however, is set even more firmly in an international context by focusing on its analogies with contemporary French celebrations, especially as concerns the use of emblems and the marine pageantry. All this shows the strength of ‘the cultural commerce between Scotland and France in the sixteenth century’, and suggests a sharing of mythological symbols and of humanist iconography that offers a new setting for Scotland’s display of power in a propagandistic context in the late sixteenth century.

[5] If Bath uses a long-forgotten text by William Fowler to study the role of symbolism at the court of James VI, the contributions that follow show equal attention to works that a few decades ago would have been considered minor, but that offer a unique and novel approach to literary culture, revealing unexplored facets of Scottish early modern imagination. We go back to more traditional literary texts in Janet Hadley Williams’s contribution, dedicated to comic verse in Older Scots, and especially to the ‘Quha doutis?’ poem appearing in the Bannatyne miscellany. Through her analysis, Hadley Williams also offers an exemplary instance of the modern editor at work on a medieval Scottish text. Her close reading and use of analogies ranging from Aristides and Columella to Sacrobosco and Gavin Douglas offer useful clues for an identification of the time and cultural setting in which the poem was composed. The contribution thus welcomes back a long-forgotten poem within the canonical folds of early modern literature, highlighting at the same time the universality of some of its themes (the dream vision, the moralitas) and the peculiar Scottishness of some of its modes. Curious sounds, strange smells, fantastic shapes connote the dream atmosphere of this poem; dream-like classifications and eldritch sounds appear in another little-studied text, the ‘Monologue recreative’ set at the centre of the fifteenth-century Complaynt of Scotland and studied here by Luuk Houwen, who examines the animal catalogues contained in the monologue in the light of his knowledge of medieval bestiaries and the Scottish heraldic tradition. Houwen brings this text back into a wider European tradition by showing the influence of ars grammatica on this text through a close analysis of its rhetorical and stylistic traits, and identifying in Alain Chartier’s Quadrilogue invective a possible source. Houwen’s conclusions (‘here we have an author who is not only heavily indebted to medieval traditions but also one who is innovative enough to develop these traditions into something new and special’) appear to insist once again on the theme of the relation between tradition and innovation, which in the case of Scottish literature is profoundly embedded in the relation between local and international culture.

[6] The observation of nature and the use of literature to investigate the natural world is also the object of Karen Jillings’s study, dedicated to late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century literature on healing waters. As in the case of the previous contributions, the choice of generally overlooked texts allows Jillings to explore areas often considered only tangential to literary criticism, such as the use of vernacular in scientific writing; the impact of medicine on Renaissance humanism in Scotland; the development of medical education in Scottish universities, and the international models these universities followed. In her study we also see the progress that is made in early modern Scottish culture between a medieval, ‘gnostic’, authority-based approach to scientific issues and more modern, empirical attitudes, reflecting an international trend but at the same time forcing the scientist to concentrate on national, even local features through observation and experimentation. In this case, too, the scholar’s conclusion is that, by focussing on topical traits, these writers entered the ‘dynamic picture’ of European medical writing.

[7] The contribution that follows, on the other hand, concentrates on a poem that proclaims its European outlook in its very subject. Robert Henryson’s Orpheus and Eurydice represents a fascinating mixture of classical tradition and medieval interpretation of the myth, and Beatrice Mameli reads the poem proposing first an outline of the impact of the Orpheus myth in the British Isles, both in literary and in iconographic terms. In following the Boethius-Trivet reading of the myth, Henryson never forgets concomitant literary interpretations of the story, and Mameli posits the analysis of Henryson’s mediation between various sources (both classical and medieval) as a key to understanding the relation between author and intended audience. Through her analysis of the various characters of the poems, Mameli highlights the contradictions inherent in their representations – contradictions that morph into an ironic commentary on the mutable nature of the myth, an attitude that could evidently be appreciated by an erudite and sophisticated audience.

[8] Another romance, set in comparison with the tradition it is supposed to derive from, is discussed in the contribution that follows. Rhiannon Purdie reads Roswall and Lillian in relation with the early modern ballad ‘The Lord of Learne’, re-positioning such a relation through the proposal of a new chronology for the two texts, and highlighting the structural and thematic differences between the two texts. In this way what is challenged is the very ‘medieval nature’ of Roswall and Lillian, and, by extension, of chivalric romance, or indeed, the separateness in time of romance and ballad. It is a welcome reminder that the often re-proposed divide between medieval and early modern, already successfully challenged in the English context (as briefly but persuasively shown in Cooper 2006), is even less meaningful in Scottish literary history. 

[9] This issue of JNR offers one last exploration of obscure, un-canonical corners in its last contribution, in which Jamie Reid Baxter discusses Francis Hamilton’s religious verse. The essay offers also an exploration of the nature of the sonnet in seventeenth-century religious poetry in Scotland: Reid Baxter carefully disentangles Biblical echoes, Calvinist overtones, and personal and political allusions, uncovering a complex autobiographical background that constantly informs Hamilton’s poetry. At the same time as this early modern versifier is reclaimed into the literary canon, the critic asks us to reconsider our own attitudes as modern readers when approaching a medieval or early modern text. What we discover at the end of this variegated, polyphonic journey into Natio Scota is that the construction of a canon may indeed tell us more about modern reading attitudes than about the formation of a cultural tradition.

Università di Padova, Italy


Anglo, Sydney. 1969. Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Carruthers, Gerald, and Liam McIlvanney (eds). 2013. The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Cooper, Helen. 2006. Shakespeare and the Middle Ages. An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at the University of Cambridge, 29 April 2005 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Houwen, Luuk (ed.). 2012. Literature and Religion in Late Medieval and Early Modern Scotland. Essays in Honour of Alasdair A. MacDonald (Leuven: Peeters)

Johnson, Ian, and Alessandra Petrina (eds). Forthcoming. Scottish Latinitas.

Lyall, Roderick J.. 1991. ‘“A New Maid Channoun”? Redefining the Canonical in Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Literature’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 26: 1-18.

Mennie Shire, Helena. 1969. Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under King James VI (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Orgel, Stephen, and Roy Strong. 1973. Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court (London: Sotheby Parke Bernet)

Parkinson, David J. (ed.). 2012. James VI and I, Literature and Scotland. Tides of Change, 1567-1625 (Leuven: Peeters)

Piovan, Francesco. Forthcoming. ‘Autonomy by Imposition. The Birth of the Natio Scota in the Law Faculty of the University of Padua (1534)’, in The Italian University in the Renaissance, special issue of Renaissance Studies, ed. by David Rundle and Alessandra Petrina

Sassi, Carla (ed.). Forthcoming. The International Companion to Scottish Poetry (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies)

An Art Historian Walks into a Journal . . .

Copyright The Captain Christie Crawfurd English Civil War Collection / Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationIt was with a sense of nervous anticipation that I accepted an invitation to join the editorial team at JNR.

Having carried out some research into the role of the Reviews Editor my nerves were not exactly calmed. One article on the subject, from the Library Quarterly, advised that “occupying the position of book review editor makes one vulnerable to all sorts of attacks.” Reading on, I learned of the threat of the disgruntled author, who feels their work has been unfairly assessed or, even worse, ignored altogether; and of the hazards of the temperamental reviewer who takes umbrage at harsh editing. Was I ready for such a position? Could I cope with the demands of maintaining this careful balance between prima donna authors and volatile reviewers? Well, the answer was yes. And, as yet, I have still to encounter the wrath of either – although I do have a copy of Marla Johnson’s A Book Review Editor’s Apologia at hand, should the need arise.

My arrival at JNR also augurs the development and extension of the Journal’s art historical focus, starting shortly with a series of exhibition reviews. Since both the words and images of the Northern Renaissance were shaped by the shifting political, social, religious and intellectual conditions of early modern Europe, it is hoped that this additional emphasis will encourage cross-disciplinary connections and promote a reassessment of just what that monolithic term, “renaissance culture”, actually involved. If you have any ideas for book, film, performance or exhibition reviews, would like to volunteer your services as a reviewer or simply want to get in touch, please do submit a comment below or e-mail me.

Catriona Murray (Associate Editor, Reviews).