ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Shakespearean Commons

Branding Bill

Situating William Shakespeare within the study of brands, this article examines the process and results of Shakespeare-as-brand, which mediates the supply and demand of Shakespearean products whether about his life, his loves, his texts, his editors, and his readers or consumers. Shakespeare as a commons continues to gather cultural capital because of the iterability of the brand in mass/popular forms and media that now possess the maximum cultural legibility (like the graphic novel or Hollywood romance). This is possible even more in the digital age because the Shakespearean page, stage, and image are all available simultaneously on a screen, making Shakespeare an interactive, global archive.

A year ago, the world celebrated William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. But this essay has little to do with Shakespeare’s plays, or Shakespeare scholarship. It situates Shakespeare within what may be broadly characterised as “brand studies.” Adapting the work of semioticians of brands and retail, Celia Lury, John Frow, and others, the article examines the process and results of “branding Bill,” or Shakespeare-as-brand. Shakespeare-as-brand mediates the supply and demand of Shakespearean products through the organisation, coordination, and integration of the use of information — whether about his life, his loves, his texts, his editors, and his readers/consumers.

John Heminges’ and Henry Condell’s First Folio (1623); Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s New York Times bestseller Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004); Samuel Johnson–Samuel Coleridge–Matthew Arnold writing prefaces to Shakespeare; 20th century manga versions; video games; university syllabi; Baz Luhrmann-Kenneth Branagh–Akira Kurosawa films; mysteries around the “dark lady” and authorship; and something we have come to know as the “plays of William Shakespeare” — the inventory is transmedial, multigeneric. Shakespeare functions here as something separated from the quality of his works, as a brand whose value is recognisable in numerous forms that may or may not have anything to do with the notion of literary value. Shakespeare as sign, as an icon, possesses, therefore, unimaginable semantic autonomy from his works, or even from English and England.

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