Sir Walter Scott and William Shakespeare

24th Apr 2020

On the anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism, our Collections and Interpretation Manager Kirsty puts a tiny trinket centre stage to explore Sir Walter Scott's literary hero.

It’s hardly surprising that Scott was reading Shakespeare in the last quarter of the 18th century. The Bard’s work had been growing in popular appeal steadily since the Restoration of 1660, but the cult of Shakespeare as a man as well as a playwright was overwhelmingly an 18th-century phenomenon and inspired a string of new temples and monuments across Britain. The actor David Garrick who owed his career to the work of Shakespeare initiated the Great Pageant of 1769 , the jubilee event that established Stratford-upon-Avon as a place of pilgrimage for literary enthusiasts. This set in motion the annual commemorations still celebrated around the world today around the time of Shakespeare’s honorary birthday, 23rd April. Scott himself made the journey to Stratford to doff his cap to Shakespeare in 1821 and 1828, and referenced his plays in direct quotations, plot devices and character portraits throughout the Waverley Novels. Guy Mannering, Scott’s second novel, makes reference to almost half of Shakespeare’s entire literary output – a staggering statistic!

In October 1827 Walter Scott was tremendously excited to have received a literary relic for his collection; a snuff box made from the real wood of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. By emphasising the real he acknowledges that Shakespeare’s mulberry tree was a bit like a secular version of the True Cross in the relic trade, with more pieces than the original should allow for! Despite the mulberry tree having been felled in the 1750s by the somewhat irritated owner of Shakespeare’s former home and garden at New Place (who didn’t fancy sharing the site with streams of visitors), the owner didn’t let their short temper get in the way of an entrepreneurial opportunity and used the mulberry wood to fashion a range of collectables and keepsakes to sell. As David Garrick himself was presented with an ornate casket and an entire chair made from the wood, Scott’s anxiety about the real and the imitation mulberry tree relics was well placed!

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