Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off: An Entreaty for Liz Lochhead’s Play as a Text Suitable for a Postcolonial Studies Curriculum
Just a few weeks ago, in a tutorial for the Postcolonial Studies course I am taking, I heard that, at a university in Britain, someone had put Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song on the curriculum - a selection which struck me as incongruous, having read the book in a Scottish Literature class. I thought to myself, how far can one go in the mission of reading a postcolonial context onto or into any text? Is it enough for a text to display some sort of theme of displacement or estrangement, a struggle with identity, for it to be postcolonial? If this question is to be answered in the affirmative, and if ‘postcolonialism is extended to an increasing number of contexts, a need to rely upon theoretical models that lack materialist specificity in favour of general applicability’ is indispensable. Although ‘postcolonial theory is often seen as applicable to contexts that are not colonial’, as it deals with issues of displacement, marginalisation and otherness in general, one Scottish play registered to me as befitting perfectly well both a colonial context, as well as one of displacement and marginalisation, is Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (MQS). Although it can be seen as a history play, it is effectively a revisitation of the history and myths that surround Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, which seeks to ‘debate the ideas and representations of “Scottishness”’ in a Scotland that is nowadays still subjugated by the English supremacy in Britain.
And indeed, the very first scene of the play sets the theme, when La Corbie, the ‘ringmaster’, invites the audience, before the play begins, as a sort of prologue, to investigate themselves what they think of their country, what they think of when they hear ‘Scotland’.
‘LA CORBIE: Country: Scotland. Whit like is it?
Ah dinna ken whit like your
Scotland is. Here’s mines.
National flower: the thistle.
National pastime: nostalgia.
National weather: smirr, haar, drizzle, snow.
National bird: the crow, the corbie, le corbeau, moi!’
‘La Corbie’s long introduction is a sardonic deconstruction of the pop semiotics of Scotland’. The question of what Scotland actually signifies is ironically followed by the information a traveller or a tourist would know about Scotland, the national symbols, raising the issue of Scottish identity. But what exactly is Scottish identity? Does real Scottishness have anything to do with these ‘pop semiotics’? Do they actually help in building a distinctly Scottish identity? What is clear from this introduction, is that Scotland itself, its landscape, its people, its language, is extremely varied, ‘there is no unitary image imposed, as so often in accounts of Scottish history and culture’. And it is the ‘ringmaster’ La Corbie who goes on to explain why this ‘unitary image’ is impossible: ‘Once upon a time there were twa queens on the wan green island, and the wan green island was split inty twa kingdoms. But no equal kingdoms, naebody in their richt mind would insist on that’. And indeed, not only does the play revolve around two queens, each with their specific attributes and desires, but also around the tension that the ‘twa kingdoms’ experience as a result of the political and religious circumstances, and how it becomes difficult to identify with one’s nation if one is pulled back and forth between different currents in politics, religion and language.
 Liam Connell, ‘Modes of Marginality: Scottish Literature and the Uses of Postcolonial Theory’, in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Arica and the Middle East, 23:1&2 (2003), p. 27
Scottish Literature, eds. Douglas Gifford, Sarah Dunnigan and Alan MacGillivray, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), p. 811
 Liz Lochhead, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, in Twentieth Century Scottish Drama, ed. Cairns Craig and Randall Stevenson, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001), p. 467
Scottish Literature, p. 811
Scottish Literature, p. 828
 Liz Lochhead, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, pp. 467-468
- ISBN (eBook)
- 458 KB
- Institution / Hochschule
- University of Glasgow – Department of English Literature
- B1 (17/22)
- Mary Queen Scots Head Chopped Text Postcolonial Studies Curriculum Module Postcolonialism Theory Writing