17 Canadian authors pick their favourite Shakespeare plays

As we commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Canadian authors pick the plays that have influenced their life and writing.
Samuel Archibald is the author of the novel Arvida. (Frederick Duchesne)

As we celebrate #Shakespeare400 — the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death — we asked some of our favourite Canadian authors to reflect on the Bard's enduring influence in their lives and writing. 

Seventeen writers, including Esi Edugyan, Heather O'Neill and Ann-Marie MacDonald, reveal their favourite Shakespeare play below:

1. Samuel Archibald picks Macbeth

Samuel Archibald's short story collection, Arvida, was a finalist for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He says Macbeth is his favourite Shakespeare play:

Like many writers with a dark soul, Macbeth has to be my favourite Shakespeare play. What's not to love about it? There's this creepy storm coming, these three witches with their self-fulfilling and misleading prophecy, a brilliant depiction of politics as crime and a gory beheading at the end. You get to witness the birth of a complex and beautiful and terrifying and totally badass female archetype in Lady Macbeth. And to add to all this wonderful madness on stage, the thing itself is cursed. I mean: how cool is that?

I think every horror writer in the world is writing footnotes to the Scottish Play.

2. Esi Edugyan picks King Lear

Esi Edugyan, the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Half-Blood Blues, says her favourite Shakespeare play is King Lear:

Everyone has their own Lear. It is a play of such a puzzling nature that it can seem, sometimes, as if each reader or theatregoer has encountered a different work. For me, the King Lear that resonates most powerfully is both toweringly mythic and desperately intimate. The violent dissonance in its scope — too vast to comprehend, too private to bear — leaves me shaken. Anyone who comes from a troubled family will recognize the machinations taking place in Lear: the warring, duplicitous children; the plotting in-laws; the cursed gift that an inheritance and legacy can be. No one is more aware of one's failings than one's blood, and for this reason a family can be destroyed by the uttering of a simple truth. The play casts its shadow over my first novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne.

For me, Lear stands as a caution against the excesses of vanity, the danger of our desire for truth and the sheer improbability of our seeing it for what it is. I hear it as a warning, that we are none of us blameless, and that weakness and ruin will reach all of us in time. King Lear, quite frankly, frightens me.

3. George Elliott Clarke picks Othello

Parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke is the award-winning writer of Execution Poems and most recently the novel, The Motorcyclist. His favourite Shakespeare play is Othello:

My favourite Shakespeare play is not necessarily the "best," but it is one that has influenced my poetry, and it is, of course, Othello. The play is unavoidable for most "black" intellectuals, for it seems to give us Shakespeare directly addressing Negrophobia, by way of dramatizing the tragic decline of a Moorish general in the service of the (slave-holding) Venetian Republic, from military governor of Cyprus to an "honour-killing" assassin of his wife, herself the daughter of a Venetian senator. Shakespeare's tragedy depends upon the savvy commander falling prey — and dupe — to the schemes of a racist foot-soldier, the flag-bearer Iago, who ends up bossing Othello about and tricking him into viewing his just-married bride as a monkey-or-minx adulteress. 

While anti-black racism is a superficial element of the play, misogyny is the real villain. Because Othello has been a life-long warrior, the only women he has known — before eloping with Desdemona — must only have been "camp followers" — i.e. sex-trade workers. Here is the only plausible explanation for Othello's swift acceptance of Iago's framing of Des as a trollop. Likewise, Iago and Cassio give out misogynist bons mots, likely again because both are "marines," sailing and soldiering by day and "retreating" to field-tent or harbour-side brothels by night...Othello's influence on my writing has been protean: I give one of my Whylah Falls (1990) characters the name, and he is slain due to two white men's sexual jealousy. My forthcoming book, Canticles (November 2016, from Guenica), an epic poem, retells the Othello story here and there, including in a lengthy version by — ahem — the Marquis de Sade.

4. Marina Endicott picks A Midsummer Night's Dream

Marina Endicott, author of Close to Hugh and Little Shadows, selects A Midsummer Night's Dream as her favourite Shakespeare play:

A Midsummer Night's Dream is my favourite — for its mix of high and low, love and revenge, magic and politics, flowers and madness and mud. In my first year at theatre school I played Moth (a fairy) and Hippolyta's handmaid, so I sat in on most of the rehearsals and learned for the first time how deeply Shakespeare's text rewards close reading: it is miracles of image and meaning all the way down. Lines from the play still run through my thoughts, particularly the resonant emotional landscape of nature's destruction and rebirth. A Midsummer Night's Dream was the first Shakespeare I read, too: at nine, in a school reader, I found the Mechanicals' performance of Pyramus & Thisbe. Since I was going to be an actor, I memorized all Thisbe's lines and recited them in my heart with great power and pathos: "Lovers make moan, his eyes were green as leeks..." The shock of realizing that I'd been an ass, that the play-within-a-play was supposed to be a joke, still keeps me delightfully humble.

5. Terry Fallis picks Macbeth

Award-winning humorist and author of Poles Apart and Best Laid Plans, Terry Fallis says Macbeth is his favourite Shakespeare play:

My favourite Shakespeare play is Macbeth. Why? Well, it's not because I have spent years immersed in the Bard's offerings, poring over each play, and deliberating over which is the one for me. I gave up on that. No, I chose Macbeth because I know it best. We studied it endlessly, or so it seemed, in Grade 12 English. I also love the funky and foul three witches who open the play. I mean, who doesn't love the witches? As well, Macbeth is all about power and politics, a topic that has engaged me in more ways than one for nearly 40 years. Macbeth has a famous soliloquy at the beginning of Act 2, much of which I can still recite from my high school days. ("Is this a dagger I see before me, the handle toward my hand?") I frequently break into this monologue at family gatherings just because I can. Needless to say, Macbeth is not my family's favourite Shakespeare play. Finally, the fact that Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy has absolutely nothing to do with it being my favourite. Nothing at all.

6. CC Humphreys picks Hamlet

The Toronto-born author and actor has written eight historical novels, including Plague and Fire. To commemorate the anniversary of Shakespeare's death, he's performing a one-man show entitled Shakespeare 1600. His favourite play by the Bard is Hamlet:

I have been obsessed with Hamlet ever since I was fortunate enough to play him (Theatre Calgary, 1994) — the most exhilarating and terrifying experience of my life. It is the ultimate "straight" role because it is you taking his journey — dealing with your dead father and vibrant mother, your thwarted ambitions and curtailed passions. You wondering if it's even possible to take an authentic action or if everything you believe is mere "thought." "For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so" has ruled my life and ruined my sleep. The play's first hissed speech — "Who's there?" — begins my first young adult book, The Fetch. In Shakespeare's Rebel I tried to discover what confluence of period and character and theatre and genius led William to create the greatest game changer in literature, maybe in all art. It's influence upon me is constant, relentless. The rest? Is silence.

7. Helen Humphreys picks A Midsummer Night's Dream

Celebrated author Helen Humphreys' most recent novel, The Evening Chorus, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award. She's chosen A Midsummer Night's Dream as her favourite Shakespeare play:

I read Shakespeare in high school, and although I liked the language, I was never really moved by the plays themselves. But in 1983 I went to the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in High Park, and I understood the play for the first time. It was magical to sit outside in the half-dark, with jets overhead, and the occasional animal noise from the woods behind the stage, and to be caught up in the costumes and the drama and the words of the actors. I was in my early twenties, ardently writing poetry, but until that night, I hadn't realized how alive and vital, and utterly in the moment, words could be.

8. Tracey Lindberg picks Othello

Tracey Lindberg, whose debut novel Birdie is a finalist for a Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, says Othello is her favourite play:

Having read Othello in high school and in my Shakespeare course in University, it is the only play that I continue to read with frequency since those days when I first fell in love with English. There is nothing romantic about the play or of my reading it. It is one of the first and oldest mentions of a person of colour in literature that I saw. Nothing in high school literature prepared me for the stark iteration of ideas about / constructed about Blackness. The ways in which Shakespeare both colours (double meaning intended) and erases colour within the work is fascinating to me. The construction of racialization and stereotypes is painfully evident; these things are there (often as slurs and as evident as the sexualization of Othello). Given all of this, it is after all of the deconstruction and parsing of racism that I admit: Othello as a hero, as "one of us" is the reason I am drawn to the play. As a person with a Cree family and a Swedish family, the nature of relationships, love and desire between Othello and Desdemona was of great interest to me. The idea of "Outsider," embedded in me early as a child of a beautifully mixed family was reflected in Othello and felt familiar. Feels familiar. We often search for our familiars when building something.

9. Ann-Marie MacDonald picks The Winter's Tale

Acclaimed playwright of Belle Moral: A Natural History, author of Fall on Your Knees and Adult Onset and former CBC host Ann-Marie MacDonald had a hard time choosing a favourite:

Impossible to name a favourite Shakespeare play, so I'll go with the one I saw most recently: The Winter's Tale. For sheer improbability it can't be beat — in this play, believing is seeing. It scoops up magic, religion, politics, sexual jealousy, mistaken identity, foundlings, thieves, curses, blessings and wrenching parent-child reunions. But that starts to sound a lot like Pericles, which for sheer improbability, can't be beat...

10. Rick Mofina picks Measure for Measure

Rick Mofina is a former journalist and bestselling crime writer of novels like Full Tilt. He selects Measure for Measure as his favourite Shakespeare play:

I'd say Measure for Measure is my favourite play. Not because it addresses a gamut of human frailties and failings but because it offers moments of shining inspiration. It was one of those crystalline moments that had a direct impact on my literary aspirations. Like most fledgling writers, I was often overwhelmed with the belief that I had no business writing. I convinced myself that I lacked the skill and confidence and that any endeavour was futile. But when I came up the scene when Lucio tells Isabella: "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt," I felt a tectonic shift. I taped that bit of advice to my desk. Now, after writing 20 books, I still look at it every day.

11. Heather O'Neill picks Troilus and Cressida

The two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist and acclaimed author of Daydreams of Angels, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Lullabies for Little Criminals says her favourite Shakespeare play is Troilus and Cressida:

I always imagine that Shakespeare wrote this play when he was in a bad mood or had just been dumped. I read it first when I was at McGill, in the stage of high irony that is young adulthood, and found it delicious. It takes places during the Trojan War, and all the characters are cynics and deride their own motives and identities as heroes. The love story between the titular characters is one of deceit and posturing. Imagine if, when Romeo was exiled to Mantua, Juliet cheated on him almost immediately. I was alienated by the romanticism of other literary works. Write me a play about love being fickle, false, theatrical and unpredictable, and that I could make sense of. It's a play that was rarely performed until the 20th century, when it suited the credo of the modern era: If you don't have something biting to say, don't say anything at all.

12. Steve Paikin picks Julius Caesar

Host of TVO's The Agenda and author of three nonfiction titles, including Paikin and the Premiers, Steve Paikin selects the politically charged tragedy Julius Caesar:

As a kid from Hamilton who took Latin throughout high school as well as a school trip to Italy at age 17, I've always had a certain fascination for Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. And while it's impossible to know how much of this play contributed to my love of political machinations today, it certainly gave me an appreciation of the need to nurture and care for our democracy.

Brutus' internal conflict - loyalty to Caesar or to Rome — is an eternal theme which persists in politics to this day. Marc Antony's "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears" reminds us of the power of oratory in public life.

Thankfully, Caesar's fate is something that has never befallen a Canadian prime minister, and hopefully it never will. But I confess, every March 15 — the Ides of March — I pause and think of Julius Caesar, both the man and the play, and hope the date passes without incident.

13. Andrew Pyper picks Macbeth

Andrew Pyper, the award-winning horror writer of The Damned and The Demonologist, says Macbeth is his favourite Shakespeare play:

It boasts the perhaps more obvious merits of being the Bard's shortest and bloodiest play, but Macbeth has left the most lasting impression on me of all Shakespeare's works because of its three weird sisters. Yes, they're scary, and yes, they appear in the most visually gripping scenes (it's why teenagers generally keep their mouths shut and hands off their phones during the Scottish play). But that's not why I'm such a fan. What interests me about the witches is how their power doesn't reside in their demonic or supernatural attributes, but in their incantatory, riddling, seductively ambiguous use of language. Like Milton's Satan or the Bible's serpent in the garden, the sisters provoke and tempt through a kind of poetry, employing figures and tropes so inviting to wild interpretation they bring about action without commandment. In this we can see their companionship with devils, of course, but also the dog whistles of contemporary politicians and the slick allure of advertising. As a writer of fiction, I too hope to cast a spell with my words, to invite the reader to their own dark place, and in this sense can't help but see the witches as colleagues.

14. Diane Schoemperlen picks Macbeth

Diane Schoemperlen is a Governor General's Literary Award-winning author whose memoir, This is Not My Life, is due out at the end of April. She says Macbeth is her favourite play by the Bard:

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that it has been decades since I had a close relationship with Shakespeare. But the play that has remained my favourite for all these years is Macbeth. It is still so clear in my mind: the witches, the prophecies, the apparitions, the complexity of the characters — and of course, all those gruesome murders!

I've been known to quote Macbeth more often than you might imagine. First there are those witches stirring their cauldron: "Double, double toil and trouble." And there is Macbeth himself, declaring that he has "murdered sleep" — as a life-long insomniac, I can relate to this. I've even quoted Lady Macbeth in my new book. By the beginning of Act V, she has become a haunted sleepwalker, trying to wash the imaginary blood off her hands: "Out, damn spot! Out, I say!" Hell is murky indeed. No one but Shakespeare could have said it so well.

15. Anakana Schofield picks Henry IV, part 1

Anakana Schofield, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Martin John, selects Henry IV: Part 1 as her favourite play:

My favourite Shakespeare play is Henry IV, part 1 for entirely selfish reasons. I read it when I was 12 years old and I can still recall the first lines of the prologue and, even more strangely, the first lines of King Henry's opening speech. The fact I can recall these lines so many years later has become the barometer for knowing precisely when I am in absolute decline versus merely middle-aged decline.

The strange thing is I later studied many other Shakespeare plays as an actor, yet nothing ever usurped Henry IV, part 1 as indication my marbles were enduring. I would still congratulate myself on recalling the opening prologue as the years passed as some indication that I wasn't brain dead.

I also recall the character Falstaff being jolly, corpulent and raucous and felt, since he had a sense of humour, that having one was something worth aspiring to. I imagine Prince Henry (Hal) in contrast as some good looking fists — bunched up earnest type and King Henry himself a muttery blistering bloke. I think the French-English division also reminded me of the apple wars and lorry drivers, who always seemed to be protesting and disagreeing with each other at French ports.

What I love about this play is that, aside from that prologue, I recall very little. This has both a certain sad and a certain fab quality. As some turn to sports cars and youth-enhancing surgery, I intend to resort to Henry VI as a potential banister should a mid-life crisis descend.

The other Shakespeare play that significantly impacted the quality of my life was the fight scene from Romeo and Juliet, which when my teenage son was very small and impossible, I used to re-enact with him using two wooden spoons. There is nothing like the prospect of whacking your mother with a wooden spoon to distract a petulant five-year-old from more miserable transactions and meltdowns. I can confirm he continues to "bite his thumb" at me with alarming regularity.

16. Shilpi Somaya Gowda picks Hamlet

Shilpi Somaya Gowda is the internationally bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son. She says Hamlet has been influential in her work:

I love many of Shakespeare's works, but I'd have to choose Hamlet as the one that has had the greatest impact. The central premise, the murdered King coming back as a ghost to seek vengeance, has so many layers: the interplay between generations, how father and son influence each other, inheritances of debt and revenge. Then, there is the theme of madness — Hamlet's feigning madness, Ophelia descending into madness after her father's death and the question of whether anyone truly sees the ghost itself — along with the implications of suicide. The entire story is ripe for reflection about life, death and family, which happen to be my favourite topics for exploration in my own work.

17. Cordelia Strube picks King Lear

Cordelia Strube is the author of 11 novels — most recently, On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light — and as many stage and radio plays. She describes King Lear as her favourite play by Shakespeare:

A wild-haired theatre director I worked with called me Lear. Having endured being named after the virtuous princess who dies a tragic death, being referred to as the king was a thrill — even though he too suffers a tragic death. As did the wild-haired theatre director who called me Lear.

King Lear is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances making stunningly bad choices. Who hasn't been down that road? And who hasn't played Lear's blame game a.k.a: "...when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our own disasters, the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we are villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence..."

Nobody reveals human frailty like the Bard does in King Lear. Who hasn't wanted to rail into pelting rain, "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" or scream into blasting gusts, "Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!"

King Lear forces us to confront our own hubris and delusions, to face our weaknesses before we do something really stupid like destroy the very thing that gives us strength. He reminds us that: "The worst is not, so long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?