Reinventing the Bard

Shakespeare in Canada and Quebec

Shakespeare in Canada is important business, in all senses of the word, and it can be contentious. These realities are neatly captured by three new books from Oxford University Press and University of Toronto Press. With a provocative flourish, two new OUP editions of The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet launch the Shakespeare Made in Canada series, under the general editorship of Daniel Fischlin,who teaches at the University of Guelph. Jennifer Drouin’s critical study Shakespeare in Québec: Nation, Gender and Adaptation shines a very bright light on the ways that “Québécois adaptations … appropriate [Shakespeare’s plays] primarily, and often with irreverence, in service of the nation’s decolonization.” All three volumes expose aggression and conflict among nations, genders and cultures, and open into uncomfortable questions about Shakespeare’s place in 20th- and 21st-century Canada and Quebec. But Shakespeare—even when he is being denounced—manages to build readership, pull in audiences and sell calendars and mugs.1

The Shakespeare Made in Canada volumes are inexpensive paperbacks featuring new editions of the playtexts, accompanied by “short, no-holds-barred” prefaces from celebrated artist-scholars Daniel David Moses and Sky Gilbert. Introductions by Fischlin himself and by respected editor and scholar Jill L. Levenson address critical issues of interpretation and offer production histories with a focus on Canada. The front cover for the series gives a Canadian touch, featuring the Sanders portrait of Shakespeare, made public in Ottawa in 2001 and now housed at the University of Guelph. Fischlin’s “Ten Tips for Reading Shakespeare” reaches out to school-age readers (“Shakespeare’s sense of humour was closer to the humour in Family Guy or The Simpsons than you might expect”), while clear and comprehensive act and scene summaries narrate the action and highlight thematic hotspots. The whole adds up to a publishing project well-poised to replace Orlando John Stevenson’s successful Canadian School Shakespeare Series, which sold over a million volumes between 1950 and 1972. In the years between then and now, no specifically Canadian series has been used in the country’s schools.

While Shakespeare’s plays may not have changed much in the past 70 years or so, Canadian society has—and our approach to Shakespeare, both on the stage and in the classroom, is a fascinating bellwether of those changes. In the early years, a deferential stance reflected our colonial identity as the British Dominion of Canada; unsurprisingly, when Ontario’s Stratford Festival was founded in July 1953, it featured the artistic direction of British director Tyrone Guthrie, starred British actors Alec Guinness and Irene Worth, and played exclusively the works of the British Bard. On the other hand, as Moira Day has pointed out, “as early as 1956 and 1966 Stratford had at least twice brought the two solitudes together in the same Shakesperean play—Henry V—to make an allegorical comment about the state of the [Canadian] nation.” Today, Stratford boasts North America’s largest classical repertory theatre, drawing audiences from around the world for its productions of a wide range of classics, not limited to Shakespeare and including Canadian plays—for the 2014 season Michel Marc Bouchard’s Christina, The Girl King in company with Shakespeare’s King John, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear. And Shakespeare in Canada is by no means limited to Stratford—theatres across Canada and Quebec have featured hundreds of Shakespeare productions and adaptations of all kinds. Summer Shakespeare out-of-doors is particularly beloved of Canadians, and the fact that it is popular does not mean that it is not serious or significant. In Toronto’s Earl Bales Park, in 1987 and ’89, a production of The Tempest by Lewis Baumander’s Skylight Theatre made Canadian theatre history when it reinterpreted Shakespeare’s play in light of Canada’s colonial and colonizing history, setting the action in Haida Gwaii and featuring the work of aboriginal theatre artists Monique Mojica, Billy Merasty and René Highway.

The electric connect between the First Nations and the Bard is front and centre in Fischlin’s Canadian edition of Shakespeare’s last play, and rightly so, for The Tempest is widely seen as Shakespeare’s commentary on European colonial expansion. The magus Prospero, deposed Duke of Milan, lives with his daughter Miranda on an isolated island where he dominates entirely the indigenous Caliban and the spirit Ariel who together represent the subjugated peoples of the “brave new world.”2

In his daring preface to this volume, First Nations scholar and author Daniel David Moses defies deference to argue that The Tempest is not a very good play: “Had … The Man, the genius of English literature, lost his edge? … Was he having an off day?” Is this play a mere curtsey to the English King James I, for whom the play was first performed on November 1, 1611? “Was savvy Will Shakespeare writing for an audience of one who wouldn’t appreciate even a fiction of treason? … Diverting the king with entertainment with a happy ending? Crafty strategy for keeping one’s own head?” Noting truly that the world of The Tempest is one that cannot be “approached without deliberation,” Moses questions whether Prospero would be at home on Turtle Island, today.

A colonized island, enslaved islanders, a ghastly reference to a “dead Indian”—there is no doubt that The Tempest challenges us as artists, teachers, readers and students. Fischlin’s introductory essay plunges into significant Canadian debates provoked by this play, giving space to the two poles of argument that, on one hand, would see Baumander’s Haida-themed production as just another example of colonizing, cultural appropriation, and, on the other, would suggest that The Tempest is more important than ever for its challenge to interpret, adapt, teach and study colonization, and what it has wrought of our world. So, critic Paul Leonard argues that Shakespeare’s play “propagate[s] an imperialistic vision” without even “a kernel of meaning … that applies to Canada”; while Fischlin claims that The Tempest explores social attitudes toward power and justice—issues that command Canadians’ attention. In Fischlin’s view, Shakespeare can help us see these clearly, and does so, as a vital part of our living culture.

In his preface to Romeo and Juliet, theatre artist extraordinaire Sky Gilbert stakes his ground with characteristic panache: “Romeo is perhaps the first metrosexual.” Seeing the play as “very much about masculinity and threats to masculinity,” Gilbert finds the play to be absolutely relevant today: “The concerns in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet are also our concerns.” This edition invites readers toreconsider our Hollywood views of Romeo; for example: “In most of his dialogue, ROMEO relies on romantic clichés and shows that he lacks the creative wit of MERCUTIO.” Romeo is “doting”—has he “grown up at all?” Such questions are bound to engage young readers.

Jill Levenson’s introduction begins with Northrop Frye’s internationally recognized interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays as enactments of powerful archetypes or myths that give deeper meaning to our humanity. Levenson argues that the Liebestod myth of love and death underwrites the tragedy of Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” and accounts for its continued currency. Romeo and Juliet has been widely played in Canada and has inspired a number of radical Canadian adaptations including the 1989–90 bilingual production by Robert Lepage and Gordon McCall, which mapped English Canada and Quebec onto the destructive folly of the Capulet and Montague feud; or the wildly successful adaptation by Ann-Marie MacDonald, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), which rewrites the story to turn on its head that tired old myth of love and death, instead pairing love with life, queering the gender stereotypes, and exposing entrenched sexism and racism in academia.

Jennifer Drouin’s Shakespeare in Québec: Nation, Gender and Adaptation is a work of both scholarship and polemic that focuses on the case for Quebec’s sovereignty and views Shakespearian adaptation in Quebec through that lens. If we need any further evidence of Shakespeare’s elasticity, this book does the trick.

Drouin begins as she will end, with Quebec’s political evolution, thus her first chapter treats readers to historical summary and sorts the tricky question of postcoloniality: “Québec has … [a] complex relationship vis-à-vis its European ancestors, the First Nations, and Canada’s English-speaking majority. The Québécois people are or have been in colonial, anti-colonial, neocolonial, or postcolonial situations at different times in their history vis-à-vis different groups, sometimes in multiple types of relationships simultaneously.” Comparing Shakespearean adaptation in Quebec, English Canada, India, New Zealand, Scotland and Australia, Drouin finds that Quebec has little in common with English Canada, where adaptations have often dealt with gender issues, or with India, where “Shakespeare was both a tool of colonization in the educational system and a tool of resistance to that colonization in popular culture.” Like New Zealand, Scotland and Australia, Quebec has a more ribald, parodic attitude when faced with the English Bard’s canonical authority.

Arguing that adaptations and appropriations must entail significant textual or narrative alteration, Drouin’s second chapter takes issue with pretty much everyone—including Daniel Fischlin—who has ever touched down on the subject of Shakespearean adaptation. Her tight definition excludes from her corpus those breakthrough productions that have transformed our collective understandings of Shakespeare plays—the Baumander Tempest, for example, or Yvette Nolan and Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon’s The Death of a Chief, which reimagines Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in an aboriginal world without substantially changing the Shakespearean language. Likewise excluded are translations, per se. The discussion of appropriation does not address the intense debates in English Canada over the colonial appropriation of aboriginal cultures, although Shakespeare is at issue in those debates, as we see in Fischlin’s new edition of The Tempest.3

Chapters three and four, “The Quiet Revolution: Passer à l’action” and “Tyrants and Usurpers: Tradapting the Conquest” provide close readings of the first important adaptations of Shakespeare in Quebec, Robert Gurik’s Hamlet, prince du Québec (1968) followed by Michel Garneau’s two “tradaptations”: Macbeth de William Shakespeare: Traduit en québécois (1978) and La tempête (1989). In Gurik’s political allegory à clé, Hamlet is Quebec, the Queen is the Church, Horatio is René Lévesque, and the evil Claudius is l’anglophonie, or all those who speak English. Reading this play entails a reiteration of the most confrontational sentiments of the Quiet Revolution. Garneau, too, produces national allegory, such that, in his Macbeth, Quebec stands in for Shakespeare’s Scotland suffering from tyrannical oppression. The technique of tradaptation—Garneau’s own neologism for his blend of translation and adaptation—relocates Shakespeare’s stories to Quebec, and Canadian snow geese fly over Prospero’s island.

Chapter five, “The First Referendum: Daughters of the Carnivalized Nation” explores how the intensity of the 1980 campaign for national sovereignty was distilled into vivid theatrical shock by Jean-Pierre Ronfard’s Lear and Vie et mort du Roi Boiteux, based on Richard III. Ronfard uses “carnival and magic realism to parody … corruption and decay.” In response to the rise of the feminist movement, he created adaptations that “figure daughters as the survivors, inheritors, and sources of regeneration for fictional, bastard nations that pass through the disorder of carnival and then hover on the precipice of a new social order which will be more inclusive of women, and to some extent immigrants, that is, of the ‘others’ to whom carnival gives leave to rule.” In chapter six, “The Second Referendum: Plurality without Pluralism,” Drouin presents a dense overview of the “explosion of adaptations since the 1990s. At least twenty-seven … including the first Québécois adaptations written by women, queers, and aboriginals.” Nation and gender are both strongly configured in these plays, yet they tend not to live up to their liberatory potential. Normand Chaurette’s 1991 Les Reines, for example, stages the lives of the queens who live in the shadows of Henry IV and Richard III—a classic feminist strategy, one might think. However, this is not a feminist play: “the viciousness with which these women lie to, spy on, and manipulate each other in their jostle for power plays into stereotypes about both straight women and queer men.” Drouin’s insightful discussion concludes that in this body of work, the point of view is rarely feminist, positive representations of queerness are few and far between, and aboriginals and immigrants show up only briefly. “Still unresolved, the national question remains an inescapable driving force.”

The final chapter, “Québec v. Canada: Inter­culturalism and the Politics of Recognition,” brings us up to date, reiterating the sovereignty argument in light of recent history, touching on the relevance of Charles Taylor’s politics of recognition, and delving thoughtfully into the question of why Quebec’s highly accomplished feminist writers did not use Shakespeare as a vehicle for their work, while their nationalist male compatriots did. In an interview with the author, Nicole Brossard comments intriguingly that Molière and Racine would have been more natural referents in Quebec, but neither canonical French author lends himself, as Shakespeare does, to “lesbian or gay slippages of meaning.” Sky Gilbert, we think, would agree.

An admonitory grace note at the end reminds us: “Québécois adaptations of Shakespeare are not Canadian Shakespeares.” Not everyone is going to agree with Jennifer Drouin, but she makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of Shakespeare in Quebec.


  1. He or it? Is “Shakespeare” a series of playtexts and their associated industry, or an author? Drouin offers one answer: “Shakespeare … is a transdiscursive author function [so an ‘it’] and arguably also a founder of discursivity in the Foucauldian sense” [so a ‘he’].” 

  2. This phrase, like “sea-change” and “we are such stuff as dreams are made on,” was coined in The Tempest. In the play, however, the “brave new world” is not the Americas, but is Italy. 

  3. An intervention by First Nations women including Lee Maracle and Jeannette Armstrong at the Third International Feminist Book Fair / Troisième foire internationale du livre féministe, in Montreal, in 1988, denounced the unacceptable appropriation of First Nations cultures in the women’s movement and elsewhere. This was one of the most important feminist events to ever take place in Canada and Quebec.