Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in Canada: "A World Elsewhere"?

Irena R. Makaryk (University of Ottawa, Canada), 2002.

The following essay is drawn from parts of the Introduction to the collection Shakespeare in Canada: 'a world elsewhere'? edited by Diana Brydon and Irena R. Makaryk. The book is available from the University of Toronto Press:

Shakespeare is "the most important playwright in Canada"

(Mavor Moore in Rubin 247)

"A world elsewhere"?

Simultaneously alluding to difference and sameness, the phrase "a world elsewhere" is an apt metaphor for Canada in relation to Shakespeare, a variant of Northrop Frye's now commonplace phrase, "Where is here?" ñthe question of cultural coordinates. Is Canada the Corioles of immigrants fleeing from somewhere else? And if Canada is the "elsewhere," where, then, is the "centre"? Is Britain the locus of tradition and value? New York? Paris? Kyiv? Beijing? Or is the centre, in fact, really here: in St. John's, Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton? Shakespeare or Chaurette? How and where do the worlds of theatre, literature, value, politics, and nation intersect?

Since the early nineteenth century, in many parts of Europe (East and West), and throughout the world, Shakespeare has been intimately bound up with issues of cultural nationalism and colonialism; of the centrality of the classics and their relationship to local culture. The late twentieth century has been preoccupied with dismissing notions of a "universal" Shakespeare who has easily, it seems, permeated a myriad of cultures. Post-colonial critique in particular has attacked the notion of a transcendent Shakespeare able to speak across centuries and across continents. At the same time, political theorists have begun to re-assess concepts and typologies of nationalism. In the international dialogue now developing between Shakespeare and post-colonial studies, Canada occupies the unusual but fascinating position of a first-world settler colony with a multicultural national community, a high standard of living, and the persistent remnants of what Australians term a "cultural cringe."

As long ago as 1964, Herbert Whittaker, the Globe and Mail drama critic, noted that, in a then recent edition of a reference book about Shakespeare, the entry on Canadian Shakespeare not only was exceedingly brief, but also began in 1949, making no reference to its lengthy genealogy in Canada. Nor has the situation much improved since. Not even most Canadians are aware that Shakespeare has had a long and complex history in this country. Often employed as a bulwark against other "undesirable" traditions or cultures, Shakespeare has served in Canada in many capacities: as protector and symbol of high art; as morally-edifying theatre; as an ally of solid British values; and as a tool of anglicization, among others. He has been the subject of mockery, parody, rewriting; at times, he has elicited simple indifference. In the twenty-first century, these attitudes to Shakespeare are complicated by his relocation in an increasingly globalized world in which culture is commodified and homogenized. Today, Shakespeare is a formidable cultural force whose influence seems to show increasing strength rather than signs of waning. But it was not always thus. His authority and centrality have been promoted by the combined forces of his entrenchment in the canons of high and low culture, of the literary academy and of the often more boisterous stage. Reinforced by adaptations, re-writings and especially parodies, Shakespeare reigns supreme as one of Canada's pre-eminent playwrights. But how unique a creation is Shakespeare in this country? Is Canadian Shakespeare an imitation or a mere variant of Anglo-American Shakespeare? What is the place of Shakespeare in Canadian culture? In the Canadian mythos? Can a Canadian Shakespeare be possible if Canadians can't agree on what "Canadian" is or what a "nation" is?"


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