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Sir John and Sir Charles, or The Secrets of the Syndicate (1881)

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Sir John A. MacDonald
Sir John A. MacDonald

Sir John and Sir Charles, or the Secrets of the Syndicate, was published anonymously by a Montreal "syndicate" in 1881. The play's title and publisher make use of two definitions of the word 'syndicate.' The title refers to the Montreal-based business group that was given the contract to build the Canadian Pacific Railway (see below). The 'syndicate' publisher refers to an association or agency that supplies articles and stories to newspapers and magazines. The play is a political commentary in the form of a play, written in Shakespearean style, with lines in iambic pentameter ending in rhymed couplets. Sir John makes note of the intended effect in an aside at the bottom of page 7: "Pshaw! t'won't rhyme, I see. / Shakespeare, avaunt!" Like another political satire in the CASP online anthology, Measure by Measure, the play was not meant to be performed.

Sir Charles Tupper
Sir Charles Tupper

Sir John represents Sir John A. MacDonald, a "father" of Confederation in 1867, and the first Prime Minister of Canada. MacDonald served as Prime Minister from July 1, 1867 to November 5, 1873, and then again from October 17, 1878 to June 6, 1891, when he died while still in office. Sir Charles represents Sir Charles Tupper, another "father" of Confederation, who would become Prime Minister briefly in 1896, and who held office as Leader of the Opposition from 1896 until 1901. At the time of the play's publication Tupper was Minister of Railways and Canals, a position he held in the MacDonald government from 1879 to 1884.

The play imagines a conversation between MacDonald and Tupper concerning MacDonald's 1879 National Policy that created the Canadian Pacific Railway. Before that, MacDonald and his government had a history of bad luck with railway charters. In 1872, MacDonald narrowly won the federal election with the help of $300,000 in campaign money from Sir Hugh Allan, and in return Allan received a million acres of land and a charter to build a railway to British Columbia. When the story got out, MacDonald's Conservative government collapsed in November 1873. The event became known as the Pacific Scandal. As a result, Alexander Mackenzie and the Liberals soundly trounced the Conservatives in the next election.

The Conservatives won the 1878 election and the construction of a Pacific railroad played a major role in MacDonald's National Policy, his strategy for building both the nation and the nation's economy. The contract to build the CPR was awarded in 1880 to a Montreal-based syndicate headed by George Stephen, president of the Bank of Montreal, and his cousin Donald Smith, a major stockholder in the Hudson's Bay Company. Also in the syndicate were Norman Kittson and James J. Hill, who had worked with Stephen and Smith in the 1870s to develop the St Paul, Minnesota, and Manitoba Railway Company (Finkle and Conrad 44). The concessions granted to the syndicate by the Macdonald government were staggeringly generous:

a cash grant of $25 million in aid of construction; a land grant of 25 million acres (half of the land within 32 kilometres od the CPR's main line would be set aside until the company decided which parcels of land it wished to claim); an additional land grant for railway stations and road beds; the 1100 kilometres of completed track built in the Mackenzie years, valued at over $37 million; a guarantee of a 20-year monopoly on Western rail traffic; exemption of the company from the tariff on all materials required in railway construction; and a 20-year exemption for all CPR properties from federal and provincial taxation by municipalities not yet incorporated. (44)

Before the railway was completed in 1885, the government conceeded more grants to the syndicate, and in 1888 the government "guaranteed a $15 million bond issue in compensation for dropping the monopoly clause in the original contract" (44). The enterprise was multinational from its inception, and during the early years of the CPR only one sixth of its stock was Canadian owned-the rest was owned by financiers in New York, London, and Paris (44). The amount of foreign ownership was a concern from the beginning and this is reflected in the play. Sir John complains:

What! hand that country over, bound anew,
To such a Syndicate?-a motley crew
Of Yankee Grits,--Oh! had there been a Baring,
A Rothschild, Glyn; 'twere better worth the daring;
But this mere third-class crew-not even rich-
To sell ourselves and that fair land for sich!
It drives me mad to think on't. (4)

(See Albert Ernest Knight's Canada, Fair Canada for another adaptation concerned with Canadian business interests.)

Sir John and Sir Charles also critiques the entire Canadian system of partisan party-politics, which the author feels has locked the government into a bad deal it cannot, or will not, back out of:

Sir John
Oh! Tupper, there are times when I can feel
That truth and justice, and the countries weal,
Should be prefered before a party gain.
Come! shall I plead, old friend, with you in vain?
Shall we withdraw the contract?
Tupper -                                 What! and stand
The laughing-stock of Grits throughout the land?
No! no! still no! a thousand times, still no!
The Contract stands for weal or stands for woe. (8)  [indent]

More than a century later, we are still debating the same issues raised in Sir John and Sir Charles: foreign investment, government initiatives, government corruption, and partisan politics. A defining, lasting, and cherished Canadian characteristic has been the need to satirize these issues.

Gordon Lester

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Finkel, Alvin, and Margaret Conrad. History of the Canadian Peoples: 1867 to the Present . Vol. II. 3rd ed. Toronto: Addison Wesley Longman, 2002.

First Among Equals: The Prime Minister in Canadian Life and Politics. National Library of Canada and National Archives of Canada.


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