20 May 2016

Shakespeare the brand: an exporter of British values

By Anna Johnston

Shakespeare’s Cultural Capital: His Economic Impact from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-first Century. Dominic Shellard & Siobhan Keenan (eds.). Palgrave Macmillan, RRP £19.99

“Money buys lands, and wives are sold by fate”

(Mistress Ford, Merry Wives of Windsor, Act V Scene 5)

What motif denotes a Shakespearean play? Is it the star-crossed lovers, a comedic brawl, an act vindictive revenge? Or is it, perhaps, the irrefutable relationship between love and money? Shakespeare, of course, popularised the concept of “you can’t buy me love”. But the playwright was also a shrewd businessman. Later in his career, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he suggests that “if money go before, all ways do lie open”. If one thing is clear: he has money on his mind.

Shakespeare’s Culture Capital: his cultural impact from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century proves wide-ranging and perceptive in the consideration of Shakespeare’s cultural and economic value. On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Shellard and Keenan’s diverse collection of essays takes a valued and refreshing look at how both the man of the moment and the consumer themselves have contributed to the ceaseless phenomenon.

Shakespeare’s immediate recognition resulted from an exceptional talent, an investment in theatre space, and a mastering of the theatrical marketplace. Yet what we know as the ‘brand’ of the bard developed hundreds of years later. As a whole, the book reiterates that Shakespeare was unashamedly commercial, both in his method of business and self-promotion. This money-making potential underlines how capitalism can continually produce ‘Shakespearean’ material.

However Shellard and Keenan’s book does not remain chained to textually heavy historical details and fact. The essays evolve to consider the modern day value of Shakespeare’s brand in Hollywood and the playwright’s cinematic potential. Clear and productive conversations between what is deemed ‘popular culture’ and ‘Shakespeareanisms’ emerge. A Shakespearean actor is actively sought after by the blockbusters to play the brooding villain, since Britishness is often coded as cultural sophistication, intellect and eloquence. Consequently, playing a lead in a Shakespearean play can bolster an actor’s reputation and equate to prospective stardom.

While a meticulous step-by-step analysis of British actors reveals that Shakespeare helped to cement the credibility of national treasures such as Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, another essay by Deborah Cartmell explores in more depth the power of marketing Shakespeare’s brand in 20th century film. This is not to say that all cinematic interpretations have been overwhelming successes. In fact, the most triumphant of all Shakespeare’s films (grossing nearly $300 million worldwide) centered around the character of the playwright himself: Shakespeare in Love (1998). Shakespeare’s economic capital is notably not only in the stories he depicted and the characters he treasured, but fundamentally in the name ‘Shakespeare’.

Some individuals shape their time, but Shakespeare’s reach spans historical eras. His plays hold a creative power and energy that not only rejuvenate stories but also continually captivate audiences. The penultimate essay, a collaboration of writing between Conrad Bird, Jason Eliadis and Harvey Scriven, contextualises Shakespeare’s retail potential as an “unparalleled exporter of British values”. They focus on the key question surrounding Shakespeare’s unrivalled success: what is his unique selling point, both on and off stage?

This emblematic figure with such loud a cultural resonance on a global platform has generated a tourist industry worth over £125 billion – and the power to sell means big business. Shakespeare can be rightly considered as a brand unto himself, despite never being under the control of a single qualified entity, or reproducer. His remains a forever evolving body of work, which will undoubtedly increase in value over time.

This essay collection is far more than an academic study of a literary great. It is an important contribution to our understanding of up-to-date meaning of a cultural economy, and what the world associates with being ‘quintessentially British’.

Anna Johnston is a CapX contributor.