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8. Distinct Shakespeare: Québec

[Shakespeare in Québec is discussed in more detail in the article by Leanore Lieblein in this series.]

In Québec, Shakespeare was neither part of the school curriculum nor part of the local professional acting companies. Shakespeare's lukewarm, if not negative, reception was the result of early uses of Shakespeare as a tool of assimilation. In the years preceding the construction of the Theatre Royal in Québec, for example, Shakespeare figured in the campaign of English newspapers to anglicize francophones. Yet, despite English assimilationist sentiments, some Shakespeare was produced in French in the early 1830s, interestingly, as the preferable alternative to imported melodrama and Parisian vaudeville. Introduced in Lower Canada (Québec) by Firmin Prud'homme, a Parisian actor, Shakespeare was played in eighteenth-century French adaptations. Working with Les Amateurs Canadiens, Prud'homme staged the first production of Hamlet.

For the most part, Shakespeare's fortunes in Québec waxed and waned with the political situation. While English Canada relied on touring companies, French Canada had to focus on creating its own indigenous theatre. Shakespeare acquired widespread popularity only after WW II. Little Shakespeare was produced between 1972 and 1986, when the separatist movement gained momentum. With the assassination of cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, the invocation of the War Measures Act (1970), and the first referendum on Québec separation (1980), English authors like Shakespeare, but also classics as a whole, became unpalatable and were replaced by feminist, nationalist and anti-Catholic plays.

In the 1990s, the already-mentioned Robert Lepage turned many times to Shakespeare in his explorations into multimedia, sexuality, and the act of creation itself. Elsinor/Elsineur, variations on a theme of Hamlet, began with all of the roles, including those of Ophelia and Gertrude, played by Lepage himself, as a way to suggest Hamlet's isolated world, which depends more and more on his morbid imagination. Lepage's visually stunning productions include A Midsummer Night's Dream (1992), presented as a sexual nightmare staged in a massive mudbath. (The audience in the first three rows was provided with plastic ponchos.) His The Tempest/tempête (1993) included an utterly uninhibited, anarchic Caliban, played by a woman, and an acrobatic Ariel who for over 30 minutes was suspended from a lighting fixture over the stage.

Shakespeare has also been a frequent presence in the 1990s at various festivals, including the annual Festival de théâtre des Amériques. In one of the most inventive of festivals, Événement 38, all of Shakespeare's 38 plays were rewritten into fifteen-minute segments by playwrights under the age of 38 as a rebuke to theatre critics who bemoaned the absence of Québécois "Shakespeares". [3] While now more than comfortable with Shakespeare, many Québec playwrights, like their anglophone counterparts, still regard him as a commercial force taking away audience interest and public funds from native-born talent. But, not hampered by a language shared with the British and the Americans, the francophones, unlike anglophones, are often more free to explore, deplore and admire Shakespeare.


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[3] I am grateful to Patrick Leroux for this information on Événement 38. Leroux was one of the contributors to this festival of Shakespearean adaptations/ transformations, being responsible for a well-received fifteen-minute Cymbeline. [Back]