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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

f) Political medievalisms 3

3) The Others of national medievalism: the case of David Greig’s Dunsinane

Matthias D. Berger

Texte intégral

1This reading of Scottish playwright David Greig’s Dunsinane suggests that the play questions traditional patterns of othering that pervade negotiations of national identity. Dunsinane is an announced sequel to Shakespeare’s Macbeth—its plot revolves around the attempts of the English army to pacify Scotland after the overthrow of Macbeth—as well as a pointed response to it. Unlike Shakespeare’s so-called “Scottish Play,” Dunsinane is centrally concerned with Scottish identity. However, its representation of medieval Scottishness is deliberately alienating. Greig reinstates the historical linguistic situation and has the majority of Scottish characters address each other in Gaelic. As less than one per cent of the Scottish population are now able to speak, read, and write Gaelic, this amounts to a marked linguistic alterity. Besides, the play’s Scots engage in exotic linguistic and cultural practices, relying on equivocation and arcane social protocol while navigating an abstruse political landscape.

2This is part of a wider construction of two seemingly diametrically opposed national identities. Dunsinane enlists centuries-old tropes of Celticism, as articulated influentially in Matthew Arnold’s 1867 lecture series On the Study of Celtic Literature. Thus, whereas the forthright English are collectively gendered as masculine, display pragmatic realism, and seek future clarity in power-relations, the dreamy and dissembling Scots, collectively gendered as feminine, appeal to natural magic and are seemingly bound by a confusing clannish past. By having his characters, English and Scottish, ascribe Celticist attributes to the Scots, Greig puts much of the identificatory potential on the English invaders. Dunsinane is, at heart, a performance of Scottish self-Othering by self-Celticising.

3It is in this context that the play’s strong contemporary resonances come to the fore. Dunsinane alludes to the twenty-first-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, e.g. in its motif of a drawn-out process of disengagement after toppling a “tyrant,” the violent English commander Siward’s professing his good intentions of bringing peace and good governance to Scotland, and the occupiers’ perception of the tribalism of an alien, ungrateful local population. Dunsinane thus suggests a comparison between Celticist cliché and the Orientalism that has tinged Anglo-American perceptions of what the Bush administration called the “Greater Middle East.” Here, an ethnolinguistic minority of today’s Scotland, repatriated to the Middle Ages, simultaneously stands in for the Iraqis and Afghans—who, as has been shown by Bruce Holsinger, have routinely been denied national status along with their very “coevalness” (Fabian) by the Western invaders.

4The play goes on to re-deconstruct the value-laden dichotomies set up by Celticism and Orientalism. The English perspective on Scotland is revealed to be biased and unreliable. They blunder into a country which they have no real desire to understand, but only to forcibly shape in their own image. Imperfect acts of cultural translation persistently warp their interactions with the Scots: the hostile unknowability of the Scots is exaggerated in the telling by Anglicised and rebel Scots and also, it is implied, partly provoked by the very presence of the hated English army. The Celticist stereotypes are mostly a fiction upheld by, and for the benefit of, the English; the implied Orientalism is an equally spurious Western phantasm.

5By framing his ostensibly medieval story in terms of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Greig presents a contemporary Scottish audience with a transtemporal multiple vision. They are asked to relate to, all at once, their slightly weird medieval “ancestors,” the more relatable but ethically compromised medieval English invaders, the present-day Western soldiers participating in cross-continental military interventions, and the people in Iraq and Afghanistan on the receiving end of these interventions. Dunsinane thus thoroughly destabilises notions of coherent national longue durée and offers neither easy nor exclusive identification with the medieval Scots. Rather, it invites fluid allegiances both national and non-national. It suggests that the Othering of people in the interest of sharply drawn cultural-national boundaries may simply constitute a failure of understanding on the part of those doing the Othering, and it urges the audience to look instead for the nation’s Others in themselves.


6Arnold 1867
Fabian 1983
Greig, Dunsinane
Holsinger 2007
Shakespeare, Macbeth


University of Bern

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