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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: November 2011

Post-Textual Shakespeare

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Summary

No tongue, all eyes! Be silent.

(The Tempest, 4.1.59)

In 2007, a curious billboard appeared in London advertising the move from Waterloo to St Pancras stations for the London hub of the Eurorail train to Paris. Above the logo ‘London is changing’ was featured the image of a skeleton kneeling on a stage, holding in his bony hand the fully fleshed head of a man who looked back at the skeleton's skull with astonishment. In 2004 and 2005, a poster campaign in Swiss cities advertised the Espace 2 channel of Radio Suisse Romande with the image of two teens kissing in a subway train filled with inattentive passengers, accompanied by the simple, one-word caption, ‘Shakespeare.’ These advertisements provoke a deceptively simple question: is this Shakespeare? In what sense Shakespeare? To ask the question ‘is this Shakespeare?’ is to ponder the nature of the boundaries that extend around the designation ‘Shakespearian’, laden though that designation is with cultural power and value. Like lines on a map, those boundaries may have the illusion of permanence at a given moment, but in reality they are always in flux, constantly being renegotiated in response to a variety of cultural forces. Here I will be discussing a particular kind of limit case that poses a challenge to one of the founding principles of Shakespeare studies. My claim, in a nutshell, is that both popular culture and avant-garde performance have transgressed and redrawn the boundary of what can constitute ‘Shakespeare’ with ever-greater insistence in the last twenty years, and that they have done so in response to a newly powerful cultural dominant in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Though I will eventually turn to two noteworthy recent performances of Shakespeare, I begin with examples from advertising because advertising stands at the intersection of popular culture and avant-garde aesthetics, amplifying (and thus making visible) ideological and representational strategies it borrows from elsewhere. Though the aims of the ads and the performances are quite different, what they reveal are the traces of processes at work in popular and performance culture more generally. I hope to suggest how, under the pressure of mass mediatization, contemporary Shakespeare may be undergoing something of a paradigm shift that raises foundational questions about how we, as Shakespearian professionals, conceptualize the ‘essential’ or ‘authentic’ Shakespeare and situate his cultural value.

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