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Shakespeare at Home in Canada

April 23, 2016

quote-shakespeare-is-a-drunken-savage-with-some-imagination-whose-plays-please-only-in-london-voltaire-131-17-96 (1)

This quote is a bit of a hoax, cobbled together out of two separate comments by Voltaire and ignoring the larger context of what Voltaire was trying to say.  Here’s a site that disentangles the misquote.

There is a strong case, however, for saying that Shakespeare was (or rather is) essentially and influentially Canadian and if I ever get my work on Thomas D’Arcy McGee together then I’ll be able to develop this idea a bit better.

No one nation “owns” Shakespeare.  Geographical proximity to the land of Shakespeare’s birth should confer no privilege.  The University of Warwick should not enjoy a monopoly of Shakespeare Studies.  The people who feel that the reconstructed Globe theater offers a “closer” sense of Shakespeare than anywhere else are severely missing the point.

In the 1860s, erstwhile failed Irish revolutionary and energetic confederalist Thomas D’Arcy McGee delivered a variety of lectures on literary as well as political topics.  On one occasion he delivered a lecture on the “Political Morality of Shakespeare’s Plays”, which illustrates his belief that “the ablest man who ever yet used our language as a vehicle of thought” was, like a good Canadian confederator, of the view that politics was delicate balancing act involving a studious avoidance of extremes:

David Wilson notes the strategic sense of presenting this vision of Shakespeare, a Shakespeare who ‘would have been quite at home in the Reform Party’.  While the need to promote his own tenuous working relationship with George Brown undoubtedly inform this public lecture, McGee makes suggestions that are more powerful and suggestive than merely enlisting the Stratford bard as a voice of moderate liberal centrism.  Dissenting critically from William Hazlitt’s reading of Coriolanus, McGee denies that Shakespeare sides either with the Roman patrician, or with “the arbitrary side of the question”, more generally considered.  This lecture is less significant as a contribution to Shakespearean criticism (offering little in the way of original scholarship or creative critical insight) than it is an example of what McGee felt that Shakespeare could do for Canada.   The theme of psychological “balance” is returned to in the course of a Shakespearean lecture given some years later, again in Montreal:

To Shakespeare certainly more than any other writer we have, the praise of a well-balanced mind belongs; for while Milton was often a fanatic, and Dryden a partisan, and Byron a cynic, this great genius, like those impassive Assyrian Gods who have been restored to the light of our days by indefatigable research, he looked straight out into all space, with a calm self-possession which strikes one with awe – it is so unlike our average humanity.

For McGee, Canada was Shakespearean because (without quoting Keats), Canada enjoyed (or could perhaps enjoy) “Negative Capability…  when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.   While the United States had been founded by a fairly homogeneous group of people, and subsequent groups of immigrants had confronted a norm to which they were expected to assimilate – Canada at the moment of its constitutional birth in the 1860s was defined by various pre-existing identities, none of which could claim hegemony. For McGee, this pluralism represented a Shakespearean opportunity to juxtapose different voices in dramatic proximity – juxtapose without offering any defining commentary or interpretation on them.

For McGee, Canada stood a chance of becoming the most Shakespearean nation on earth.  McGee’s political investment in bardolatory becomes explicable in terms of this peculiar “calm” and “balance” that he repeatedly ascribes to the Swan of Avon.  In political and sectarian terms, McGee notes that “though he lives within the range of the Reformation controversy, it is still disputed whether he was a Catholic or a Protestant”.  (In the context of Canadian culture wars, this biographical query is best left forever unanswered.)  The importance of Shakespearean balance becomes all the more significant in a Canadian context when one considers the form of drama itself, its ability to create something whole and entire out of distinct and jarring voices.  There is nothing “monotonous” about Shakespeare’s calm self possession since it emerges out of the aggregate of distinct and opposed voices that he “balances” within the constitution of his dramas.  Shakespeare’s “identity” may appear less strongly marked than other writers, but this is the result of his ability to accommodate and ventriloquise so many different identities.  His “middle ground” can only be defined by the free and fair expression he gives to defining extremes.  The “message” of a Shakespeare play is not, therefore, the result of characters being poured into a melting pot  or squeezed through an American style crushing mill, but rather by discord being acknowledged and choreographed by some authorial intelligence.  Clearly, the negotiation of a new confederal Canadian polity represents (for McGee), a creative exercise of Shakespearean magnitude and Canada is set fair to become the world’s most Shakespearean nation (far more Shakespearean than the tired island that originally  gave him birth).


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