Shakespeare Meets the Rocky Mountains: The Earl of Southesk in Western Canada, 1859

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European explorers trekking across the barely mapped Canadian Northwest did not usually pause to consider, let alone explore, Shakespeare. However, with all the vaguely patronizing disinterest of a visiting aristocrat and all the open-minded curiosity of a tourist and scholar, James Carnegie, Ninth Earl of Southesk, certainly did so. He was the first, literally and figuratively (and somewhat unlikely), to bring Shakespeare to the Rocky Mountains of Canada.


TODAY, Shakespeareans and cultural critics alike rightly identify the establishment of the Stratford festival in Ontario in 1953 as Shakespeare's full arrival on the Canadian cultural landscape, but I would also suggest that Shakespeare, as cultural phenomenon, had met and integrated itself within the Western Canadian landscape nearly a century before, as described in the overland journey and little-known account of the Earl of Southesk, in his book Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains. (1)

Depressed at the death of his first wife in 1855, this 32-year-old Scottish nobleman set off for the Canadian Rockies in search of wilderness adventure, big-game hunting, and renewed health. A graduate of the Edinburgh Academy and the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, he also sought meaning through Shakespeare even as he somewhat innocently carried this profound marker of English cultural advancement into the Canadian West. Although unmentioned in the critical collection Shakespeare in Canada: A World Elsewhere? (2002), Southesk would seem to be the first consciously to bridge these two culturally rich worlds of Shakespeare and Canada in the Canadian Northwest. The Toronto Shakspeare [sic] Club had been flourishing for twenty years, and Richard III was playing onstage in Montreal in the very year that Southesk arrived. (2) But in packing, reading, and meditating on Shakespeare through the Canadian frontier, he both performed and mediated the dynamics of a significant intercultural exchange.


Of course the very idea of a genteel aristocrat roughing it in the Rockies, bringing down big game, and perusing his Shakespeare immediately conjures up satirical ironies as in Esther Fraser's chapter on Southesk in The Canadian Rockies: Early Travels and Explorations, Thomas Wharton's character Sexsmith (complete with Southesk's collapsible India-rubber bathtub and high-minded regard for Shakespeare and the frontier) in the novel Icefields, and even the brisk account of naturalist Ben Gadd in Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, where he mentions Southesk: "An interesting and light-hearted account of his adventures was published, somewhat excusing the amount of killing he indulged in." (3)

EARLY in May 1859, Southesk was met in Montreal by Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, who conducted him west through Minnesota to Fort Garry. A couple of weeks later, despite the presence of guides, carters, and even the gamekeeper from his estate in Scotland, Southesk found himself under canvas and very much on his own. But he was also accompanied by Shakespeare, along with much else in the way of material provisions, open landscape, and unexpected complications. Indeed, on June 28, 1859, in a prairie thunderstorm just inside the eastern boundary of what is now the province of Saskatchewan, Southesk perused The Two Gentlemen of Verona, commenting with irony in his journal:

    This open-air life suits me well, though, when one considers it bit
   bit, it does not seem so very. charming. Long wearisome riding,
   indifferent monotonous eating, no sport to speak of. hard bed upon
   ground, hot sun, wet, no companion of my own class; nevertheless I am
   happier than I have been for years. (54) 

A few days later, Southesk and his party camped near Fort Qu'appelle. From here, he visited nearby natives in their camp, socializing, trading, observing customs, and smoking together. …