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Avonian Willy 450

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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014

Det här är nog första gången jag lagt upp en panelutställning på Pressylta. Det hände sig så att vännen och kollegan Frank Perry och jag fick i uppdrag av Barbican Arts Centre att write and conceive, som det heter, just en sådan utställning med anledning av festivalen “Everybody’s Shakespeare” som ägde rum oktober-november 1994. Vi hade nämligen året innan satt ihop en panelutställning för den stora nordiska kulturfestivalen på Barbican, “Tender is the North”, som väckte en hel del uppmärksamhet.

Jag ska alltså lägga upp de huvudsakliga textpanelerna, för själva designen finns tyvärr inte kvar, och börjar med introduktionen, en slags pocket history


Hold a NatWest Servicecard up to the light and a solemn face, set in a silver seal, suddenly appears in the bottom right hand corner. The wispy beard, the receding hairline: it’s a face we recognize at once.

Alter the angle of the card slightly and Shakespeare’s hologram turns and smiles reassuringly at us. There can be no doubt whatsoever about the authenticity of this card

The Bard became the emblem of sound money when the Association of Payment and Clearing Services (APACS) introduced a security scheme for cheque guarantee cards. As of October 1990 they were required to “depict the bust of William Shakespeare in various ways”.

This was only the latest venture from Swan of Avon Endorsements plc, that busy and profitable Warwickshire outfit. Shakespeare  had already given face value to the £20 note – although that edition is now out of print – and appeared in advertisements for countless products. You name it, he’s endorsed it. Cigars. Turtle-neck sweaters. Deodorants. All-out war.

Not bad going for a tax-evading actor and “impresario” who was all too often of no fixed abode and probably knew the inside of court rooms as well as he knew his way around a stage.

The Wilderness Years

Strangely, the death of William Shakespeare went almost unremarked. This, together with the sparse details we have of his life, has led some people to believe he never existed.

If he didn’t, this would certainly explain why he had to be invented.

For much of the hundred years after Shakespeare’s death his work was anything but respectable. The theatre took many years to recover from the onslaught of the Puritans – and then had to cope with the refinement of taste ushered in by the Restoration. Shakespeare’s plays were considered old-fashioned, uncouth  and so way over the top  that they were performed for the most part in “U” certificate versions – King Lear had to be given a “happy” ending when staged in 1681.

This was the age of the cultural and intellectual hegemony of France. How could the rough and tumble of Shakespeare – forests on the march, people chucking themselves off the cliffs of Dover – compete with the French polish of Racine and Corneille, the classical perfection of the playwrights of the Sun King at Versailles?

By becoming their antithesis. By exemplifying the pragmatic spirit of English liberty as opposed to the Cartesian rictus of absolutist France. The greatest English soldier of the early eighteenth century, Marlborough, boasted that all his knowledge of the nation’s history had been gleaned from the plays of Shakespeare.

Just as England’s soldiers triumphed over those of France, the rule-breaking Warwickshire Lad triumphed over the hidebound Messieurs.

It was Glorious Invention 1 – Austere Classicism O.

He had become our Shakespeare. Or we had become his Englishmen.

The Myth Proves a Hit, But…

It was in Stratford in 1769, at the Jubilee orchestrated by Garrick, that Shakespeare’s elevation to National Genius would be celebrated with great pomp and embarrassing circumstance. The greatest actor of the day threw what modesty he possessed to the four winds and recited an ode to his “Avonian Willy, bard divine”.

The ritual excesses of Bardolatry would intensify in the course of the next hundred years until the mythical status of Shakespeare as the Supreme Englishman had become entrenched as a part of the national self-image.

The myth is made up of two key elements – his Englishness and his universality. These might seem to be contradictory ideas but their marriage is the great virtue of the Shakespeare myth.

On the one hand, Shakespeare represents “what it’s like to be English”. He is emblematic of this island race. By the nineteenth century “Shakespeare”, quotation marks and all, had become a political imperative. Familiarity with his work was made an essential requirement for university entrance as well as for civil servants both at home and throughout the colonies. As a quintessential aspect of the ideological apparatus of the British state, Shakespeare was exported to the far flung ends of the Empire as our great gift to the world.

Nowhere do we see the appropriation of the Shakespeare myth by the institutions of power more clearly than in official calls for national unity and the suppression of differences. Our own century has seen Shakespeare used as propaganda during World War Two and the Falklands War. The struggle to ensure his inclusion in the National Curriculum opposed the importance of Shakespeare to that of the literature of the immigrant communities. His name was recently invoked by the Prime Minister as a talisman against the loss of national identity in a united Europe.

On the other hand, an  equally essential part of the Bard’s reputation is his universal relevance. He speaks as much to the human condition. Shakespeare is seen as the ultimate Mensch. This is not an instance of English cultural myopia, either. For as long as we have claimed him for our own, German romantics, Russian film makers, Polish nationalists, Japanese writers, even French poets, have claimed him as theirs, too.

But the question of ownership does not arise. From these shores the inference is clear. The human condition is English.

Why His Face Rings a Bell…

But then there is the “real story”.

Once Shakespeare’s star had been firmly fixed in the national firmament, the flood of conspiracy theories and speculation broke loose. Great battles were fought over the spelling of his name. His authorship, his identity and his very existence have all been called into question. Perhaps Shakespeare can only continue to  exist if it can be proved that someone, somewhere, dreamt him up.

According to APACS Shakespeare was chosen as the most acceptable and easily recognized candidate  for the security hologram because he’s “non-controversial, not current and non-political”. This is of course a bit of a come-down for that most prominent and successful of Tudor propagandists and apologists.

But at the same time the Bard has proved an unbeatable recipe for success. Shakespeare is an emblem of cultural value which would seem to have been emptied of all content since it can be applied to absolutely anything. Any connection with the real person has been lost since we recognize Shakespeare’s image without really seeing it – it is everywhere and nowhere. He is indeed Everybody’s. But he is also no one’s.

By the way, that’s not really Shakespeare on your “BARDCARD” but a picture of Greg Bell, an American actor.


Written and conceived by Frank Gabriel Perry and Gunnar Pettersson, designed by John Bury. ©1994


APACS, Applied Holographics plc, Eric and Jean Halvorsen, F E Halliday, Charles Hamilton, Graham and Toby Holderness, William Shakespeare, Gary Taylor.

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