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Happy 150th Birthday to Canada – the world’s most Shakespearean nation.

July 1, 2017

stratford

Happy Birthday Canada.  In a few hours time, we’ll amble downtown and watch the parade.  Then later, when the red and white snake has shaken itself apart, we’ll go down to the river and stare at the United States.

Yes, Canada is one hundred and fifty years old today.  Among the many wonderful adjectives that will be joined to Canada today, I’d like to add another – Shakespearean.

Or rather, I’d like to revive an idea that was perhaps insufficiently developed by its original expounder, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, prior to his assassination – 150 years ago next year.   McGee, former 1848 Irish revolutionary, and by far the most eloquent of 1860s Canadian confederators, could (and did) lecture about just about anything.  Sometimes he lectured on Shakespeare.  And it’s my belief that had he lived longer, his lectures on Shakespeare and his lectures on Canada would have joined themselves up.

I think McGee had a Keatsian view of a Shakespearean Canada.  Canada is Shakespearean because it has “negative capability”.  Shakespearean Canada is content not to impose a clear definitional identity on its own mysteries.  Shakespearean Canada is not hung up on “identity” at all and lacks the kind of authorial presence that would want to impose one.   McGee, without quoting Keats, noted that Shakespeare is never a presence in his own dramas – that the characters Shakespeare creates are permitted to evolve and/or exfoliate without a sense of a defining hand on the tiller.  McGee was meanwhile trying to articulate a Confederal ideal for Canada in which each province would trust that no other province was trying to create a Canada in its own image.

McGee had decided to become an Irish Canadian rather than an Irish American, because his experiences not only with nativism but with the reaction to nativism made him feel safer and more himself in Montreal than in New York.  The historical difference between the immigrant experience in the USA and the immigrant experience in Canada derives from the fact that the USA was founded by a culturally and ethnically homogeneous group and successive waves of immigrants have (overwhelmingly successfully), assimilated to the nation established by that group.  But the dominance of that original group, derived from its historical priority, is retained, even when it becomes an ethnic minority within the nation it has designed.   Canada, on the other hand, was to be founded by multicultural negotiation from the get go.  The accommodation of Francophone and Anglophone, Catholic and Protestant, was form part of the actual and initial design of the state, rather than something to be dealt with afterwards.  This makes a difference.  A Shakespearean difference.

Canadians typically believing in demonstrating their patriotism in a variety of practical ways rather than shouting it.  They are not one to shriek “We’re Number One! We’re Number One!” on any or all occasions.  Canadians might be persuaded to chant “We take care of most of our people better than most other countries for most of the time” (an uncontroversial assertion), but rather than chant it, Canadians calmly go about proving it to be the case.  This is a McGee-Keatsian Shakespearean definition of nationhood that stands in critical opposition to an egotistical sublime.

Shakespearean Canada’s identity is civic rather than cultural – which is to say that Canada’s national distinctiveness is to be found in between its big tented hosted identities rather than inside any one of them.  Canada is not chiseled list of commandments, but a place where very different people can be themselves very successfully.

Of at least, this was McGee’s optimal Canada.   No nation with ideals worth having lives up to those ideals all of the time.  Only squalid and selfish people live up to their own ideals.  Shakespearean Canada is a celebratory Canada – it’s a Canada that is never quite real but will never quite die.  Canada has its own dark, disturbing and exploitative history – and spends a fair amount of time interrogating that dark and disturbing history – rather more time, indeed, than nations whose history is considerably more dark and disturbing than Canada’s.  In part, such interrogations take place, because optimal Canada prefers the accommodation of discord to strained concord.

Shakespearean Canada does not make for easy audience closure or critical consensus.

If you rewatch Star Trek VI; The Undiscovered Country (1991), then note the scenes where William Shatner and Christopher Plummer are quoting Shakespeare at one another and respectively claiming the bard for humanity and for the Klingon Empire.  They’re enjoying a very Canadian piece of diplomacy but also smiling (in Plummer’s case, beneath layers of make up) at their own early career scenery-chewing at Shakespeare festivals at Stratford Ontario, where Plummer and Shatner acted as young men in the 1950s.  As Canadians, these guys learned to own Shakespeare.

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