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The Shakespearean drama of Quebec sovereignty

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

Quebec MNAs Alexandre Cloutier and Véronique Hivon are friends who are also rivals for the leadership of the Parti Québécois. Whatever their policy differences, they agree that there's something Shakespearean about their contest. Cloutier floated the idea while musing publicly about the prospect of challenging his amie, and Hivon seconded it after he formally joined the race last week. "However it turns out," she wrote on Facebook, "we shall all say, as Shakespeare put it so well, that 'All's well that ends well.'"

Quebec media had fun trying to figure out what play Cloutier had in mind. The favourites were Julius Caesar and Macbeth. Nobody seems to have picked up on the particular significance of a Quebec politician name-checking the province's favourite political playwright. Shakespeare in francophone Quebec is not like Shakespeare anywhere else – or at least not like what he appears to be in English Canada.

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So writes literary scholar Jennifer Drouin in her recent book Shakespeare in Québec: Nation, Gender and Adaptation, a study of Québécois adaptations of the plays since the 1960s. In most of the 30-odd cases, the point of the adaptation has been to provide a Shakespearean frame for the province's nationalist struggles and conflicts with Canada.

"Québécois Shakespeares are less like Canadian Shakespeares than they are like those from Australia, New Zealand, Scotland and Catalonia," Drouin writes. The last two are the most resonant in the sovereigntist scene of which Drouin is a part, both being places with robust independence movements.

A Quebec-style adaptation, unlike a mere production, makes free with scenes and text and often explicitly links Shakespeare's characters to current political actors. Henry. Octobre. 1970, a 2002 adaptation of Henry V, cast Pierre Trudeau as the English king, René Lévesque as the French dauphin and the FLQ as the French army. The English nobles were transformed into Robert Bourassa and anglophone ministers from Alberta and Ontario. Playwrights Madd Harold and Anthony Kokx also added numerous references to the October Crisis and even a re-enactment of the impromptu debate with a reporter in which Trudeau uttered his famous retort, "Just watch me."

Shakespeare, being more remote from French language and educational traditions than Molière, is more accessible to playful transformation, Drouin writes. There's also the fun of roughing up a prime symbol of English cultural prowess, while making "le grand Will" appear sympathetic to Quebec nationalist politics.

Michel Garneau's 1989 version of The Tempest represented Prospero as the defrauded nation of Quebec, softening Shakespeare's characterization and simplifying Prospero's relationship to those who stole his power. Garneau's "tradaptations," as he called them, were a subtler kind of transformation, Drouin writes, achieved less by overt reference to contemporary figures than by fine manipulations of language.

The granddaddy of modern Québécois adaptations is Robert Gurik's Hamlet, Prince du Québec, written 10 months before the PQ's founding in 1968. Hamlet became the personification of Quebec, uncertain when and how to act for independence – or as he put it: "Être ou ne pas être libre!" Claudius was "l'Anglophonie," Gertrude represented the Catholic Church and Polonius was Lester Pearson. Laertes was Trudeau and Hamlet's friend Horatio was Lévesque.

Hamlet is still the best Shakespearean template for Quebec sovereignty and may be even better as a frame for any PQ leadership campaign. In this version, Hamlet is the candidate, whose first task is always to come up with the most artful equivocation about how, when and whether he or she will act on the party's sovereigntist agenda. Hamlet's perennial unresolved question has become when to pose the question in another referendum, with the added twist that the candidate must seem to act while continuing to defer. Cloutier's strategy, as reported in Le Devoir, would be to stir "a grand citizens' mobilization" that would lead to a million signatures on a petition, which would in turn lead to a referendum.

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Claudius, in this péquiste adaptation, remains the federalist usurper, while Gertrude is the francophone population who, bafflingly, continues to sleep with him. The nagging Ghost is Lévesque or Jacques Parizeau, the only PQ leaders who actually went to the people with the question. Fortinbras and his army are more active or successful independence warriors elsewhere (fill in Catalonia if you like), and Polonius is the avuncular internal counsellor who advises caution and moderation in all things. As for Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, they are Québec Solidaire and Coalition Avenir Québec, nationalist parties whose areas of apparent solidarity with the PQ only weaken the party and its leader. Hamlet might love to send them off to be shanked, though Hivon has led PQ efforts to form productive links with them.

We shall see whether any of the current candidates, including Jean-François Lisée, can escape Hamlet's fate, or that of any other Shakespearean character who yearns for more power. Treacheries are frequent in the Bard's dramas; Cloutier and Hivon may yet end up playing Beatrice and Benedick in reverse, starting as friends and firing barbs toward the finish. But perhaps Hivon was onto something when she alluded, on Facebook, to All's Well That Ends Well. As Drouin notes, the fundamentally playful act of converting Shakespeare into a Quebec nationalist playwright often turns his tragedies into comedies.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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