It’s the Scottish Play, isn’t it? If you put Shakespeare and Scotland together in the same sentence then Macbeth is usually what people think you’re talking about. And to some extent, why shouldn’t they? The play is a wonder – the shortest and punchiest of the major tragedies (though that could be more a function of the contingencies of its survival than of the author’s planning), filled with baroque, hallucinatory images of horror. It’s enthralled me since I first read it as a child. What’s more, it’s a play that enduringly conjures up the long winters, rough manners and undressed stonework of a brutal, baronial Scotland. Rough tartans, claymores, and targes all round, even if the play in fact traduces the historical Macbheatha whose name and story it so readily makes its own.
But it’s not clear that Macbeth has been the uniquely ‘Scottish Play’ for all that long – as far as I can tell, this moniker seems not to have achieved much traction before the mid-nineteenth century. And while the composition, performance and publication of this particular work are of course crucial moments in the history of the relationship between Shakespeare and Scotland, the story of that relationship is in fact much more multi-faceted. It stretches from the influence of a King of Scots on Shakespeare’s own life and writing, through the reception and publication of Shakespeare’s works in seventeenth and eighteenth century Scotland, to the striking appropriations of, and responses to, Shakespeare made by contemporary Scottish writers such as Tom Leonard and David Greig.
In 2011-12, with the financial support of the AHRC, the National Library of Scotland’s Helen Vincent and I curated an exhibition on this topic. We took as our focus the world-class collections of early Shakespearean printed books to be found both at Edinburgh University Library and NLS, and we sought to tell the story of Scotland’s relationship with Shakespeare through the lives and activities of the people who’d brought these collections together and helped them to find their current homes. We also created a web feature to show some of the highlights of the collections, and provide more information on the collectors, to a wider audience anywhere in the world.