The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.460 Friday, 9 October 2015
Date: Friday, October 9, 2015
Subject: SBReview_21: Shakespeare Made in Canada: A Midsummer Night's Dream
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare Made in Canada, General Editor Daniel Fischlin. Oakville, ON: Rock Mills Press, 2015. Xli + 107 pp. US$14.95. (ISBN-13 978 0 9881293 6 8).
Reviewed by Peter Hyland, Huron University College
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the first volume in a series from Rock Mills Press, alongside Hamlet, that is directed primarily at Canadian students, and so it is reasonable to judge it as representative of the series as a whole. The series has been developed from the Adaptations of Shakespeare Project supervised at the University of Guelph by Daniel Fischlin. It makes on its cover a strong nationalist claim that ‘Canadians have uniquely remade Shakespeare,’ and this is bolstered with an account of the Sanders Portrait (which is reproduced on the cover and will presumably decorate the entire series), a Preface by the fine Canadian actress Martha Burns, recounting her first childhood encounter with the play, and an Introduction by Andrew Bretz, a researcher with the Adaptations Project, examining ways in which Canadian scholars and theatre practitioners have ‘remade’ the play.
Whatever nationalist agenda the series might have, it has to offer good editions of the plays. The apparatus attached to this one is student-friendly, perhaps to a fault, offering not only a plot summary, but also character synopses, and a list of ten tips for reading Shakespeare, some of them rudimentary and underdeveloped; for example ‘No Pedestal Shakespeare’ offers a single sentence that does not address the issues of Bardolatry that it appears to imply. More useful is its incorporation of questions in the footnotes that might help draw students into discussion of the play. The text itself is modernized, using Canadian English spelling, but otherwise attempting to create out of the original quarto and folio texts something that ‘as accurately as possible represents what Shakespeare actually wrote and had played on the stage’ (xli). It might have been helpful to explain that what was written and what was played were not necessarily the same thing. It is not clear who edited the text, only that it was ‘newly prepared by a team of researchers’ (102), presumably scholars and students involved in the Project. The editorial choices seem at times to be a little arbitrary and could certainly have been made more explicit. There are two reading lists. The first is attached to the Editorial Principles and lists sources of the explanatory notes and definitions, but includes only two earlier editions. One of these is O. J. Stevenson’s 1918 edition, from which the footnotes borrow copiously for no better reason than that Stevenson was Canadian. The second is a list of works cited in the introduction. This severely limits the range of books and articles that could have been suggested to the reader and excludes much important work on the play; a larger bibliography, preferably annotated, would have been helpful and would have made a good project for a student editor.
Apart from the editorial work, the most significant pedagogical contribution is the Introduction. Bretz attempts to identify ‘a distinctly Canadian performance tradition’ (xviii), and finds the Canadian engagement with A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be shaped by a number of things: the nation’s conflicted identity, its multiculturalism, its confrontation with wilderness. Its various ambivalences have responded to ambivalences arising from the play, particularly to the Victorian tradition of reading the fairies as childlike or feminized innocents rather than potentially violent primitive forces, and this tradition has also concealed the play’s political meanings. Bretz is more interested in uncovering the bawdry than the politics, though, and he spends a lot of energy on elucidating double meanings, using Pauline Kiernan’s sometimes dubious Filthy Shakespeare as a source: at one point he provides a very questionable ‘translation’ of 2.1.42-56 (xvii). What matters primarily about all of this, though, is how it has been manifested in Canadian productions of the play, and Bretz provides a frustratingly brief survey of the stage history.
A major problem for a project like this is the absence of much documentary material, particularly about earlier performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The history of Canadian performance of the play really only dates back to the late nineteenth century, and it is here that the struggle with the British Victorian tradition began. The erasure of the bawdy as opposed to the romantic potential of the play encouraged Victorian producers to shift towards spectacle, with effects that astonished audiences. Canadian theatres, generally smaller spaces, did not have the capability (or the money) to emulate this and so avoided the play or, if they staged it, avoided the spectacle. In the twentieth century and after, the play has been staged more frequently, and Bretz notes that the Canadian voice is increasingly one ‘that emphasizes plurality and diversity’ (xxvii). There is, of course, much more documentation of more recent productions, and Bretz’s survey of these is peculiarly spotty. Of the ten or so productions that have been staged at Stratford he mentions only three, including the two latest, both from 2014. Some of the others would surely have helped his arguments, though, and while he does mention Joe Dowling’s version of 1993, he does not mention that it had for its wood near Athens an aggressive set of phallic and vaginal structures for the fairies to sport in—about as far from the Victorian ethic as it was possible to be. While there is much in this introduction to like, perhaps it is trying to do too many things, particularly for an edition aimed at students who are thought to need character synopses. It does contain one egregious error: the Irish actor Barry Sullivan is identified as ‘of Gilbert and Sullivan’ (xxi) -- peculiar mistake for a theatre historian to make.
Any new series of editions of Shakespeare’s plays needs to offer something powerfully different if it is to succeed in a very crowded field. As a text, this one does not offer much that can’t be found in more established (and often less expensive) series; consequently its value rests on its Canadian claims. Some of these are a little tenuous, and it is difficult to imagine how they can be sustained through a whole series. Certainly, the overarching methods and concepts of the series need to be more fully articulated than they are here; perhaps then there will not be the need to give such great to the Sanders portrait.