Volume 29 - Number 16 - Thursday, May 8, 1997

King of the canon

by Daniel McCabe
Claire Danes as doomed heroine in recent film of Romeo and Juliet

He is the ultimate "dead white male," and his influence is as pervasive in popular culture as it is in academe.

He is the king of the canon--the author who overshadows the craftings of every poet and playwright who has written in his wake. And his ability to turn a phrase has aided hundreds of publishers, theatre owners and movie producers in turning a buck.

His name, of course, is William Shakespeare.

"Part of the explanation for Shakespeare's importance over the long haul is that he does belong to popular culture and commercial culture," reasons English professor Michael Bristol. In fact, as an enduring celebrity and commercial property, Bristol likens the writer to Elvis and the Beatles in his new book, Big-time Shakespeare.

Bristol heads of a team of McGill Shakespeare scholars who have recently received $100,000 in funding from Quebec's Fonds pour la formation de chercheurs et l'aide à la recherche to study how performances of Shakespeare's plays have evolved over the years.

The members of the team, who've been supported by other grants from FCAR and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, have produced several books and papers individually and have collaborated on one collection of essays. They're also assembling a microfilm library of records about theatrical performances of Shakespeare's works dating back to the 19th century, with detailed annotations on how each production was staged.

Members of the team include performance theorists Leanore Lieblein and Denis Salter, theater historian John Ripley, textual analyst Catherine Shaw, set designer and director Patrick Neilson and Concordia professor Edward Pechter.

"The idea is to put together people who specialize in Shakespeare, but who come at it with different perspectives. Our focus is mostly on the more modern performances of his work," says Bristol. A major conference on Shakespeare hosted by the team at McGill is scheduled for the fall.

Bristol couldn't ask for better timing for his book--it comes on the heels of the release of a slew of Shakespeare films, including Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Ian McKellen's Richard III, Al Pacino's Looking for Richard and Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night.

While Bristol says he isn't much of a fan of Branagh's Shakespeare movies, he credits the ambitious Brit for spurring Hollywood's recent interest in the Bard.

"Branagh's Henry V really paved the way," says Bristol. "In his diary of that film, he stresses over and over the attention he gave to meeting his shooting schedule and staying within budget. He established a certain shooting style, a certain way of adapting the script, and he and his people did a masterful job with the publicity. The movie made money and Hollywood took notice. He established a formula and now everybody knows how to do it."

But is the recent spate of Shakespeare movies a good thing? Are they dumbing down the playwright's intricate storytelling or are they introducing new audiences to Shakespeare?

"(Scholar and critic) Harold Bloom talks about 'difficult pleasures' and there is something to be said for that. Maybe these movies offer the pleasure without the difficulty and that means you're missing the more serious payoffs," says Bristol.

He quickly adds, "I don't want to come across as a curmudgeon, though. I loved Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet." That film was derided by some as "MTV Shakespeare," but Bristol reckons "they had an intuitive feeling for what was going on in that play. It might not be my first choice in how people ought to be accessing Shakespeare, but maybe some of them will read Shakespeare after seeing the movie."

And there should be plenty of books to choose from, according to Bristol.

"There is intense competition among publishers to capture the markets for texts of Shakespeare. There is a new Norton anthology of his complete works and their target is to become the standard text for Shakespeare courses. There is a lot of money in that--one of the editors told me she thinks the profits will send all her kids to Ivy League colleges--and there are at least two or three other publishers trying to do the same thing."

What makes his work so enduring?

"One factor is certainly the richness and complexity of the stories. With a few exceptions, none of those stories are original material by Shakespeare--he borrowed pretty much everything. But by shifting material around, by combining stories, he comes up with narrative trajectories that really speak to our experience.

"Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom and Germany are all in their own way successor cultures. Much of what was true then carries over to today--the money culture, the issues involved in public life and power, the nature of family life."

Shakespeare also has a large presence in francophone Quebec and that's a subject being studied by another member of the Shakespeare team, Leanore Lieblein.

"I'm interested in how a community defines itself through its cultural activity and Shakespeare has played an interesting role in that regard in Quebec."

As nationalist sentiment heated up in the 1960s and '70s, Quebec's theatrical artists presented some cheeky and satirical versions of Shakespeare's works--productions which simultaneously tweaked the English world's most celebrated writer while focusing on the province's unique concerns and aspirations.

Lieblein points to Robert Gurick's 1968 Hamlet, prince du Québec, as an example.

"The play linked Hamlet to what was going on in Quebec politically. Pierre Trudeau (then Canada's justice minister) was Laertes, René Lévesque was Horatio, Lester Pearson was Polonius and Charles de Gaulle (who proclaimed 'Vive le Québec libre!') was the ghost." Instead of "To be or not to be," the Hamlet character mused, "To be or not to be free."

Other productions set Shakespeare in Quebec, such as Jean-Claude Germain's Rodéo et Juliette, while Michel Garneau's 1978 version of Macbeth was pointedly translated into Québécois, not French.

Since the 1980 referendum, Lieblein says Shakespeare productions have lost their nationalist edge. The goal these days seems to be to prove that Quebec theatre has what it takes to succeed internationally, rather than to foster any explicit political messages.

Despite Shakespeare's continuing popularity, Bristol says the man himself remains an enigma.

"We don't know what his political sympathies might have been. We're not sure what his sexual preference was. We don't even know whether he was really smart or whether he just had an aptitude for putting things together. When I teach his work, I'm more and more impressed by how cleverly his material is put together--even at the level of the individual sentence or the individual phrase. But whether there was a self-conscious intelligence doing this or whether his gift was much more intuitive, we really can't say."

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