Who is John the Commonwealth?


A central question the project will need to address in the New Year is the costuming and appearance of Satyre‘s characters.  Chief among these will be John the Commonwealth, and to do so, the team will first have to decide who, or even what, he is.  Information in the play is hardly indicative.  He bursts on to the stage much like the Pauper – “Out of my gate, for God’s sake let me ga!” (2422) – and yet does not suffer the abuse that Pauper does on the basis of his physical presentation, who is subjected to a litany of name-calling such as “False whoreson raggit carl” and told to leave “the field” (1946, 1939).  So is John not “raggit” then?  How does he demonstrate the necessary authority for Diligence to immediately smooth his path towards conference with the king (2434)?  A significant sartorial transformation occurs when his suggested reforms are passed by Parliament at the end of the play and he is absorbed into them – “Here shall they clothe John the Commonweal gorgeously, and set him down amang them in the Parliament” (3802 s.d.).  John now wears a “gay garmoon” but what did he wear before?

Jean E. Howard and Paul Strohm argue that John is the “indigenous voice of reform” in Ane Satyre and that both he and Pauper are “imagined from within, as internally self-regenerating forces”.  Does this direct us towards some sort of native tradition of Scotland – tartan, kilts. etc – or perhaps even a connection with nature?  John himself says that the commonwealth “want[s] clais” (2445).  As it’s embodiment, does John too? Perhaps he occupies a similar position to the wild man of prose romance on the border between society and the wilderness, his liminal energy informing his ability to tell truth to power.

As a representation of the ‘commonwealth’, Carol Edington has argued against situating John in terms of class, rank or occupation, writing:

As much psychological and political, the ideal of the commonweal conveyed very real feelings of organic unity, physical dynamism, and a very emotive patriotism,  Nowhere is this more vividly conveyed than in Lindsay’s dramatization of John the Commonweal.  It should perhaps be stressed at this point that the character of John, despite his often hungry and ragged appearance, was not a symbolic representation of “the poor” or even, more specifically, of the rural poor.  When Lindsay required such a figure he introduced the Pauper or the traditional “John Upland”.  John the Commonweal on the other hand represents the universal and public good of the entire community and not the interests of any single element.  He is the dramatic embodiment of a principle, not a party, an ideal and not an individual.                                                                                                              (p120, my itals)

It is certainly true that if John is clothed as a member of the Scottish citizenry then this will have a knock-on effect in terms of all of the represented social relationships in the play, something we should be very wary of.  But, for John to be “not an individual” is fine in theory, however theatre requires the practical expression of such interpretations.  If John embodies a principle then how can that principle in turn be embodied?  When the team gather at Stirling Castle early in 2013 to begin fixing aspects of the performance, such questions are sure to be hotly debated.



Carol Edington, Court and Culture in Renaissance Scotland: Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, University of Massachusetts Press, 1994

Jean E. Howard and Paul Strohm, The Imaginary “Commons”, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 37.3, 2007

1 comment


Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court…begins.

Welcome to the blog for Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court, a major two year project which will explore Stuart drama, politics and place during the mid-sixteenth century through the staging of David Lyndsay’s A Satire of the Three Estates at Linlithgow Palace and Stirling Castle in 2013.  Staging the Scottish Court is a collaborative, interdisciplinary project drawing on performance, film, literary and historical analysis, archaeology and architectural studies.  It brings together Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lincoln, Oxford Brookes and Southampton Universities, with Historic Scotland, theatre professionals and film-makers.

This blog will chart the research process over the course of the project; firstly as we approach the full outdoor production of the Satire at Linlithgow Palace, as well as indoor versions of Lyndsay’s non-extant 1540 Interlude as reconstructed by the research team in the shell of the Great Hall At Linlithgow, and the actual Great Hall of Stirling Castle.  Following the performances of June 2013, this blog will enable a continuation of the debates instigated by the project.  It will also link up with a website which will host professional films of these unique theatrical events as well as other research and educational materials.

The project aims to address a number of questions which fall into three broad categories; literary, textual and performance analysis of Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (A Satire of the Three Estates); archival and iconographic analysis of Scottish Renaissance court culture at Linlithgow and Stirling; and contemporary understanding of ‘public history’ with specific reference to importance of historical truths and myths to Scottish nationalism.

  • What was the nature of the dramatic interlude performed before James V at Linlithgow, and what was its relationship to the later performances of 1552 and 1554?
  • In what ways is Scottish Renaissance court culture reflected in Ane Satyre and in the related physical evidence of Renaissance architectural features of the Stuart royal palaces such as the Stirling Heads?
  • In what ways do performances and media re-workings of historical events shape contemporary national, political and popular understandings of the past?

The project will run parallel to a crucial period in Scottish history.  Just as Lyndsay sought to investigate Scottish national identity and suggest reforms for his society in his epic play, Scotland once more finds itself at a crossroads as it heads towards the Independence Referendum in 2014.  People are again asking what it means to be from Scotland.  What elements of social and political organisation can be seen as distinctively Scottish? If Scotland is going to become an independent nation, what should it keep and what should it throw away? Independent or not, how should Scotland move forward into the future?

Such questions and more will be addressed on this page every fortnight or so.  We hope you will check here, on the twitter account, and ultimately the project website, to see how research becomes performance, and how Scotland’s present interacts with the Scottish past at this critical juncture in its history.


     Next Entries »