The most famous playwright in history, William Shakespeare, has definite ties to Canada, even though he lived his life across the pond in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
His ties can be seen in the many Shakespearean productions that have graced stages across Canada, from the Théatre du Nouveau Monde in Montréal, Québec, to the famed Stratford Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario. They can also be seen in the numerous Shakespearean plays that we all have read while we worked our way through high school English classes. However, there is an additional connection of which few are aware. A body of work that is believed to be one of the few – if not the only – authentic paintings of William Shakespeare was done by John Sanders, an ancestor of Canadian Lloyd Sullivan. This unique connection has prompted the Shakespeare-Made In Canada festival, a celebration of the life and art of William Shakespeare, which is currently in full swing in Guelph, Ontario.
The University of Guelph’s Macdonald Stewart Art Centre (MSAC) is the primary venue for this festival, housing vast amounts of information and artwork on the playwright, including the Sanders portrait itself.
Dr. Daniel Fischlin, professor, founder of the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) and curator of the MSAC Shakespeare exhibition, was instrumental in securing the Sanders portrait for display in Guelph. “I approached [Lloyd Sullivan] in 2004 just before we launched the CASP [website] and asked him for permission to use the portrait as our signature image in the site design,” Dr. Fischlin noted.”He more than graciously agreed and we were off to a friendship that led eventually to his agreeing to loan the portrait to the University.”
Although the Sanders portrait is the centerpiece of the exhibition, there are many other works of interest at the MSAC. Shakespeare’s influence on Canadian theatre designs, snapshots of the various interpretations of the Bard’s work, a Shakespearean learning centre for younger visitors, as well as other archived material from the CASP.
The response to the exhibition thus far has been outstanding. Dr. Fischlin said “the MSAC galleries have never had this kind of traffic they’re getting,” and expects “over 50,000 people through the [MSAC], which is phenomenal. I know of people who are going into the exhibit every day just to spend time with the portrait.”
Mat Buntin, project manager with the CASP, agrees. “The exhibition has been very well received so far, with visitor traffic to the art centre having increased dramatically.”
Other events are also taking place alongside the exhibition, and they will be running until May. These events consist of things such as a musical interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a speaker series, and films related to Shakespeare. Those that are interested in attending these events may visit the Shakespeare-Made in Canada website (visitguelphwellington.ca/shakespeare).
Voltaire is said to have referred to William Shakespeare as “a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada.” Perhaps he was right, for Canada has loved Shakespeare for some time, and one can see it in a myriad of ways in Guelph.