Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

‘What Think You of This Present State?’: Representations of Scotland and Anglo-Scottish Union in Robert Greene’s the Scottish History of James the Fourth and John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

‘What Think You of This Present State?’: Representations of Scotland and Anglo-Scottish Union in Robert Greene’s the Scottish History of James the Fourth and John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck

Article excerpt

As the elderly Elizabeth I's long reign drew to a close in the late 1590s, it became increasingly likely that her Scottish kinsman, James VI, would ascend the English throne, thus uniting two sovereign states under one crown. This came to pass in 1603, as James became the first Stuart king of England, possessed of a dual British sovereignty and eager to embark on an ambitious project of still more 'perfect union',1 a goal not achieved until more than a hundred years after his accession. Given the recent political debates that have thrown into question the shifting loci of power as a result of 1707's Treaty of Union (and which continue to rage despite its first affirmation by plebiscite in its history), it is useful to consider the ways in which union between Great Britain's two independent states was interrogated on the early modern English stage, when the first iteration of unity under a Scotsman ruling from London became a realistic possibility.2 Whilst representations of Scotland and its people on the stage have been recognised, there has been a tendency on the part of critics to blur the divisions between the British states by acknowledging early modern Scots as what Hoenselaars problematically terms 'British "foreigners"'.3 Whilst the term is geographically correct, it arguably elides the sense of cultural and national foreignness which existed on the British Isles prior to political unification. Certainly, in Thomas Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique, the supposed national identity of the Scottish people is listed alongside those of other nations, with no recognition of communal British characteristics:

The Englishman [is known] for feeding and chaunging for apparell. The Dutchman for drinking. The Frenchman for pride and inconstance. The Spanyard for nimblenes of body, and much disdaine: the Italian for great wit and policie: the Scots for boldnesse, and the Boeme for stubbornesse.4

The national independence of Scotland and its potential union with England play a significant role in Robert Greene's remarkably ahistorical The Scottish History of James the Fourth (c1590). Interestingly, John Ford's Perkin Warbeck (c. 1634) also engages with the reign of James IV, from the vantage point of three decades after the Union of the Crowns, which saw James VI of Scotland descend on London with a gaggle of Scottish courtiers as James I of England. Commonalities in both plays certainly exist - not least the theatrical representation of Scotland's early-Renaissance king (albeit with wildly differing degrees of historical accuracy). In both plays one finds competing narratives of dominance, division, unity, nationalism, unionism, assimilation, resistance, might and weakness. Yet the plays also offer alternative views of history and British union, with Greene's largely-fictional, teleological study considering the inevitability of monarchical union and the necessity of English-based dominance (via the collapsing of the historical with the contemporary), and Ford meditating historically on thirty years of that union, positing the imperfections of unified and centralised polity across the British Isles, and raising questions about military might at home versus political might on the European stage.

Lisa Hopkins has persuasively argued that both Greene's The Scottish History of James the Fourth and Ford's Perkin Warbeck (which share theatrical representations of the Scottish king who laid the foundations of the Stuart claim to the English throne) are closely bound up with the issue of succession. The former, as Jean-Christophe Mayer attests, is 'at the heart of the succession question' (that question concerning who was to succeed Elizabeth);5 the latter, Hopkins suggests, concerns itself with the potential succession of an alternative claimant to the throne of Scotland at a time when the 'question of succession suddenly and unexpectedly flared up again... as the arrival of a second prince made the division of the kingdoms between two heirs once more a possibility'. …

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