Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in Francophone Québec

Leanore Lieblein (McGill University) [1]

Table of Contents

Note: Irena R. Makaryk has contributed a complementary essay on Shakespeare in Canada

[Illustrations for this article will be added as they become available.]


New France, Lower Canada, French Canada, Québec. Shakespeare in francophone Québec takes its place in the cultural palimpsest that in Québec results from a succession of multiple colonizations. These include the settlement by France after 1534, the Conquest (also known as the Defeat) by the English in 1760, the absorption of Québec into a Confederation of Canadian provinces in 1867, all of this alongside the ongoing economic, geographic, and cultural proximity of the United States, for some most recently represented by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. Thus the work of Shakespeare, by virtue of its provenance, its language, and its association with Canadian federalism, has helped to define Québec's cultural Other in a context in which Québec itself has been in continual change, and has contributed to the creation of a québécois national dramaturgy.

The first trace of Shakespeare in French, in what was then Lower Canada, appears to have been performed in QuĂ©bec City in 1824 in a room in the Hôtel Malhiot. Among the acrobatic, equestrian, dance and theatrical spectacles performed by one of several touring companies who eventually took up residence in the capital was Catherine et Petrucchio, the widely-popular Garrick version of The Taming of the Shrew (Bourassa).

Montreal's first francophone Shakespeare was probably Hamlet. It and Othello were presented in the adaptations of Ducis in the early 1830s by a troupe called the "Amateurs Canadiens." This group, and the "Amateurs de MontrĂ©al," had been formed to offer an alternative to the vaudeville, farce and melodrama of companies touring from France. The production of these tragedies by Shakespeare, along with plays by Molière, Regnard, Scribe and others, also performed by the Amateurs, was part of a resistance against the superficiality of imported performances and an assertion of local taste (Doucette 103-4). Thus from the 1830s on, Shakespeare was a participant in the creation in Canada of a home-grown francophone theatrical culture.

Whether this francophone interest in Shakespeare had anything to do with the campaign in English-language newspapers to draw French speakers to Anglophone theatres in order to anglicize them is unknown. Doucette cites an 1823 example from the Canadian Magazine promoting such a strategy: "Were it possible, by means of a well-regulated English Theatre, to draw some of the French Canadians to the representation of some of [Shakespeare's] best pieces, the effects would doubtless be salutary, by tending to impart those feelings so much in unison with British hearts" (qtd. in Doucette 80; bracket in Doucette).

In general, apart from touring companies, the theatrical culture of French Canada was, initially, largely a product of amateur school and community groups (Doucette, Laflamme and Tourangeau passim). That it took a professional theatre a long time to develop can be traced back to an interdiction in 1694 by the Bishop of QuĂ©bec. In response to a proposed performance of Molière's Tartuffe, a play which satirized religious hypocrisy, Bishop Saint-Vallier issued a mandamus, which made attendance at public theatrical performance a sin. The decree remained in force for two hundred years, creating a climate inhospitable to the development of a local professional theatre and the context for the infamous assessment of the arts by Lord Durham in his Report that followed the Rebellion of 1837:

There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature . . . . Though descended from the people in the world that most generally love, and have most successfully cultivated the drama -- though living on a continent, in which almost every town, great or small, has an English theatre, the French population of Lower Canada, cut off from every people that speaks its own language, can support no national stage. (qtd. in Doucette 122)

Although it was to take some time before the French-speaking population of Lower Canada could support a professional stage, francophones do seem to have attended English-language productions, including performances of the plays of Shakespeare, in substantial numbers. The first professional productions of Shakespeare in English date from 1786 when a touring American company presented three plays of Shakespeare in the course of the year (Ripley 4). [2] Touring English-language productions of Shakespeare continued throughout the nineteenth century, and included such renowned Shakespearean actors as Edmund Kean in 1826, William Charles Macready in 1844, and James O'Neil in 1896 (BĂ©raud 29-42 passim; see also Larrue 40-44). Jean BĂ©raud, in his 350 ans de thĂ©âtre au Canada français, cites numerous English-language productions of Shakespeare precisely because they were frequently attended by francophones. And when by the end of the nineteenth century French-language companies were touring with greater frequency -- Sarah Bernhardt performed in Montreal no fewer than nine times between 1880 and 1917 (Nardocchio 10) -- productions of Shakespeare in French began to appear as well. For example in December 1923 the OdĂ©on theatre company of Paris presented four plays, two of them by Shakespeare (Bolster, "Shakespeare dans. . ." 417).

The absence of local professional French-language production of Shakespeare is thus generally explained by the immaturity of its theatrical institution and the insularity of Québec culture (e.g. Bolster, "Shakespeare in. . ." passim; Hamelin 7-8). [3] Shakespeare remained part of the culture "out there" rather than "in here." His work was certainly not part of the francophone secondary school curriculum, where English classes concentrated on imparting language skills. Writing in 1939 Maurice Lebel, former Dean of the Faculté des Lettres of Laval University, made clear in his Suggestions pratiques sur notre enseignement that Shakespeare, at least at the secondary school level, could not be a priority:

. . . Should one study a play by Shakespeare? I don't think so. How can one expect students to get something out of studying Shakespeare when, in most of our secondary school [collèges] teachers don't even explain a tragedy by Corneille or by Racine, a comedy by Beaumarchais, or a drama by Victor Hugo? For myself . . . , I would never risk putting even a single one of his plays on the syllabus. (qtd. in Bolster, "Shakespeare in. . ." 72) [4]

The mood, however, was changing, and it was in fact in a collège in 1937 that a priest, Father Ă©mile Legault, created with his students Les Compagnons de Saint-Laurent, a troupe which, influenced by the theatrical practice of Jacques Copeau in France, was committed to bringing the classics of world theatre to a broad audience.


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[1] This essay is adapted from the articles by Leanore Lieblein whose publication details are contained in the Works Cited. [Back]

[2] I do not wish to suggest that all productions of Shakespeare found popular favor, only that the frequency of their performance implies that there was an audience there for them. The complete story of Shakespeare performance in Québec is yet to be told, though John Ripley's study of the years 1805-1826 in Montreal gives a taste of what it would look like. [Back]

[3] All scholars in this field must acknowledge an immense debt to Charles Gordon Bolster , whose unpublished M.A. thesis broke the ground. [Back]

[4] All translations from the original French are my own unless otherwise indicated. [Back]