“Dreaming in Iambic Pentameter”

Reviewed by Vin Nardizzi

The eighteenth volume in the series, Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English, Canadian Shakespeare affords a snapshot of the cultural work that has been done with Shakespeare in [English-speaking] Canada since the 1980s. It gathers two newly commissioned pieces with seventeen previously published (and sometimes substantially excerpted) essays and interviews that describe how Canadian actors, dramatists, literary scholars, students, and teachers have all creatively—and differently—found themselves in Shakespeare as they make the language their own, talking back to ˜his’ authority, or claiming it for other intentions, including pleasure. As this overarching thesis suggests, key concepts threading through the collection include adaptation in its various guises; the foreignness of Shakespeare’s antiquated syntax and vocabulary; identity formation, with special attention to gender and race; postcolonial critique; and the vexed relation between the universal and the local (or national) Bard. But the snapshot that the collection presents of these concepts is no still life: since its arrangement is chronological, readers observe the development of these central terms as they have shaped discussions about and productions of Shakespeare on Canadian stages, from Ontario to Saskatchewan. For instance, the tone of Ann Wilson and Steven Bush’s Notes on Playing Shakespeare (1988), which is a strident call for theatrical appropriation that rejects the idea of Shakespearean purity, is a far cry from the celebrations of adaptation without limit in Mark Fortier’s Wild Adaptation (2007) and of intertextuality in Wes Folkerth’s engaging 2010 piece on Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Critical perceptions of adapting Shakespeare in Canada have indeed come a long way in a short time. Insofar as Canadian Shakespeare makes this genealogy (and others) ready-to-hand in the accessible and short contributions tucked between its covers, it will prove an invaluable aid in theatre classrooms across Canada and a fine companion to the anthology of drama that Ric Knowles edited, The Shakespeare’s Mine: Adapting Shakespeare in Anglophone Canada (2009).

It is no small achievement to claim possession of Shakespeare (mine) for progressive political ends and for Canadian artists and audiences to be able to say that they have discovered themselves’—and will continue to do so—in re-purposing his language. Yet as the interview with Yvette Nolan included in Knutson’s collection intimates, possession can also operate in the other direction. The author of Death of a Chief (2008), a revision of Julius Caesar included in Knowles’s anthology, Nolan reports that, when workshopping the play, she found herself dreaming in iambic pentameter. For her, the experience of having Shakespeare’s meter animate her dreamscape was the stuff of comedy (It’s hilarious, she observes). To our eyes, it makes for a charming anecdote. Even so, such psychic engagement also stands behind one of the most thrilling Canadian adaptations of tragic Shakespeare. A reader “ this reader “ felt the trace of that possession when reading her play for the first time.

This review ““Dreaming in Iambic Pentameter”” originally appeared in New Work on Early Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 213 (Summer 2012): 174-175.

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