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3. "Wider Still and Wider": Societies and Universities

Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, the absence of bookstores and libraries made it unlikely that, except for a small group of the gentry and officers, few people could actually read Shakespeare. Play-texts were difficult to obtain, and amateur players, in quest of texts, were often reduced to placing hopeful advertisements in newspapers. However, Shakespeare was being read and discussed in small circles or societies which sprang up in the 1830s and 1840s. Ladies' clubs admired Shakespeare for his creation of strong female characters. Gentlemen extolled his pioneer-like spirit, which seemed to encourage a break with old ties and to approve the quest for new endeavours.

Flourishing throughout Canada, not only in larger towns like Hamilton, Toronto, London, Montreal, and Vancouver, but also in unexpected places like Napanee, Ingersoll, Owen Sound, and Cape Breton, Shakespeare clubs fulfilled many purposes, including fostering debating and rhetorical skills. Some, such as that in London, claimed to encourage drama and to promote "rational amusement" but, in fact, never produced a Shakespearean play. Others linked themselves with larger cultural and political projects: Anna (of The King and I fame) Harriette Leonowens (born Edwards) founded a Shakespeare Society in Halifax, as well as a book club, a woman's suffrage association and the Victoria (later the Nova Scotia) School of Art and Design.

In Western Canada, a former head of the Toronto Conservatory's elocution department took up what he called the "mission" of "preaching" Shakespeare by performing him "at every chance" and "with great success" (Robson in Rubin 13). For Frederic Robson, writing in The Canadian Magazine in 1908, this was necessary, messianic work. Shakespeare was a mark of solid, natural intelligence, hearty fare for virtuous farmers. The Bard was "of the people," opposed to the values of the "pampered" and effeminate urbanites (Robson in Rubin 12-13). In this Western view, then, Shakespeare, was healthy, simple, moral fare: he was primitive yet bracing, good for one's moral fortitude.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a wider assimilation of Shakespeare came through the establishment of a provincial public education system. Both at the newly-created universities and outside them, in such institutions as the Margaret Eaton School of Literature and Expression (founded in 1907 in Toronto), excerpts and, later, complete Shakespeare plays were often taught in conjunction with rhetorical studies in the freshman year. Students would also encounter Shakespeare in subsequent years as part of their study of Elizabethan literature. Eventually, Shakespeare migrated to the second-year-level, where he became, and has remained, the subject of separate course study.

Mid-nineteenth century, the first course on Shakespeare (on the comedies) was offered by W.J. Alexander at the University of Toronto, although some Shakespeare had already been taught by the historian, anthropologist, geologist, and general polymath, Sir Daniel Wilson, in the 1840s. By the 1860s, Canada led the way for the United States and Britain: Shakespeare became the keystone of the honours undergraduate programme of McGill, and soon of all other universities across Canada, where he was admired for his uplifting ideas and his moral values.

Serious literary scholarship was slim, although public lectures on Shakespeare occurred with some frequency. Among the notable early works about Shakespeare are Sir Daniel Wilson's Caliban, the Missing Link (1873) and A.W. Crawford's Hamlet, an Ideal Prince (1916). The former is notable for arguing that Shakespeare anticipated Darwin's theory of evolution by nearly 300 years. For Wilson, Shakespeare's creation of the misshapen Caliban offered clear evidence of the Bard's intuitive grasp of evolutionary theory; Caliban was surely the "missing link."

International recognition for Canadian literary scholarship did not come until after WW II. One of the most prolific scholars, the British-born G. Wilson Knight who taught at the University of Toronto for nearly a decade, published a series of important books on Shakespeare, the poet of "royalism." Among his best-known studies are The Wheel of Fire (1949), The Imperial Theme (1954), and The Crown of Life (1961). It was, however, the voluminous theoretical, interpretive, cultural, and editorial work of native-born Northrop Frye which gained wide acclaim for Canadian Shakespeare studies. Beginning with his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), arguably the most influential book on genre of the twentieth century, Frye frequently used Shakespeare to work through his theories about literature. His Fables of Identity (1963), A Natural Perspective (1965), Fools of Time (1967), and numerous essays have made him a towering presence in Shakespearean and in Canadian cultural studies.

Other notable Canadian Shakespeareans followed, some of whom, like Frye, were critics and editors with connections to the University of Toronto: among them, Clifford Leech, F.D. Hoeniger, George Hibbard, Marion B. Smith, Sheldon P. Zitner, Anne Lancashire, Alexander Leggatt, and many others. While edited and interpreted, Shakespeare was studied in Canada (and elsewhere) as poet rather than dramatist up until the second-half of the twentieth century. The shift to performance study in Canada was signalled by the creation of the first Chair of Drama in 1945, at the University of Saskatchewan (also the first such chair in the Commonwealth); other departments of drama across Canada soon followed.


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