Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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The Death of a Chief

Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon and Yvette Nolan

Monique Mojica
Monique Mojica as Caesar in The Death of a Chief

The Death of a Chief workshop script -- Weesageechak September 2005 version

The Death of a Chief workshop script -- February 2006 version

Link to Database

Link to Interview

Link to Multimedia

Link to Canadian Aboriginal Adaptations of Shakespeare Spotlight


Access to The Death of a Chief workshop scripts (Weesageechak – September 2005 version and February 2006 version) is made available here on the CASP Online Anthology for the first time.  In order to facilitate a comparative study of the adaptation process, the text of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is available at this address.

Ubiquitous. Pervasive. Everywhere. Words used by playwright/director Yvette Nolan when describing Shakespeare’s influence in her work:  “I think he [Shakespeare] is so woven into the consciousness of human beings that we keep returning to that text and those stories” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview with Yvette Nolan. Mar. 2006).

A story that Nolan and co-adapter/co-director Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon return to is Julius Caesar in their Shakespearean adaptation, The Death of a Chief and on Saturday, February 18, 2006, the adaptation’s fourth workshop was performed at FOOT 2006 – The Festival of Original Theatre “Performing Adaptations” at the Robert Gill Theatre, University of Toronto, in Ontario, Canada. As a Shakespearean adaptation, The Death of a Chief operates on multiple levels as Nolan and MacKinnon rebuild and restructure the historic tragedy of Julius Caesar to address Aboriginal issues of politics, gender, class, race, and nation.  For Nolan, adapting Shakespeare is all about the process––a process of understanding the complexities of community, ambition, power, betrayal, and the lives of  Native Peoples in Canada today, a process that reconfigures the matrix of political hierarchies to make leaders more accountable to the people.

Nolan and MacKinnon’s adaptation resonates with Yves Sioui Durand’s compelling statement, in Mantow–Mantowkasowin–Art, that asserts the importance of cultural activities, including theatre, as a method to empower Aboriginal Peoples.  Durand explains that “we need cinema, theatre, dance, visual arts and literature so that we can examine our traditions and etch them into the consciousness of future generations” (qtd. from Mantow–Mantowkasowin–Art). Nolan agrees that it is the responsibility of Canadian theatre to examine traditions, as well as to direct challenges against the status quo, authority and leadership, and, as Nolan states these challenges are “one of the only reasons to exist” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006). 

As Managing Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts Inc. (NEPA), Nolan encourages the use of theatre as a form to communicate within Native communities, “to communicate to audiences the experiences that are unique to Native people in contemporary society, [and] to contribute to the further development of theatre in Canada” (qtd. from Native Earth Performing Arts Inc.).  For Nolan, the process of Shakespearean adaptation “is another tool to use in terms of looking at the world.” When producing work from Shakespearean texts, Nolan begins to dream in iambic pentameter, “it’s a great muscular exercise to adapt Shakespeare and of course he just finds his way into everything” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006).   Nolan’s first Shakespearean adaptation was Ten Minute Othello for Winnipeg popular theatre which was followed by Shakedown Shakespeare, a production for young children’s theatre. 

Nolan’s initial interview with CASP was in November 2003 for the production of Shakedown Shakespeare and she commented on the process of adapting tragedies into comedies.  In The Death of a Chief, an adaptation of Caesar’s “flaw and fall,” “there’s almost no funny.” Nolan explains that it reflects “the times that we live in” and “if we don’t wake up as a society and start taking some responsibility for that, it’s all over” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006). These statements are in line with Kim Anderson, who in her book A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood, cites Katie Rich’s statement when she was president of the Innu nation:  “the only thing I know is to tell the truth, and to tell how things are in the community.”  Anderson adds that “we can start to do this when we begin thinking about our responsibility to the future (236-7). Through the adaptation process, Nolan “tells how things are.”  She relates that when “I look around in Toronto and I look around Stratford and I look around everywhere and I never see anybody of colour in those plays.  I don’t know why that is?  Like our People should be considered for those roles.  So, right when I started at Native Earth, I was kind of chippy about why can’t we do a Native Julius Caesar? … The story, when you look at what the plot is, the narrative resonates in the Native community because it’s all about Band politics” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006).  Nolan further explains that “Julius Caesar happens to be particularly timely right now because of the war in Iraq,” the implication being that how leaders deploy power is common to both the play and the disastrous situation unfolding in Iraq. Joanne Tompkins speaks of the adaptation process in Shakespeare and Canada: Essays on Production, Translation, and Adaptation: “post-colonial revisions of Shakespeare’s plays displace an inherited tradition in order to accommodate other cultural traditions that, while perhaps originating in a Shakespearan model, have developed in quite different social, literary, and political directions” (qtd. in Knowles 162). Nolan’s adaptation process interrogates political structures embedded at community and international levels and by disrupting Shakespeare’s “classic” plot-line, she unhinges the hegemonic composition of governance in order to find a better way for Native Peoples to live their lives, a literary remix analogous to cultural and political change.  Nolan’s decision to culminate the play at the end of the third act, for instance, effectively omits the battlefield scenes and implies the futility of war in the quest of leadership, drawing instead the play’s focus to the responsibility of the Aboriginal communities in their pursuit of self-governance.

Rod Carley, a Canadian playwright/director interviewed by CASP in March 2004, also worked on an adaptation of Julius Caesar based on Canada’s late Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Carley suggests that “only when the political, societal, and historical elements of the original match with the new setting is your adaptation working” (qtd. from CASP's interview with Rod Carley). Although Nolan is not interested in defining the boundaries of adaptation as a genre, her work with Julius Caesar takes the political past, present and future head on:  “we struggle with it so much in the Aboriginal community as we’re looking for leadership and because it seems to be an almost natural progression for people to ascend and then disjoyne remorse from power and then we have to overthrow them … isn’t that a perfect description of [George W.] Bush right now and [Stephen] Harper too” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006).

The Shakespearean text: Th’abuse of Greatnesse, is, when it disjoynes // Remorse from power” (Julius Caesar 2.1.18) is repeated in The Death of a Chief (6).  Nolan explains that in the workshopping process “the company kept coming back to that line” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006). The disjoining of remorse from power can be explained by Willie Ermine, Assistant Professor with the First Nations University of Canada, as a fragmentation that “has become embedded in the Western worldview and is the cornerstone of Western ideology” and “restricts the capacity for holism”(103).  A symbol of holism is seen in The Death of a Chief when Antony is braiding Caesar’s hair, “pulling her together, into a whole, sound being, which is what Caesar needs, is balance” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006).

One issue of power that Nolan specifically reflects upon is Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government’s handling of the Kelowna Accord established by the former Liberal government in which a multibillion dollar pledge was made to fund multiple projects to improve the lives of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (The Globe and Mail. 01 May 2006. A1+).  Nolan emphasizes: “We had a deal.  And now we don’t have a deal” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006). In the May 2, 2006 Conservative Federal Budget, the Kelowna Accord was almost entirely removed (for further details go to the CBC coverage of the Federal Budget).  Refer to The Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) website for response to the conflicting statements about the Accord by Conservative Members of Parliament.

The Native Earth Performing Arts’ theatre company’s ability to syncretize the here and now of Aboriginal Canadian issues and Shakespearean text opens a unique hybridized dialogue.  As Louis Owens explains “one effect of this hybridization is subversive … the writer is appropriating an essentially ‘other’ language and thus entering into dialogue with the language itself” (14-15). In this way, Nolan’s work is meta-theatrical, interrogating the narrative structure, as well as the historical cultural structures that continue to shape and confine the lives of Native Peoples.  Consider the following passage from Nolan and MacKinnon’s February 2006 script compared to Julius Caesar:

How do you un-ring the bell?

How far can the pendulum swing back?

If we could have back what’s been lost and stolen,

how could we rebuild what’s been lost and stolen?
(Nolan, Yvette and Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon “February 2006: Workshop Script.” 3)

The fault (deere Brutus) is not in our Starres,

But in our Selves, that we are underlings.

(Shakespeare, William 1.2.140)

Nolan and MacKinnon’s adaptation opens a dialogical space in which the company of playwrights, directors, and actors, as part of a community, recognize and evaluate their relationship to Band leadership, Canadian political structures, and ultimately to Shakespeare as a canonical literary model.  Textual interrogation facilitated through adaptation is evident on page 21 to 22 of The Death of a Chief, February 2006 script when compared to Shakespearean text (Julius Caesar 3.1.177).  In the next passage, follow how Nolan moves, repeats, and (re)injects original lines of Shakespearean text:

Plebeians   We will be satisfied:  let us be satisfied.

Cassius       Your voyce shall be as strong as any mans,
                      In the disposing of new Dignities.

Plebeians   We will be satisfied:  let us be satisfied.

Brutus          Onely be patient, till we have appeas’d

                      The Multitude, beside themselves with feare,

                      And then, we will deliver you to cause,

                      Why I, that did love Caesar when I strooke him,

                      Have thus proceeded.

Plebeians    We will be satisfied: let us be satisfied.

The repetition of “we will” and “let us” juxtaposes aggressive and passive demands, placing the responsibility of “satisfaction” upon the collective action of the community –– a paradoxical awakening underscored by the declaration: “I feare there will a worse come in his place” (The Death of a Chief 27 and Julius Caesar 3.2.103).

How then does The Death of a Chief address the issues of self-government in the Native community?  Nolan contends that “this is our big challenge” (qtd. from CASP’s Interview. Mar. 2006).   The use of theatre, adaptation, and stories to challenge social systems is raised by Basil Johnson:  “what ought to be done and what ought not be done was through story, not only for the sake of harmony within the community but for survival itself” (48). Johnson’s use of “story,” as with Nolan and MacKinnon’s use of “adaptation,” is active, participating, and organic, fiercely unpredictable and changeable in the course of rebuilding culture, communities, nations and leadership while constantly questioning and challenging the ideologies that govern lives. 

Sorouja Moll

The Death of a Chief workshop script -- Weesageechak September 2005 version

The Death of a Chief workshop script -- February 2006 version

Link to Database
Link to Interview
Link to Multimedia

Link to Canadian Aboriginal Adaptations of Shakespeare Spotlight

The Death of a Chief

Works Cited

Anderson, Kim.  A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Sumach Press, 2000.

Carley, Rod. Interview. Adaptive techniques in relation to Shakespeare. Mar. 2004. 3 May 2006.


Curry, Bill. “Native leaders face a $5.1-billion question.” The Globe and Mail. [Ottawa] 01 May 2006: A1+.

Durand, Yves Sioui. “Mantow–Mantowkasowin–Art.” Canada. Canadian Heritage. May 2006. National Gathering on Aboriginal Artistic Expression. 29 May 2006.


Ermine, Willie. “Aboriginal Epistemology.” First Nations Education in Canada: The Circle Unfolds. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1995. 101-112.

Johnson, Basil. “How Do We Learn Language? What Do We Learn?” Talking on the Page. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999. 43-51.

Knowles, Ric. “Othello in Three Times.” Shakespeare and Canada: Essay on Production, Translation, and Adaptation. Brussels: P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2004. 137-164.

Native Earth Performing Arts Inc. 2006. About Us: Mandate. 03 May 2006.


Nolan, Yvette. Interview. The Death of a Chief. Mar. 2006. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

Nolan, Yvette, and Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon. The Death of a Chief: February 2006 Workshop Script. Working Script. Feb. 2006. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project.

Owens, Louis. “Other Destinies, Other Plots.” Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. 3-   24.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


CASP gratefully acknowledges Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon's and Yvette Nolan's permission to publish these playscripts to its website.



Kennedy Cathy Mackinnon


Kennedy Cathy MacKinnon

Cathy is the Artistic Director of Shakespeare Link Canada. In August Kennedy traveled to Mozambique where she co-created and co-directed The Africa Project: Dance with Us, Not with AIDS. She is an actor, director, teacher and stage manager. She works full time at Humber College where she is head of the Voice Curriculum and teaches Shakespeare. She is the creator and coordinator of the Summer Shakespeare Intensive.  She teaches Shakespeare at Equity Showcase Theatre, George Brown and the Centre for Indigenous Theatre. She spent 3 seasons at the Stratford Festival of Canada as a Voice Coach and is a graduate from the Stratford Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training where she also taught. She holds an MFA in Acting, a Diploma in Voice Teacher Training (York University) and a BFA in Acting (University of Windsor).




Yvette Nolan



Yvette Nolan

Yvette Nolan is a playwright, director and dramaturg.  Her plays include BLADE, Job’s Wife, Video and Annie Mae’s Movement, which has been produced in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Halifax and Toronto. Directing credits include Annie Mae’s Movement (Hardly Art/Native Earth), The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Marie Clements (Native Earth) and The Triple Truth (Turtle Gals). She is currently the Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto.






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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004.

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