Internet Shakespeare Editions

1. "Good wombs": Shakespearean genealogies

The Canadian encounter with Shakespeare may be traced back to two significant roots, British soldiers and foreign touring companies. After the British Conquest in 1763, soldiers garrisoned to keep the peace between French and English, and to protect the citizens against American invasion, engaged in theatrical productions both to relieve their tedium and as a gesture of good will towards the local community. Of necessity (rather than authenticity), officers performed both men's and women's parts. Their limited performance skills prevented much Shakespeare; nonetheless, the officers' efforts did lay the foundation for what turned out to be an enduring, and surprisingly robust, tradition of amateur productions.

The earliest recorded anecdotal references to Shakespeare productions in English date from the 1760s, and establish a pattern which was to recur over the next two centuries: the visit of foreign, often English, professional actors arriving by way of America. A small group of eleven English actors, who played in New York before the American Revolution, afterwards made their way to loyalist Canada by way of Albany. Founding the first professional English theatre company, the Company of Comedians performed David Garrick's farcical version of The Taming of the Shrew in Halifax in 1768, and set off a hot debate about the morality of theatre-going.

Shakespeare had one major drawback for the eighteenth-century: his plays lacked overt moralizing. Canada's unusually concentrated passion for wholesomeness, decorum, and didacticism was prominently displayed in the newspapers of the time. In 1770, The Nova Scotia Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser proclaimed that "a Christian cannot with a safer Conscience enter into the Play-House than into a Brothel" (cited in Benson and Conolly 6). In halting verse, The Nova Scotia Gazette explicitly linked Shakespeare to the general degradation of the local Maritime community: morals, pocketbooks, women, and natural resources, all would suffer from the experience of viewing Shakespeare:

t's no great Compliment to think,
Our morals with our Cash must sink
When Shakespeare comes to Town;
Or that our Farms and Fisheries all,
Our Merchandise too, great and small,
And Women must come down. (Cited in Bains 11)

This firmly fixed anti-theatrical attitude obviated the need for a public censor until 1913. Unlike in Britain, in Canada religious disapproval was usually enough to prevent or curtail "unpleasant" or "inappropriate" productions.

Eighteenth-century accounts of Shakespeare productions are both brief and scarce but they do sketch out a picture of small theatre troupes/pioneers intrepidly journeying throughout the colonies, facing difficult audiences and harsh material conditions. Before Albany and New York, the Company of Comedians had played in Jamaica with exactly the same repertoire, thus suggesting that the American, Canadian and Caribbean colonies were created from a shared theatrical heritage. Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, Henry IV, Hamlet, Othello, and Taming of the Shrew were all played in what we call "Canada" in the eighteenth century by a combination of amateur, professional or visiting professional actors.

In the sixty-year period between 1765 and 1826, "Canadians" saw ever increasing numbers of Shakespeare's plays: only ten in 1786 but five times that in 1826 (Bains 199). Butñtroubles with religious antagonism aside--Shakespeare was not uniformly admired. Atlantic Canada, despite its early introduction to Shakespeare, was not very receptive to him, its inhabitants preferring farce.

image

previous page | Introduction | next page