To be or not to be, eh?

Canada loves to rewrite Shakespeare

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:03:05 PM

It began with the typical English teacher’s dilemma: students love Shakespeare’s stories, but stumble over the writer’s 500-year-old language.


So University of Guelph professor Daniel Fischlin went looking for adaptations—plays that take Shakespeare’s classic plots and characters as starting points, but make major changes to update the language and give them new relevance.


He was bowled over by what he found.


“I expected to turn up maybe 50 Canadian adaptations,” he says. “But there turned out to be more like 500.”


From the 1871 political satire Measure by Measure, or, The Coalition in Secret Session! to 2000’s The King #5 Henry—a hockey version of Henry V performed in a rink—Canada has been adapting Shakespeare’s classic plays for more than 100 years.


And this passion for Shakespeare doesn’t stop in English Canada. Surprisingly, a quarter of all the adaptations he’s found so far are in French.


So just why is Canada mad for adaptations? Partly, Fischlin speculates, it’s the peculiarly Canadian tendency to “take the mickey out of high culture.”


But whether it’s to poke fun or to celebrate, the number of adaptations Fischlin found was too much material for a book or even a CD-ROM.


With help from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada he has given these adaptations a home on the web:—a place students and teachers alike can go to seek out everything from Normand Chaurette’s Les reines to a rap version of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.


And there’s a touch of irony to all this. When he started his academic career, Fischlin swore he’d avoid doing Shakespeare research. “There’s just so much out there,” he says. “I didn’t think there was a need for any more.”


Now, with the site expanded to include essays, multimedia, and even online educational games, he’s sitting at the centre of the largest Shakespeare website in the world.


Daniel Fischlin’s research on Shakespeare and Canadian culture is funded through SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.