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After 450 years, we still don’t know the true value of Shakespeare

When 450 winters shall besiege thy brow…

After 450 years, we still don’t know the true value of Shakespeare

The extent of Shakespeare’s legacy 450 years on from his birth is incalculable. But this, of course, does not stop some from trying. To many the crown of Britain’s cultural output, Shakespeare is integral to our very language, widely celebrated, studied, acted, seen. So sourcing hard evidence on the cultural value of Shakespeare is a fool’s game, if a fun one.

To start with, both the words in the concept of “cultural value” are so overloaded, so controversial, that real figures for either of them are impossible to find. Are we talking about the anthropological or the aesthetic version of culture? Are we in the realm of economic use, exchange, symbolic or discursive value? And Shakespeare? Are we referencing the texts, the editions, the amateur and professional productions, or the stories, the adaptations, the movies?

The only evidence we have is about the life, writing and social relationships of the writer. And this cannot hope to explain the crazy variety of ideas and objects that shelter under the most famous name in history.

Shakespeare’s plays came to dominate the cultural production of later times by providing free content for the new theatres that opened after the theatrical lock-down of the English civil war. In their printed version, they became a point of reference for those who claimed the supremacy of English writing in contests with classical literature. They also provided useful, out of copyright, texts for the hugely expanded literature market created by universal education.

The plays’ stories of family dynamics, political conflict and personal tragedy, expressed in eloquent metaphorical poetry, provided the material for new works of political satire, children’s books, and heart-breaking romances. And the attention of critics and commentators reconfigured them as narratives of colonialism, sexual conflict, race relations and the trials of old age.

The work of performers and commentators, printers and editors, adaptors and educators all added value to the old plays and that value was consolidated and secured by amateur clubs and fan-groups. And then came along the heritage organisations and publicly funded theatre companies that continue to reproduce and advocate for “Shakespeare” to this day.

Brand analysts occasionally have fun speculating (in both senses) about the brand value of Shakespeare. But they all concede that the eye-watering sums they cite (US$562 million is the latest) would only work if the brand was owned by a commercial company.

It isn’t: as theatre companies, heritage tourist sites, festival organisers and even educators have found. The Shakespeare Institute, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Shakespeare’s Globe or the Oregon Shakespeare festival may all want to claim the Bard but they know their “Shakespeare” is only as good as the performance, experience, or master’s programme presented in his name.

So perhaps the original texts themselves could help us put a value on “Shakespeare”. Let’s say, one of the 40 remaining complete copies of the First Folio. The most recent sale of a Shakespeare Folio raised £2.5m (1m less than Sotheby’s estimate).

But that price, of course, reflects the rare book market, not the cultural value of Shakespeare. “Shakespeare” can be adopted by the book market, the iPhone case market, the tourist market or the education market but Shakespeare is always only the poster boy in markets whose value rests in the assets, labour and distribution that they use.

So the value that ensues is created by the investment of finance and labour on the part of creators, audiences, universities, or merchandise companies. The asset on which all of these depends – the texts of the plays – is freely available to anyone. It is priceless in the literal sense of having no price because it cannot be exchanged. Even a terrible “Shakespeare” product (squeaking Shakespeare duck anyone?) cannot damage the capacity of the poems and plays to be worked through again and again.

Shakespeare, by contrast, has what economists call “non-rival value”. Like the Rocky Mountains or the music of the Rolling Stones, its value depends upon knowledge and use. It is added to, not diminished, by the number of times it is referenced, developed, used and even consumed. Its value is open-ended, a work in progress, regenerated by conversations as much as by the talent and imagination of those who reform, reframe and reproduce it.

So, on Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, treat yourself to some free Shakespeare. Find it in your granny’s school prize edition of the Complete Works or on the British Library’s digitisation of the original quartos. Read a sonnet or a speech, support your kids’ school play or go to the virtual and physical birthday celebrations taking place world wide.

On the other hand, if you check out all the online versions of Sonnet 2, When forty winters shall besiege thy brow, (my favourite), you will also see how many ads and advocates are piggy backing on the cultural value of Shakespeare.

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