Book Review: Shakespeare's Cultural Capital

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. On the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, this Kat is delighted to review an analysis of the most important English-language author in the public domain. "Shakespeare's Cultural Capital: His Economic Impact from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-first Century," is a collection of essays on the economic contribution of his works, from their role in tourism to their continued appearance on stages around the world.

A key theme is Shakespeare as a brand, rather than simply the public domain value of his individual works. "Unlike many corporate 'brands' the 'Shakespeare trademark' is not 'under the control of a single institution or cultural (re)producer. It thus remains ever a contested object of value, a body that, despite Shakespeare's warning about moving his bones, remains always in motion.'"  

In the corporate world, a chapter analysing BP's sponsorship of the 2012 World Shakespeare questions BP's presumed altruism and argues instead in favour of 'Bard-branded greenwashing' (the idea that the Shakespeare brand contributes to marketing spin.) This contrasts with the idea that, "Shakespeare's value is not corrupted by commercial forces, but is continually co-produced by brands an institutions in an increasingly complex dance of the ultimately inseparable forces of culture and the market."

In theatre, the brand provides credibility to 'serious' actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston. According to the authors, Benedict's 2015 return to Shakespeare in a production of Hamlet at the Barbican helped cement his persona as, 'upper middle class, intellectual and sophisticated.'  Likewise, Hiddleston's performance as Loki in Thor deliberately brings a Shakespearean sense to the film.

In brews, for centuries brands have capitalised on the bard's multiple references to ales and beers. Starting in the 17th century, signs feature Shakespeare adorned pub signs, and "as of 2011, there were still at least some 35 pubs bearing his name and portrait." Cue horrible "Shakes-beer" puns. 

In government, the UK uses Shakespeare to promoting regional tourism and a sense of 'Britishness.' As part of the government's 'Great' campaign, which apparently contributes £1.6 billion annually to the UK, Shakespeare as a global icon enhances the UK's cultural diplomacy. Shakespeare's home of Stratford-upon-Avon, "attracts over five million visitors each year, generating revenues worth over £335 million for the local economy." This weekend, celebrations in London will also be accompanied by the start of an online "Shakespeare's Day Live" marketing campaign festival of all things Shakespeare. 

This slim (compared to legal tomes) book is an interesting take on the cultural and economic value of the bard. Other chapters include an analysis of markets in Shakespeare's era and his works in modern-day productions. It's also a reminder that the public domain can have great economic impact, both in branding and content. 

Shakespeare's Cultural Capital: His Economic Impact from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-first Century (2016), edited by Dominic Shellard and Siobhan Keenan, Palgrave Macmillan. Available here: £14.99 e-book, £18.99 soft-cover and £86.00 hard-cover. Individual chapters can be purchased for £23.94.  Rupture factor: low, 187 pages.
Book Review: Shakespeare's Cultural Capital Book Review: Shakespeare's Cultural Capital Reviewed by Nicola Searle on Saturday, April 23, 2016 Rating: 5


  1. In the preface to the First Folio, the editors, Heminge and Condell, reflect the dangers of piracy for authorial integrity:

    "... as where (before) you were abused with diverse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors, that expos'd them : even those, are now offer'd to your view cur'd, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them."

    In fact, the Bard is not entirely in the public domain in many countries, such as France, where moral rights are perpetual...

  2. I never realised that the "X is great" campaign contributed so much. If the government could run about 400 other similar campaigns, we wouldn't need to pay tax at all...

  3. Good point on the moral rights - although who would control them at this point?

    The estimate of the "Great" campaign is an impact estimate, and open to debate. The £1.6B is indirect contributions.


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