“Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada.”
Impressive: In one line, Voltaire managed to offend both the playwright considered by many to be the greatest writer in the English language and also the country now thought by more than a few to be the best place on Earth.
At least the Canadians were in good company.
This spring marks four centuries since Shakespeare’s death on April 23.
Today Voltaire might be surprised to learn that the Bard’s work still attracts readers and theatre-goers — although the news that many of those enthusiasts live in Canada might only confirm his opinions of both the colonies and the Elizabethan playwright.
If anything, Shakespeare is even more popular in Canada now than he was in Voltaire’s day, with numerous adaptations of his work every year.
Some of those happen at the Stratford Festival, of course. But many more play out in other places across the country.
Capturing the spirit of those and other productions is the point of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) run by Daniel Fischlin, an English professor at the University of Guelph.
Launched in 2003, the site now includes more than 700 adaptations since Confederation.
Among the earliest was “Shakspere’s Skull and Falstaff’s Nose: A Fancy in Three Acts.” It was published pseudonymously in 1889 in London by Charles Moyse, a McGill University English professor.
That was only the beginning of many Shakespeare spoofs, including “Tryst and Snout,” a musical hillbilly adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by Guelph’s James Gordon.
Other productions contain more serious subtexts. “Hamlet-le-Malecite” was produced in 2004 by Ondinnok, the only First Nations theatre company in Quebec. With its messages about colonization and indigenous peoples, this adaptation might have resonated with Voltaire at least.
Fischlin says Quebec tends to produce provocative adaptations of Shakespeare, often linked to proto-nationalist ideas. There, as elsewhere, more pop-cultural references show up in recent adaptations, along with discussion of issues from sexual identity to race and class.
That trend might offend Shakespearean purists. But Fischlin figures many viewers might come to Shakespeare through adaptations.
That includes movies ranging from “The Lion King” (hard not to hear echoes of “Hamlet” in the “evil uncle” trope of Scar) to “West Side Story” (a New York City retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”).
“Anything that brings people into contact with creativity is a good thing,” says Fischlin, who grew up in Montreal reading his dad’s collected works of Shakespeare.
In Guelph, he’s now busy updating the CASP website with dozens of new adaptations staged in Canada since 2005.
Among other things, the site also contains links to clips of Canadian performances, including plays, movies, TV shows, documentaries and cartoons — and plenty of other Shakespeare Canadiana. In a cheeky move, Fischlin has borrowed Voltaire’s “drunken savage” quotation as a tag line for the website.
Canadian ties run through yet another project involving Fischlin and CASP.
He has been involved in an effort to authenticate the so-called Sanders portrait, purported to be the only likeness of the Bard painted in his lifetime.
The portrait, long owned by retired Ottawa engineer Lloyd Sullivan, is believed to have descended through 13 generations of his family.
Numerous scientific tests of the painting, including the paint itself and the frame as well as an inscription on the back of the portrait, all point to the conclusion that we are indeed looking at the Bard.
It’s a pile of circumstantial evidence, a pile heightened further by genealogical research connecting Shakespeare’s family with that of Sullivan. Sullivan family lore says the portraitist was John Sanders, a family ancestor and a member of Shakespeare’s acting company.
This month, new information appeared on the CASP site, including information about a newspaper article believed to be the earliest known public reference to the portrait.
Fischlin has travelled back and forth to England himself, including a visit in 2013 when he took in London — imagine Voltaire’s shudder — to look into connections there between Shakespeare, John Sanders and other associates of the day.
After James I succeeded Elizabeth I on the throne, Shakespeare ran the King’s Men as an early entertainment business. Fischlin figures Canada would have fed that entrepreneurial spirit.
“He would look at Canada as an opportunity for more of the same.”
Fischlin is also producing a new edition of several of Shakespeare’s works, published initially by Oxford University Press and now by Rock’s Mills Press.
Four hundred years after his death, the Bard lives on in Canada. Who — including Voltaire — could have imagined?
Andrew Vowles is a Guelph writer