Internet Shakespeare Editions

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9. "A Gibing Spirit": Imitation, Adaptation and Parody

Canadian playwrights' concern that Shakespeare's prominence adversely affected the growth of an indigenous theatre holds some truth, not only because his centrality in theatrical repertoires made it unnecessary to create new plays, but also because of the adverse influence his works exerted as models for dramatic writing in the nineteenth century, a time when, elsewhere, nationalism and cultural revival were flourishing. Indeed, Canada's political position as a dominion within a British empire is parallelled by the derivative nature of nineteenth-century Canadian drama. Pseudo-Elizabethan drama, like Charles Heavysege's Saul--praised in the nineteenth century but not since--is but the most obvious example of the failure to transplant the Shakespearean model into new soil.

If Shakespeare's influence has impeded Canadian drama on one level, on another, it has been responsible for initiating the extremely fertile and distinct sub-genres of Shakespearean parodies and serious adaptations. A strong, even acerbic, tradition of re-rewriting Shakespeare to satirize local politics began in the eighteenth century. It may, indeed, be here that we need to seek for a distinct Canadian Shakespeare.

Canadian fascination with revisionist versions of Shakespeare is extensive and wide-ranging, extending from the serious to the outrageous in all genres and in both official languages. In the twentieth-century alone, there were over one hundred such versions. To list a few: drama (John Herbert, Peter Eliot Weiss, Ken Gass, Judith Thompson, Margaret Clarke, Michael O'Brien, David Belke, Antonine Maillet, Norman Chaurette, Robert Gurik, Timothy Findley, Jean-Claude Germain, Jean-Pierre Ronfard, Michel Garneau, Tibor Egervari, Marco Micone, Jean-Frédéric Messier, John Sipes); fiction (Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Carole Corbeil, Hubert Aquin, Sarah Murphy, Constance Beresford-Howe, Audrey Thomas, Leon Rooke); poetry (Elizabeth Brewster, Marjorie Pickthall, Suniti Namjoshi); music (Ted Dykstra, Loreena McKennitt); children's literature (Lois Burdett, Christine Coburn, Amanda Lewis, Tim Wynne-Jones); radio (Newfoundland Broadcasting Company, CBC); television (Wayne and Shuster); pop/rock musicals (Cliff Jones); and political cartoons (hundreds of them, dating back to the early nineteenth century)ñby no means a complete list of either categories or authors.

As a settler/invader colony founded on displacements, Canada has been well-positioned to deal with revisions and re-writings of canonical works. Adaptations and parody--authorized transgression, dependent upon and yet opposed to an original--are particularly appealing modes to a country separate from but tied to Britain. Parody may, in some respects, be regarded as the mode best according with the Canadian myth of this country as a "blank face" (Mavor Moore's term; Moore in Rubin 238)), a "nobody" (Marshall McLuhan; McLuhan 227) or a work-in-progress with multiple borderlines dependent upon negotiation and debate.

10. "The bubble reputation": multiplying Shakespeares

If Canadians may have seemed slow to acquire Shakespeare or to give him a permanent home, they are now eager in their rush to possess him. Shakespeare is, at present, a profitable market commodity. While some scholars may attempt to de-centre him in English departments across North America and England, the Bard is firmly entrenched in more than the narrow academic discipline of English studies. A presence since the eighteenth century in theatricals, in satires and parodies, adaptations and other re-writings, Shakespeare today is the property of both high and low culture, stage, classroom, text, intertext, and webtext. Thoroughly permeating all aspects of Canadian culture, Shakespeare is a ready-made, immediately recognizable source of meaning for any number of endeavours, but especially as a symbol of English studies.

Such multiplying Shakespeares increase the value of his ownership and incite competition for him. The Ottawa Citizen proudly announced on 5 October 1998 that a Canadian company, Shakespeare by the Sea, was "first off the mark" in a "worldwide race to perform Edward III," possibly a 'lost' play by Shakespeare (Anon, Arts 2). Taking the discovered text directly from the Internet, the Halifax troupe was satisfied in performing a play only available in excerpts. The rush for Shakespeare is even, at times, literal, as The Globe and Mail reported in 1990: "A Canadian living in Oxford set the speed record for reciting Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' soliloquy. Sean Shannon completed it in 24 seconds. At this rate," wrote Michael Kesterton, "the entire part could be recited in 17.9 minutes. Prairie winters are quite cold" (Kesterton B5).

image© All rights reserved. "Sanders Portrait." Canadian Conservation Institute, Department of Canadian Heritage, 2001.
Click for a larger image.

The question of a distinctly Canadian Shakespeare, shaped by tensions between English and French, by its relations to the First Nations, to new immigrant groups, and to its elephantine neighbour to the south, is now locked into the global context of the World Wide Web. Numerous Canadian web-sites and chat groups contribute to the global reach of the Shakespeare industry. The image of the recently discovered so-called Sanders portrait, purportedly of Shakespeare, in the family of a retired Ontario engineer was instantly transmitted across newspapers and Internet sites, giving rise to new speculation about the face of genius, the authority of the Bard, and our relationship to him. His authority and centrality assisted by the combined forces of his entrenchment in the canons of high and low culture, of academia and techno-sphere, Shakespeareñlike Hamlet's Ghost, here, there and everywhereñboth reigns supreme in Canada's multiple, transitional spaces, and still continues to elude us.


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