“A La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, by Frank Dicksee, 1902

If memory serves me correctly, Sir Walter Scott, a nineteenth century writer, has been referred to as a type of “Shakespearean novelist.” Having only read one of his works, Ivanhoe, I certainly cannot second that notion as for all I know, his other novels could be anything but “Shakespearean.” However, Ivanhoe is Shakespearean, and naturally we must ask, “What do we mean by Shakespearean in this context?” I have no idea. I would, though, argue that in order for anything to be labeled “Shakespearean” certain qualities should exist.

  1. Characters should always trump plot.
  2. Dialogue should trump narrative.
  3.  Characters should not be extremes.
  4. Plot holes should exist.
  5. Wordplay and wit, which comment on social matters, should exist.

That list is not comprehensive, nor is it authoritative, and it possibly is even incorrect. But I believe Scott’s Ivanhoe brilliantly captures the “Shakespearean” flavor in a novel form when we consider the above requirements I just invented. The novel, though, itself is more than just a bad Shakespeare play fitted into the form of a novel because Scott transcends time in Ivanhoe by way of allusion.

Where the novel lacks in plot development, it triumphs in its ability to time warp. The novel, published in 1820 and set in medieval times, is full of quotes and allusions to works during the renaissance period. Each chapter is headed by a quote ranging from Alexander Pope’s Odyssey to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Within the work itself allusions range from all sorts of time periods including ancient Jewish history and 18th century poetry.

As I was reading this novel, I began to ask myself what the effect of allusion is on the reader. Allusions — and I find it unfortunate that allusion seems a lost art — in this case separate and bind time periods together. The issues during the medieval period were unique to that time period by their specifics but are shared by every time period by way of their generalities. “There is nothing new under the sun.” The Jewish character, Isaac of York, is specifically persecuted in Ivanhoe because he was not a Christian. This theme underlies the entire novel, though one does not realize this until the very end.

But the Jewish people have been persecuted in many different time periods for many different reasons. Scott draws our attention to this as Isaac constantly alludes to Jewish history, specifically the exodus from Egypt. Shylock’s speeches from The Merchant of Venice head various chapters as does Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. I am not here saying that Shakespeare and Marlowe were antisemitic but more so that their works may have portrayed an era of antisemitism. Scott’s own time period also contained a sense of antisemitism, for though he later would revise Oliver Twist, Dickens’ Fagin was often referred to as simply “The Jew” in his early novel.

Allusion in literary works is the rare ability to time warp. We can be firmly planted in our own time period while at the very same time enjoying another which constantly alludes to yet another. CS Lewis stated that we have Scott to thank, be it good or bad, for creating a sense of feeling or nostalgia for time periods. Ivanhoe is a perfect example of this. We can firmly enjoy the medieval period while yet caring for ours, for the issues are generally the same, they simply take on a different costume.

A right branch of the old European tree

Of valour, truth, freedom, and courtesy,

A man (though often slap-dash in his art)

Civilized to the center of his heart,

A man who, old and cheated and in pain,

Instead of snivelling, go to work again,

Work without end and without joy, to save

His honour, and go solvent to the grave;

Yet even so, wrung from his filing powers,

One book of his would furnish ten of ours

With characters and scenes.

— “To Roy Campbell”, A poem about Sir Walter Scott by CS Lewis (1939) 


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