by Stephanie Nolen
Shakespeare in Canada:
'A World Elsewhere'?
by Edited by Diana Brydon and Irena R. Makaryk
Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life:
A Radical Guide To Shakespearean Tragedy
by Fintan O'Toole
Post Your Opinion
|Showing His Face in Canada
by Keith Garebian
Shakespeare was a "pin-up" long before Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare In Love made him one for movie fans. In his essay "The God Of Our Idolatry" (one of several that graces Stephanie Nolen's fascinating Shakespeare's Face), Stanley Wells refers to a play, by an unknown playwright from 1600, in which a character named Gullio (a nice play on the Elizabethan word for "fool") hero-worships Shakespeare to the extent of wooing his mistress with quotations from Venus and Adonis and Romeo and Juliet and then vowing: "O, sweet Master Shakespeare! I'll have his picture in my study at the court." The 18th century took hero-adoration much farther by turning Shakespeare into a divinity, especially when David Garrick's commemorative Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 proclaimed him "the God of our Idolatry." Bardolatry continued feverishly into the 19th century, and Canada was infected by it¨as we learn by reading Shakespeare In Canada, a collection of heavy, informative but frequently sluggish academic essays, in which we discover that there were all manner of literary societies dedicated to him. Even "the young African-Canadian women of the Frederic [sic] Douglass Self-Improvement Club of Amherstburg would begin their meetings with a recitation of Shakespearean quotations." Not that Canada lacked for Shakespearean controversy¨there was a flurry of opinion regarding the suitability of some plays for newly admitted women undergraduates¨but, in general, our Victorians continued to swoon over Shakespeare's love-poetry, his wise saws, and romantic or noble characters. There was also a notable attempt to turn Shakespeare into a New World colonist¨a sort of "hewer of words and drawer of quatrains" (in Heather Murray's memorable phrase) whose "beaver instinct" (according to Rev. Dr. Henry Scadding, a Victorian "polymathic cleric," historian, and bibliophile in Victorian Toronto) was nothing if not a pioneering spirit.
In his own time, Shakespeare never enjoyed such excessively privileged status. Jonathan Bate asserts in the Nolen book: "the consensus in the immediate aftermath of Shakespeare's death was that he had been a great dramatist but no freak of nature." In other words, he was first among equals but not a rare genius. After he died, he ascended to the heavens as the greatest literary star¨an arguably correct promotion but one with a considerable "downside," for the apotheosis led to a backlash in the form of conspiracy-theories questioning his authorship of the great plays. Academia or perverse tendentiousness (which is often the same thing) is to blame, of course, for the great tumble of essays and books that claim that Francis Bacon (or his older brother Anthony) wrote the plays. And if not Bacon, then possibly Queen Elizabeth herself or King James himself, John Florio (an Anglo-Italian dictionary-maker), or Christopher Marlowe, or, most probably, the Earl of Oxford. Interestingly, neither brotherly strip of Bacon was rash enough to claim authorship of Shakespeare's plays. As for the leading claimant, Oxford, he had the good sense to know that he was too hopeless at Latin, had never attended grammar school, joined the leather-trade or worked backstage with a theatre company. Moreover, as Jonathan Bate quietly points out, Oxford was on his deathbed at the time of Jacobean high politics and court-intrigue, and was so deeply into rigor mortis as to be utterly incapable of collaborating eight years after his own demise with John Fletcher on any of the questionable plays in or outside the canon.
Nevertheless, Shakespearean anxiety persists, with (as Marjorie Garber points out in the Nolen) "every age get[ting] the Shakespeare it wants, and perhaps even the Shakespeare it deserves." The overwhelming anxiety concerns finding some visual representation of the real Shakespeare, some painting or portrait of his true face with which to silence the anti-Stratfordians. There are numerous paintings of his face that seemingly come to light from under the beds of many unsuspecting grannies. However, all these happy accidents have had unhappy endings. Only four artifacts have ever had some element of legitimacy: the Martin Droeshout engraving on the title-page of the First Folio of 1623, the Flower painting supposedly done in 1609, the memorial bust at Stratford-on-Avon by Geraert Janssen in 1620, and the Chandos portrait of approximately 1610 in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The doubts and objections continue: the Droeshout (approved of by Shakespeare's friends) is called dull and unskillful; the bust (commissioned and paid for by Shakespeare's family) is derided for making him look like a "self-satisfied pork butcher"; the Chandos can't be Shakespeare, it is said, because it looks either too Italianate or too Jewish; and the Flower is evidently either a glamourised model for or a version of the Droeshout!
The latest candidate in the controversy is in Canada¨a small, unsigned oil on wood panel in the possession of a retired engineer from Ottawa, who claims that it has been passed down his family from Shakespeare's time. Now known as the Sanders portrait, it shows a young man with wispy moustache and goatee who wears a doublet with a peculiar collar. He looks bright-eyed and slyly flirtatious with his thin, enigmatic smile. A tattered label with almost indecipherable handwriting identifies the man as Shakespeare at the age of 39. The painting was brought to public attention in May 2001 by Globe and Mail reporter Stephanie Nolen, whose book about the mystery, aptly entitled Shakespeare's Face, is a wonderful mixture of detective work and literary/aesthetic scholarship. The painting (missing a strip of panel on the right) has been subjected to rigorous forensic examination (X-ray, dendrochronology, and carbon dating), and has been accepted as "a pure and good example" of portraiture from the early 17th century, but it is almost certainly not a portrait of Shakespeare.
Nolen's book is expertly edited and assembled. In addition to interesting essays by Shakespearean scholars (including Stanley Wells, Andrew Gurr, and Alexander Leggatt), art historians, and paleographers that alternate with Nolen's journalistic commentary, it contains a portrait gallery, notes on its 11 contributors, end-notes, sources, parting opinions by the experts who have tried to read and assess the portrait, and a list of Shakespearean editions recommended by Leggatt (who is always a pleasure to read). But after all the information on daily life in Shakespeare's time, portrait painting of that era, the development of Shakespeare's myth, and the forensic analysis, there is the final issue which Andrew Gurr articulates: "What Shakespeare looked like is not really very important. He has been dead for nearly four hundred years, so his face is not going to launch any new ships and we are hardly likely to meet him in the street. Getting a fresh idea of what his face looked like cannot alter much of what he has left us. It might shift a few perspectives about his life a little, but it can add nothing to the corpus of his writings, on which his reputation and our valuation stands."
Shakespeare's texts and reputation are the very things that now fuel scholarly inquiry against the Bardolators in Canada. In 19th century Canada, Shakespeare was by no means uniformly accepted. Irena B. Makaryk's Introduction in Shakespeare In Canada points out that he "was viewed with opprobrium in the Atlantic provinces," and was "frequently imagined as a barometer of propriety and some intellectual pretension" in central and eastern Canada. During the Second World War, his birthday "continued to be celebrated and his name used in war propaganda." By mid-century, Canadians throughout the dominion had had the opportunity either to read or see his plays, and as academia came to be increasingly interested in him, he was studied "as poet rather than dramatist." But why him and not some other writer? Shakespeare In Canada asks this very question, as well as others in the course of essays from twenty contributors: "What is the place of Shakespeare in Canadian culture? Can a Canadian Shakespeare be possible if Canadians cannot agree on what 'Canadian' is or what a 'nation' is?"
Interesting questions, to be sure, but alas, they do not usually receive refreshingly articulate, wittily engaging responses from the academics who appear in this book. Nor do they elicit scrupulously accurate rehearsals of fact. To take a glaring example: heaping scorn on the Stratford Festival for its long reluctance to leap into the future of Canadian playwriting, Margaret Groome charges "It was not until the early 1970s that Canadian writers became a consistent feature of the Festival season"¨until "the tenure of Englishman Robin Phillips" when "the production of Canadian works became sporadic." However, a quick check of the record punctures Groome's hot-air balloon. In 1970 there was but one production of a Canadian play; in 1971 there was another¨a show of Montreal marionettes! In 1972 there were three full productions, plus a chamber opera; in 1973, three more productions, and two in 1974. There were workshops, of course, but these can't be counted as part of the regular programming. When Phillips took over in 1975, he offered four Canadian works, one more in 1976, and four in 1979. His successor, Hungarian-Canadian John Hirsch (to use ethnic categories so beloved by our hyperventilating nationalists) staged none in 1981 (his first season), one in 1982, one in 1983, none in 1984, and none again in 1985 (his final season). So much for the patron saint of our Canadian nationalists and so much for scholars with political agendas!
Inaccuracy, however, is not confined to statistical matters. In a badly argued essay on Shakespearean authenticity and adaptation, Daniel Fischlin concocts some nonsense about India's forging a national identity through the help of Shakespeare! Professor Fischlin is obviously blissfully unaware of the fact that only a small percentage of Indians read English drama, let alone Shakespeare, and these educated Indians come from the urban areas where English is still taught in schools and universities. Secure in its belief that it can endure any amount of colonial violation, India has never had any need of cultural dependency on foreign models. Moreover, a national Indian identity encompasses scores of regional languages which owe nothing to Shakespeare. Incidentally, Fischlin also gets a famous Canadian writer's name wrong. He invents a John Metcalfe where a John Metcalf would do nicely enough, kicking against the pricks. Jessica Schagerl commits a similar blunder. She discovers a Frances Nyland at Stratford when all along I thought I had seen Frances Hyland. Who should be blamed for these howlers? The editors can't be totally absolved, for one of them (Irena Makyrk) thinks that it was Herbert Whittaker who directed the "Inuit-themed" King Lear of 1961-2, when it was really David Gardner who did the honours¨with Whittaker serving as designer.
These are small misrepresentations in themselves, but in the context of a large book by academics, they are magnified in their folly. What is much worse is the sheer density of jargon and poor writing. Daniel Fischlin, for instance, kills a good Wayne and Shuster joke with his high earnestness and bloated phrasing. First the joke: "Wayne orders a martinus. 'You mean martini,' says the bartender. 'If I want a double,' snaps Wayne, 'I'll order one.'" And this is what Fischlin writes about it: "Here, the issue of Shakespeare as a form of cultural capital, an emblem of contestatory identity politics over which virtually anyone is free to inscribe his or her revisioning, operates in a mode of ironic self-deprecation." In another essay, Ric Knowles takes the populist Cruel Tears by Ken Mitchell and Humphrey and the Dumptrucks (a very loose Canadian adaptation of Othello, but really a play for truckers, if there ever was one!) and puts it through his academic wringer: "Cruel TearsÓis a complex blend of interventionist critique, high cultural aspiration, and reification of traditional gender, class, and ethnic positionings. And among its most interesting and unusual features is its ambivalent treatment of its Shakespearean source. Mitchell and the Dumptrucks seem to want to have their cultural authority and eat it too: the play seems to avoid deliberately explicit citations of Shakespeare that might alienate the populist 'crowd'¨to the degree that at least one review does not mention ShakespeareÓbut at the same time, it allows the hegemonic operation of unconscious influence and provides self-congratulatory rewards for the cognoscenti who recognize parallels and revisions." Well, I suppose one man's cognoscenti is another's coma, but this does not stop our tenured theatre academics from their deliriously rich comedy of squeezing faddish readings out of second and third-rate plays in an earnest effort to show how Canadian playwrights use Shakespeare only to depart from him or subvert his texts only to substitute their own concerns. "Better watch out for that refined shit," warns a character about a different topic in Cruel Tears. Aptly put.
Must academic writing resemble the self-congratulatory cant of an exclusive secret society? Is it the case that academics are either congenitally or constitutionally unable to produce meaning without the help of jargon? Shapespeare in Canada is no exception to this sad trend.
There are model essays in the book, and it is a pity the jargon-bound offenders have not learned from them. Leanore Lieblin contributes one on Shakespeare in Francophone Quebec; Alexander Leggatt contributes another on Canada, Negative Capability, and Cymbeline; Lois Sherlow writes brilliantly about the alchemical symbolism in Normand Chaurette's Les Reines; and L.M. Findlay adds a third by way of an analysis of the literary, historical, and political problems in and around Northrop Frye's work on Shakespeare; and these four scholars are a pleasure to read, even when I disagree with some of their conclusions, for they pose their central questions in interestingly crystalline and coherent ways. As does co-editor Diana Brydon in her summative Afterword which explains without pomposity the grand purpose and organization of the book.
Shakespeare In Canada attempts to investigate why and how Shakespeare matters in our country. Divided into four parts¨Institutionalizing Shakespeare; Shakespeare on Stage; Critical Debates and Traditions; Reimagining Shakespeare¨it scrutinizes various "adaptations" of Shakespeare to discover why Shakespeare acquires the authority of a fetishized icon in a nation that is still shaping its own identity. And, in Diana Brydon's words, it asks "how do these Shakespeares relate to those taught in the classroom, staged in the theatre, and recycled in various other adaptations and revisions"? Any honest answer would need to concede that Shakespeare is far from being a fetishized icon anywhere in Canada, except in theatre academe where he serves as a sort of post-colonial windmill against which many sad Don Quixotes tilt. Just how many Canadians read Shakespeare, let alone experience him on stage? Our school-students treat him as a dose of nasty medicine, and there are countless university graduates whose highest familiarity with him is through Cole's notes. (Alas, the students lacked the sort of teaching guide that Fintan O'Toole provides with his admirably provocative but succinct study of four major tragedies usually placed on the curriculum). Those who do read Shakespeare out of admiration rather than duty hardly consider him a force of insidious cultural imperialism or as a symbol of colonial cultural dependency. He is read because he is simply the greatest poet-playwright in English, and there is no reason to fear that somehow the cultural moments he represents would somehow infiltrate Canadian society or identity, any more than Soviet iconicity would overwhelm a devotee of Chekhov or any more than Tennesee Williams would make Southern neurotics of us all. Unfortuantely, most of the essays in Shakespeare In Canada are contaminated by damnable jargon. Consequently, the form works mightily against the content, preventing the book from being truly useful to theatre professionals or students in a classroom.
Students might instead look to Fintan O'Toole's slim but compact little book that is a refreshing alternative to the usual jaw-breaking prolixity. Apart from highly engaging and sensible readings of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, O'Toole (who is touted to be Ireland's foremost theatre critic) shows convincingly how the plays have been made unintelligible to modern students by being filtered through a series of ideas that have nothing to do with what Shakespeare wrote. To read his book and Shakespeare In Canada side-by-side is to recognize the validity of his conviction, for one of the grand underlying assumptions by many of the Canadian scholars is that Shakespeare represents conservative English values that prevent Canadians from attaining cultural autonomy when, in fact, as O'Toole convincingly shows, Shakespeare refuses to be either colonizer or colonizing agent. "In the tragedies there is an overwhelming feeling that all of the most fundamental values of society have become relativeÓ.In Shakespeare's tragedies, things are changing so fast that the whole idea of human continuity seems to be threatenedÓIt is not, though, just the content and the imagery of Shakespeare's tragedies that is shaped by the extremely fluid nature of the world he lives in, it is also the kind of poetry he writes." O'Toole is amazingly concise in his readings of the four plays, for one has only to look at the essay on King Lear to note how skillfully he links numerous patterns and motifs (feudal and modern, nothingness, numbers, comparisons, bonds, fatherhood, sexual confusion, doublings, gratuitousness, et cetera) to realize just how possible it is to extract appreciable meaning without academic logorrhea. Although O'Toole's book is for the generalist and not the specialist, for the common reader and not the scholar, and it may seem perversely contentious to contrast it with the Brydon-Makaryk collection, I find that his book speaks to me far beyond the schematic and didactic categories of Shakespeare In Canada if only because it returns all debate about Shakespearean authenticity to its proper sphere¨the living text. ˛