Burns and Shakespeare - chapter 2

A couple of years ago I wrote a kind of spoof playlet featuring Robert Burns and William Shakespeare, conversing in another world. This was originally for our Wester-Ross Burns Club meeting. I then blogged it. At the last count 'Two Gentlemen' has been viewed around nine hundred times - presumably by nine hundred different people. Here's that first chapter and a brand new chapter two. If you've read the first, just scroll down until you reach the CHAPTER TWO heading, then read on ...

Two Gentlemen in a FarOff Land.

A Short Play for The Wester-Ross Burns Club

This all takes place in a land flowing with milk and honey, a land where all the good folk go when they get tired of planet earth - or planet earth tires of them. Two men meet up, greet each other warmly, sit down for a chat  on a grassy bank alongside the slow moving Milk river. The sun shines just warm upon them and down  this sylvan glen.

Don’t ask what these two look like or what they’re wearing. They look as you want them to look and they wear what you feel they should be wearing.

Most of the language is here translated into modern English, or indeed any other language known to or preferred by the listener.  Note also that in a land of milk and honey neither time nor distance exists. Let us begin …

RB: Now then, Will, how’s she hangin’?

WS: That’s horrible. And I’ve told you before, my friend, I’m William, not Will and you are Robert, not Rabbie. But yes, as a matter of fact she’s hangin’ pretty well. Having said that, I’ve just been watching my ‘As You Like It’ being played on that television thing with the men dressed up as those nasty old nazis and the girls as ladies of the night. Not at all as I like it. Robert. Oh, what they do to us, once they think we’re dead and gone!

RB: Right. (Chuckles) As You Like It indeed! You know how much I used to like it. (Sighs)

WS: Strange, wasn’t it, Robert, how, ever since that lovely old Garden of Eden, sex seemed to be everything for so much of the time. Seems such a waste of your adult years there on earth, doesn’t it?

RB: Well - it’s just the way of it. The way He put is all together, yes? Pal of mine once told me; ‘it’ll pull you more than dynamite’ll blow you’.

WS: Not too too elegantly put but yes … There was this dark lady …

RB: I read all about her in your sonnets, William. Very discreet. Not like my lassies at all. No sooner I bedded them than there they were - still are - in my verse. But I don’t spend much time looking down there these days. Maybe just now and then I’ll look in on some of their Hogmanays -

WS (interrupting): Their new years eves, don’t you mean? No colloquialisms, remember?

RB: OK - sorry - I mean yes. But there’s millions of them at it with the crossing arms and holding hands and running out of words after verse one. Of course we don’t do vainglory here, William, but if we did I’d have to say there’s more at the auld acquaintance not being forgot, when all the rest of it has been, than well, than anything else written or sung by the live ones, poor things.

William holds out his hand, palm uppermost. Bees zoom in on it from all quarters, alight to deliver their succulent loads. A small pyramid of honey at once begins to grow.

WS: You must be right about that. I often wonder why I myself didn’t do more poetry in the form of song. Big, big impact. Oh yes indeed: Greensleeves; Bring On The Clowns; My Heart Is Like A Red, Red Rose; Ain’t Gonna Work No More On Maggie’s Farm.

William nods ‘enough’ and the bees disappear. He raises hand to mouth, licks up their sweet libation. Continues …

WS: Yes, strong stuff, that songbook of yours. By the way, I meant to ask you, when are all the seas due to gang dry?

RB: When? Honey, honey. Think I’ll join you with some of that.

Robert holds out his own hand. Bees arrive, get to work. He continues…

RB: The seas are going to gang dry any time now, says the boss. When they’ve warmed up their old planet enough there’s a critical point when all the oceans suddenly evaporate. Too bad.

WS: Going to get a wee bit overcrowded for us here then?

RB: Doubt it, Will - William. He tells me there’s not all that many down there will qualify when the time comes. Oh, look here, my friend!

A beautiful young lady, floating apparently on a raft of wild flowers and splayed out long blonde hair is drifting slowly by, carried by the flow of the Milk river current. 

WS: Ophelia! That’s my Ophelia, Robert. (Breaks into song) Isn’t she lovely, made for love.

Robert springs to his feet, flings his arms wide (forgetting the accumulation of honey which runs all down his arm) declaims …RB:

Ophelia, thy charms my bosom fire,
And waste my soul with care;
But ah! how bootless to admire,
When fated to despair!

Yet in thy presence, lovely Fair,
To hope may be forgiven;
For sure 'twere impious to despair
So much in sight of heaven.

WS: Heaven! That’s a nice one.

He’s looking down at his hand in the grass. A tiny fieldmouse has hopped on and is nibbling away at the last trace of honey.

WS: Hey, just look at this little chap. Is he not enjoying himself! Oh, but he’s gone in a flash!

RB: That was my wee timorous beastie, you ken? Oh, Timmy, little Timmy.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union,
And justifies that ill ‘ opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
And fellow mortal.

William rises to join his standing friend. Ophelia is seen swimming ashore, climbing out of the river, smoothing back her long golden tresses.

WS: But your tiny friend is not mortal, Robert, any more than are you or I. We are here all immortal, remember?

RB: She isn’t - wasn’t; your Ophelia, no? But I often wondered … she was, like, someone you knew, William? Down there?

WS: Of course. Every character one created was like someone you knew. Ophelia was actually Beatrice, a farm girl in the village where I grew up.

RB: Laughs.

By the by, gentlefolk. I should have told you: ‘human’ emotions are all here in this place - provided they’re the positive ones - joy, satisfaction, love (non-carnal of course) etc. No negative waves. No fear or hatred or anything downbeat, right?

Meantime the young lady Ophelia has taken off her filmy dress and now stands there naked, wringing out the milk. The two in conversation take little notice.

RB continues: You know we were so much alike, William. You had a fancy for this Beatrice / Ophelia? Of course you did. So alike. We both of us impregnated young girls when still not far out of our minority. What was it you had your Othello say? “One that loved not wisely but too well”? And we both worked on farms before gravitating to the big city, both earned a measure of fame in our own lifetimes, both learned so much from books without doing overmuch in the way of schooling, etcetera.

WS: Yes, and we both used things of long ago on which to weave what they called our tapestries of words. You used Scottish traditional songs. Me, I used Ovid and those other good old storytellers.

RB: But you ended up moneyed and comfortable and I died poor and most uncomfortable. It’s very hard, even here, to think charitably about that doctor who told me to swim in the sea every freezing day. Yes, you ended up better than me. You were the better businessman, William. But it’s a funny thing, I seldom had any money but never felt like a poor man, ever. Hungry yes, but poor? Never. A man’s a man for all that and all that.

WS: We are such stuff as dreams are made on. But comfortable in death? No, sir. I died of exposure after a night out in an alehouse near Stratford with my old compatriot, Mister Ben Johnson. You know, the one who wrote my epitaph: “Not for our time but for all time”? Found in a ditch! What an inglorious ending. Not exactly any flights of angels taking me to my rest. I just arrived here all by myself. Don’t quite know how.

RB: Ah, William Shakespeare - Man of mystery! But all’s well that ends well.

WS: One of these days we’ll have to write something together. Play, poem and song all in one. By Robert Shakespeare and William Burns. Come on, let’s go find some of the others. (Calls out) Come with us, Ophelia. No, no need to bother with the dress.

The three of them wander off across the meadow and into the trees, singing together, Should old acquaintance be forgot, And never …but no crossed arms.

The sun has not moved in the sky, nor will it move in this land where the trees never shed their leaves and the birds never cease to sing and where there are no noxious people nor any of the trials and tribulations that come with noxious people. So it follows there are none of the human problems that William Shakespeare and Robert Burns had spent their earthly lives trying their very best to explain, justify or cover up with words of everlasting beauty.


RB: Sings melodically; Ophelia, Ophelia. Pauses, What a lovely girl. So, William, finally we know all things but one.

WS: Yes, but tell the honest truth -

RB interrupts - there is only honest truth here, Will, remember?

WS: Yes of course. I was only going to say I think that it’s really irrelevant, that one thing we cannot know.

RB: What, the meaning of life and all things? Irrelevant?  Stops, looks up through the branches. A pair of tropical exotics are strutting, fluttering and preening. Perfect. Perfect happiness. Burns smiles. The birds look down, smile back. The female drops, alights, weightless, to his shoulder.

WS: Who’s your friend, Robert?

The bird squawks: ‘I am called The Grand Duchess Bollox of Borneo, Shakespeare. Hello.’ Her mate now flaps down on to Shakespeare’s left shoulder. ‘And this splendid creature - he is my good friend the King of all Birds.’

WS: Very pleased to meet you, Duchess, and you, your majesty. Reverts to their topic: But of course its irrelevant, Robert. He knows and we cannot. And even if He should deign to tell us, what then? Besides, we both know that curiosity is impossible because curiosity is unhappiness because unhappiness is impossible.

Burns nods his agreement. The three of them ramble on through dappled sunlight and shade, the birds nibbling playfully on Robert’s and Williams’s ear lobes. Their bare feet are noiseless. Warm is the earth beneath soft grasses. The naked Ophelia still walks behind. Her voice comes like the music of the stars, as the trickling of a summer stream: I shall th’ effect of this good lesson keep / As watchman to my heart. But good my brother / Do not as some ungracious pastors do, / Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven.’ Her laugh is as the tinkling of tiny bells. ‘Your words in me for Polonius are yours as I am yours, William. With whatever naughty suggestion. Just as you are mine by whatsoever name. And now I leave you, gentlemen both.’ As they turn to look, shimmering, the lady fades away.

RB: Oh yes indeed, such stuff as dreams are made on!

WS: ‘And wear thou this’ - She solemn said, / And bound the holly round my head, / The polished leaves and berries red / Did rustling play; / And, like a passing thought, she fled. / In light away’ Your words and your Vision I think, my friend.

Each of them is now crowned with his own holly wreath. The shoulder-borne birds peck idly at the red, red berries.

RB: Yes. But what then? After that? After this? All things are known to us now except this, so knowledge is imperfect whilst all else is perfect. You and I would abhor imperfection if such an earthly sentiment were here a feasibility.

WS: Mister Douglas Adams said that the meaning of life is forty two: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Pure guesswork of course. Fantasy. But the meaning is as likely to be forty two as anything else so the man must have got it right.

RB: Fantasy!! As with all your ghosts and fairie queens and witches, not to mention your lovely floaty little Ariel.

WS: Chuckles. And your witch pulling off the tail of Tam’s grey mare. There’s the drumming of hooves on turf and a great white horse, mane a-flying, a ragged figure crouched over her withers, her quarters pumping beneath a mere stump of a tail, appears and disappears between the tree trunks. Poor old Meg. Good old Tam. Tom, I mean: no colloquialisms. He raises a hand to stroke his bird’s red, silver and violet head feathers. Yes, as I said, one of these days we will create something. Something entirely new to Mankind, something of such a glorious and heavenly abstraction as to provide all the answers ever needed by any of us or any of any.

RB: So we shall. We’ll get some of the others involved. Your pal, Ovid for one, and the Persian, Omar Khayyan, and that fellow Scot of mine, Robert Fergusson. And the painters Da Vinci and Vincent Jones and perhaps Raphael; for the music Wagner and Jerome Kerr and Lennon and, oh yes, Thelonius Monk.

WS: Laughs. So you don’t think your own or my own music could be right, then, for this masterwork of ours and everyone’s?  He reaches into the heart of a bramble bush, his hand uninjured by its many thorns, extracts some of its plumpest, firmest, most glistening red / black fruits. Tasty, these. Want some? 

RB: Thanks. You know when you sat your questioning, William? Of course you, reader / listener, will understand that nobody ex-planet Earth exists in our latterday dimension without undergoing and passing the interview to which many are called and so relatively few then chosen. This is ‘The questioning’, as it is known, where you sit alone in a not unfriendly void and must by power of thought alone answer one million questions about your life and times on Earth; must answer them for yourself without hesitation and with utter honesty, knowing that the answers are already known.  Were you worried , Will? Afraid of rejection?

WS: Not at all. I mean, not about rejection. Whatever will be will be.

RB: No, of course you weren’t worried. Worry is an earthly condition, is it not, Will; something we all leave to decay alongside that famous mortal coil of yours. But what a wondrous relief when the truth lies bare and the knowledge of what one was - the use that one was - is there for you to confront. Even though that which was revealed about the life of Mister Robert Burns under The Questioning was not so glorious, its outcome must have contained a sufficiency of glory or something to justify His immortal entry ticket.

WS:  Yes. The light and the word you either have or have not, so to speak. Shall we sit and have a listen? At his unspoken behest night falls cloudless, moonlit. ‘Away, away,’ shrieks His Majesty, springing into the air, the beat of wings disturbing Shakespeare’s shoulder length hair. ‘Come Duchess, we must away to find our roost.’ The pair of them are soon lost in the canopy of a giant chestnut tree. The scent of many woodland flowers hangs heavy in the summer night.

RB: By all means. Should I may be so bold as to quote your lovestruck Lorenzo … How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! / Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music / Creep in our ears - soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony: /  Sit here and look how the floor of heaven  / Is thick inlaid with pattens of bright gold. / There’s not the smallest orb which thou beholdest / But in his motion like an angel sings.’ You know Will, when you wrote The Merchant of Venice did you not wonder why the music of the spheres became inaudible to us so soon after our species ventured forth from Africa? After all, we know it now to be a reality - all truth.

WS: Most of our city-born kind on Earth don’t notice the stars, cannot even see them, never mind hear the music that pre-dating all of which we know. But that doesn’t signify it is any the less. Tiny insects of all descriptions scurry, jump and fly out of the way and a grass snake slithers off as the two men sit down. Small flowers close their petals, bend horizontal to avoid being crushed. Listen …

The Book says In the beginning is the Word,
The Word is God by whatsoever name,
And you are born of woman, weakly heard
At first a babe all innocent of blame.
But you grow up and from Him turn away
For what is in your mind is yours alone -
You hope: from His protective love you stray
immersed in guilt, by winds of sin far blown
Perhaps grow old will you, (but not too old),
Then learn how not to cheat, to show concern,
Learn why there’s little worth in glitter gold
And leave when you no longer earn or learn:
Your pain on Earth is after all your test
For what comes next, unblessed or by Him blessed

RB: One of your sonnets, William. Nice. I like it.

WS: I just made it up.

RB: Clever fellow.  Now let me have it in your Latin … no, don’t. Listen to my song. I’m going to match it to the stars as I go along … as I make it up … You recall the tune to my Ae Fond Kiss, William?

WS: Yes of course.

RB: Here goes then …

Naethin’s crude and naethin’s cruel
Naethin here emotions fuel
Perfect peace and joy we share it
Brother love, no need to spare it.
Dark despair we’ve left behind us
Though love for the world reminds us
To the stars such love can take me
And no more can false love break me.

WS: That’s great, Robert; more verses?

RB: Later. But hey, just look up. We can go anywhere up there now. Anywhere we want to go. There is no distance, is no time, all things sing and all things rhyme.

WS: Yes, but we like it here too much, so we do. Sits up. How about some cloud and rain, lovely old rain?

The brothers in verse, song and human creativity look at each other in the moonlight, nod their smiling agreement.Earthworms pop their heads from the soil in eager anticipation, pipistrelle bats zip, zoom and flit around their heads, needing in this place to catch no insects winged or otherwise, for no life needs to kill to live. The sky darkens. The first warm raindrops pitter-splatter down. All the world is singing to the music of the stars.


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