“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” (Twelfth Night, II, v. 156-159)
What’s so great about Shakespeare, anyway? The Bard died almost 400 years ago and it’s impossible to go about your life without having a reference to one of his plays smack you in the face. It seems like William’s popularity is growing with age. In the last few years, he’s been cleaning up at the box office and the Oscars, with stars like Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love), Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes (Romeo and Juliet), Michelle Pfeiffer (A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream) and Ethan Hawke (Hamlet) lining up to be in recent film adaptations of his work. Willy’s also making headlines in Canadian newspapers as a long lost portrait has resurfaced out from under someone’s grandmother’s bed.
When Prof. Daniel Fischlin, School of English and Theatre Studies (SETS), was just starting out his career, he felt the last thing the literary world needed was another book on Shakespeare’s work.
“I swore that I would never do Shakespeare research because I just knew it was such a saturated field and I couldn’t >bear the thought of having to add to that,” he says.
But when Fischlin, whose specialty is early modern Renaissance studies, was assigned large Shakespeare classes as a young professor, he found himself trying to figure out how to get hundreds of students interested in the work.
“I realized that adaptation was a good way of getting students hooked because it was a way of showing how contemporaries were dealing with Shakespeare and it often provided a nice platform for transitioning back to Shakespeare’s original texts.”
When Fischlin went looking for a resource on world adaptations of Shakespeare to use in his classes, he couldn’t find one, so he ended up writing Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology with Mark Fortier (the new director of SETS) in 2000.
His research and interest in Shakespearian adaptations grew as he found Canadian plays, comic books, cartoons, movies, songs and jazz improvisations all dedicated to giving a Canadian perspective on Shakespeare’s work.
With funds from a Premier’s Research Excellence Award and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council standard research grant, after close to four years of research completed by 30 undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students, he launched the Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP) website (www.canadianshakespeares.ca) in 2002, which is the largest and most complete website in the world dedicated to showing Shakespeare’s cultural influence on a nation. It contains more than 10,000 pages of information on some 500 plays that have been transformed and adapted in Canada accessible from anywhere in the world for free.
Fischlin admits that “every time I publish something on Shakespeare I shudder because I swore I’d never do this. It’s more than a little ironic.”
It just goes to show that the power of Shakespeare’s cultural presence can’t be avoided.
The reason filmmakers and playwrights continue to produce his plays and make their own adaptations of his work is because “it provides a powerful, recognizable, iconic source of cultural capital that you can rely on to draw in an audience,” says Fischlin. “There’s a sphere of ideas that are part of our environment and Shakespeare is a crucial part of that sphere because he generated so many of the words, phrases and ideas that are now in use in our language.”
So how could one man create so many plays, 37 to be exact, that have had such an affect on our world?
The number of words Shakespeare invented is in the thousands − including amazement, assassination, colourful, critical, downstairs, excitement, fashionable, majestic, puke, satisfying, upstairs, useful, vulnerable, torture and zany − and his vocabulary included some 29,000 words. Part of the reason Shakespeare’s mind was so great is that he spent about 2,000 more hours a year in school than kids do today. “He was extremely educated as a youth by anybody’s standards,” says Fischlin.
Fischlin explains that Shakespeare lived in a moment where English was defining itself as a valid European language. It is estimated that between the years of 1500 and 1659, 30,000 new words were added to the English language.
Even though it may seem hard to get young people today to relate to a guy who was growing up in the late 1500s, the rate at which technology was changing people’s lives was very similar, says Fischlin.
“Today we may have computers and fancy gadgets and iPods, but in Shakespeare’s moment, you had the language as a technology that was being deployed in enormously successful ways. Kids who are dependent on gadgetry still require language and I think pointing out some of those things maybe makes Shakespeare seem not so foreign and alien.”
In addition to being an artist, Shakespeare was a canny businessman. When the Globe Theatre was incorporated in 1599, it was one of the first corporations, if not, the first corporation, says Fischlin. The theatre was owned by a consortium of actors, including Shakespeare, who were all shareholders with complex investment agreements. “It was the world’s first entertainment business and it did very well, pulling in thousands of people a night for certain shows.”
Shakespeare also dabbled in property development. In 1597, Shakespeare bought one of the most prestigious properties in all of Stratford, the New Place. Later, he bought a considerable amount of land in Stratford, doubling his investment.
So whether you’re an artist or a businessman, Shakespeare the man offers something anyone can relate to and Fischlin says that, whether you like Willy or not, you can’t deny that there’s “a power there – a great artist at work – like a Bach or a Michelangelo.”
But the power of Shakespeare has a lot more to do than just the man. A greater source of Shakespeare-mania is what Fischlin calls “the Shakespeare effect.”
“The Shakespeare effect is the globalization of how Shakespeare gets used across multiple cultures,” he says. “You empower yourself by piggybacking your vision onto the cultural capital that’s already invested in Shakespeare.”
This is done all over the world in dozens of different languages. Shakespeare’s plays are thematically extremely adaptable since love, death, tragedy, comedy and political corruption occur regardless of where you live or what your values are. “Your culture doesn’t protect you from tragedy and that’s one of the things that transposes beautifully and why Shakespeare gets adapted,” says Fischlin.
Aboriginal adaptations of Shakespeare are especially interesting because they point to having to deal with the colonial history that is part of Canada, says Fischlin. “Very often these adaptations are framed as a healing instrument for dealing with colonial history and what it has done to aboriginal people in this country,” he says. The CASP website includes a spotlight on aboriginal adaptations “to memorialize the gesture of taking on this icon of colonial culture and then using it to remember and try to heal some of the effects when Canada became a country.”
Just because a play happens to use the same theme as one of Shakespeare’s plays, does it really mean that it was influenced by the Bard’s work? Fischlin recalls a conversation he had with renowned actor William Hutt who argued that many works simply “hijack” or “bastardize” Shakespeare’s work. There’s no question that there’s a lot of anxiety around identifying adaptations. Fischlin says that some of the works CASP classifies as an adaptation were met with resistance from the authors.
“Our decision was to be inclusive because adaptation is the basic descriptor for how we are in the world,” he says. “Adaptation can range across a huge spectrum from the most orthodox slavish doing-duty to the sanctity of the Shakespearian text to the most creative, wild, barely-connected anarchic kind of work. We’ve seen examples from across that whole spectrum in the research we’ve done.”
Based on that definition, Shakespeare is probably closer to influencing our lives than we thought. Anyone can probably name a handful of adaptations without thinking too hard. There have been 300 film adaptations of Shakespearean plays since the 1930s. The musical, West Side Story, is based on Romeo and Juliet. The film Strange Brew is a take-off on Hamlet. The band Dire Straits sings a song called “Romeo and Juliet.” The list goes on and on.
But it isn’t the well known Canadian adaptations –like Harlem Duet, the Djanet Sears adaptation of Othello, to the hundreds of plays performed at the Stratford Festival – that come to mind when Fischlin thinks of the research that was compiled by CASP. It was the unknown local adaptations that he found the most interesting. The adaptation he fondly remembers stumbling upon is a play that had been written by a nun at an all-girls school in Winnipeg, Man. in 1915.
“Sister Mary Agnes wrote a play that had the different girls in the school, at their moment of graduation, play female characters in Shakespeare. The play, A Shakespearian Pageant, made comments on contemporary Canada and the war, which was a radical thing for this nun to do in her own cultural moment.”
Fischlin wrote a piece about the play and had the play script published in the Canadian Theatre Review. “I sent it proudly to my mom and she phoned me back and said, ‘Did you know that your grandmother and your great aunt went to that school?’” says Fischlin. It turned out that several women in Fischlin’s family had been taught by Sister Mary Agnes and had possibly performed in her plays.
“It drove home to me how tightly-knit connections are in Canada and how the formation of so many young people involves making a journey through Shakespeare and making Shakespeare their own and reflecting on what it means to be Canadian via what they were doing with Shakespeare,” he says.
When the CASP team started their project, they were struck by the amount of local people who had been involved in adaptations. SETS professor Judith Thompson wrote a highly successful loose adaptation of Hamlet called Lion in the Streets. Lewis Melville, a long-time research associate in the Department of Botany, started a band called The Williams where all the musicians jokingly changed their names to William and perform songs about Shakespeare’s plays. In 2004, two U of G students wrote and acted in a hip hop version of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Steven Bush, a sessional professor in SETS was involved with a film version of Hamlet.
“Because the (CASP) project is here, we’re a place that ferments this sort of activity,” says Fischlin. “And now that we have the Shakespeare: Made in Canada festival coming up, that’s ramping up the activity in a whole other way.”
CASP definitely acted as a catalyst for the festival. “It came out of the fact that we were collecting all of these artefacts and the research was generating so much activity,” he says.
“But it never would have been possible if Alastair Summerlee hadn’t said, ‘we’re going to make this happen.’ I think it’s great that we have a president who had the guts to take this on. It’s a courageous thing to have recognized arts research like this and to try to take it out in the community in really innovative ways.”