Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
Learn more about Voltaire!The Sanders Portrait

Voltaire, Shakespeare, and Canada

"Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada." (qtd. from, authorship_shakespeare.htm, quotes-about.htm, among others)

Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire
Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire

CASP makes use of an apocryphal quote from Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire that nonetheless has an interesting (cautionary) story to it––one that is instructive in terms of how the Shakespeare effect resonates through various contexts. The misquote "Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada" is widely disseminated as accurate. In fact, it is the conflation of two separate quotes from Voltaire on Shakespeare, one a comment on Hamlet made in his Dissertation sur la tragédie ancienne et moderne, the other a comment on the English generally in relation to Shakespeare (from a letter to Bernard Joseph Saurin). The two texts that are brought together in the misquote are, in other words, from widely divergent contexts. Moreover, CASP has yet to find a hard copy source for the misquote, suggesting that the Internet circulation of the misquote has played perhaps a key role in its dissemination.

On this page CASP reproduces the inaccurate quote as well as the exact locations of the two quotes from which the inaccurate one is derived. We do so to underline how the circulation of texts can tell us a great deal about issues of interpretation––in this case, the imposition of a stereotypical colonial association between the so-called New World of Canada (and its relation to the old via the trope of London) all mediated by the potent image of the "drunken savage." Could it be that the conjunction of Canada and Shakespeare in the image of the "drunken savage" in the misquotation is indicative of an altogether other narrative? In that narrative Canada and drunken savagery literally had to be co-associated, however inaccurately, as a function of stereotypes relating to coloniality generally (the so-called New World was a "savage" place), and colonial stereotypes about indigenous, aboriginal "savagery" specifically? If such is the case, then the misquotation is indicative of the kind of imaginary space in which Shakespeare and Canada come together, however illusorily––the result of a confluence of historical determinants over which neither necessarily had control. (For more information on aboriginal culture in Canada in relation to Shakespeare please see CASP's Spotlight on Canadian Aboriginal Adaptations of Shakespeare.)

A final note: Voltaire had a long and involved relationship with Shakespeare's writings and was responsible for adapting, however loosely, Julius Caesar (La Mort de César written in 1731, published in 1735), Hamlet (Sémiramis 1748), Othello (Zaïre 1733), and Macbeth (Mahomet 1742) to the French taste for classical theatre. Alice Clark's article on Voltaire in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare makes the following point: "The revolutionary objective of Voltaire's dramatic project, founded on the tenets of historical realism, scarcely escaped the academic limitations of his age which necessitated radical changes in Shakespeare's works, thus resulting in audacious expurgative measures and plagiarism. This rationalist reflex, typical of French authors and translators, highlights the attempt to submit Shakespeare's plays to the antiquated taste of their forefathers" (514).

The tone of Clark's comments and the short history of misquotation CASP has documented reveal the contested ground of national identity as mediated through literary cultures associated with Shakespeare and adaptation. Below are the pertinent texts in both English and French from which the misquotation arises.

Letter from Voltaire to Bernard Joseph Saurin
The full French text of the letter from which the bulk of the quote is taken (with the exception of the reference to drunkenness.

English translation of letter to Bernard Joseph Saurin:

"He was a savage [...] who had some imagination. He has written many happy lines; but his pieces can please only at London and in Canada. It is not a good sign for the taste of a nation when that which it admires meets with favor only at home." (qtd. from Lounsbury, Thomas R. Shakespeare and Voltaire. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902. 318)

From Voltaire's Letter to Bernard Joseph Saurin:

"Quant aux Anglais, je ne peux vous savoir mauvais gré de vous être un peu moqué de Gilles Shakespear; c'était un sauvage qui avait de l'imagination; il a fait même quelques vers heureux, mais ses pièces ne peuvent plaire qu'à Londres, et au Canada.   Ce n'est pas bon signe pour le goût d'une nation quand ce qu'elle admire ne réussit que chez elle." (qtd. from Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet.  "Voltaire to Bernard Joseph Saurin." 4 Dec. 1765. Letter D13025 of The Complete Works of Voltaire. Ed. Theodore Besterman. Vol. 113. Banbury Oxfordshire: Cheney & Sons, 1973. 436-37)

Two comments on the English translation of Voltaire's opinion of Hamlet:

"In the Dissertation sur la tragedie ancienne et moderne, Voltaire defended his introduction of a ghost in Sémiramis by evoking the example of Hamlet in terms of highest praise. He made clear, however, that his enthusiasm for this and a few other 'beauties' by no means extended to the play as a whole. It was still 'a crude and barbarous piece, which the lowest rabble in France and Italy would not stand for [...] the outgrowth of the imagination of a drunken savage.' This critique, at least, bears traces of admiration for a work that contains, amid terrible extravagancies, 'sublime flashes worthy of the greatest geniuses.'" (qtd. from Bailey, Helen Phelps. Hamlet In France: from Voltaire to Laforgue. Geneve: Librairie Droz, 1964. 12; CASP emphasis)

"Even the famous criticism on 'Hamlet' has been a good deal misrepresented. Voltaire is vindicating the employment of the machinery of ghosts, and he dwells on the fitness and fine dramatic effect of the ghost in Shakespeare's play. 'I am very far,' he goes on to say, 'from justifying the tragedy of Hamlet in everything: it is a rude and barbarous piece …. Hamlet goes mad in the second act, and his mistress goes mad in the third; the prince slays the father of his mistress, pretending to kill a rat, and the heroine throws herself into the river. They dig her grave on the stage; the grave-diggers jest in a way worthy of them, with skulls in their hands; Hamlet answers their odious grossnesses by extravagances no less disgusting. Meanwhile one of the characters conquers Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and his stepfather drink together on the stage; they sing at table, they wrangle, they fight, they kill; one might suppose such a work to be the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage. But in the midst of all these rude irregularities, which to this day make the English theatre so absurd and so barbarous, there are to be found in "Hamlet" by a yet greater incongruity sublime strokes worthy of the loftiest geniuses. It seems as if nature had taken a delight in collecting within the brain of Shakespeare all that we can imagine of what is greatest and most powerful, with all that rudeness without wit can contain of what is lowest and most detestable.'" (from John Morley, A Biographical Critique of Voltaire (1901) Chapter III: "Temperament, Life, and Literary Genius")

Voltaire's original comment on Hamlet:

"Je suis bien loin assurément de justifier en tout la tragédie d' Hamlet: c'est une pièce grossière et barbare, qui ne serait pas supportée par la plus vile populace de la France et de l'Italie. [...] On croirait que cet ouvrage est le fruit de l'imagination d'un sauvage ivre. Mais parmi ces irrégularités grossières, qui rendent encore aujourd'hui le théâtre anglais si absurde et barbare, on trouve dans Hamlet, par une bizarrerie encore plus grande, des traites sublimes, dignes des plus grands génies. Il semble que la nature se soit plue à rassembler dans la t ête de Shakespeare ce qu'on peut imaginer de plus fort et de plus grand, avec ce que la grossièreté sans esprit peut avoir de plus bas et de plus détestable." (qtd. from Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet. Oeuvres Complètes de Voltaire. Vol. IV. Paris, Garnier Freres, 1877-85. 501-502.)






Online Anthology | Spotlight | Database | Inverviews | Bibliography | Essays | Multimedia | Links | About CASP | Shakespeare News | Interactive Folio | Learning Commons