William Shakespeare: A Global Brand name
by Ben Alexander
The following table gives the number of hits on a Google search.
These figures show that William Shakespeare has become an enormous brand name. Even after 400 years, a dead poet and playwright is seventeen times more prevalent on Google that a brand of petrol.
There are four lessons to be learnt.
1: Quality of the product
If Ben Jonson's plays were considered excellent then almost all of those attributed to William Shakespeare were brilliant.
They were brilliant because of the demands of the audience they were first played to. This audience was the monarch's Court, the most intellectual, discerning, animated (inebriated) group of people whom actors would be facing. In modern parlance the monarch and the courtiers expected a Rolls Royce, not a Ford. These plays were, in the main, produced for gala nights at Court, St. Stephen's Night, Twelfth Night and Shrove Tuesday. They used proven story-lines and were crafted by the best playwrights to be acted by the best actors.
It was an audience looking for a product, not a product looking for an audience. The corollary shows the value of market research. The character of the plays changed when the dour James I succeeded the feisty Elizabeth I.
William Shakespeare has been on the curriculum in British schools for well over a century. There are few people in the English speaking world who do not recognise the name. The plays are equally enjoyed in France and Germany. My wife and I returned from a holiday in Japan on a flight with 200 high-school students on a four-day trip to Stratford. A whole tourist industry in Stratford-upon-Avon self-perpetuates by word of mouth.
The repetition can cover any amount of historical inaccuracies. Who would dare question the acknowledged wisdom which is supported by a whole host of brilliant professors of English literature and other academics? There have been all sorts of maverick theories as to who wrote the plays - the Earls of Oxford, Derby, Southampton and Pembroke, Marlowe and others - but the repetition or mantra wins through - a man called William Shakespeare from a place called Stratford by a river called the Avon. But were they mavericks?
The power of repetition is enormous. If marketers are spending millions on television advertising campaigns, if people are prepared to print newspapers and write books, then the content must have integrity and bear scrutiny - otherwise what is Truth?
The legends about a the man from Warwickshire started when John Aubrey, born ten years after a William Shakespeare had been buried at Stratford-upon-Avon, who wrote with the integrity of a hack journalist, went there to find about the man under whose name the first book (Folio) of plays was printed. Would you believe that Aubrey got onto the wrong stagecoach? The truth about Shakespeare is somewhat different. Anyone can now see on the Internet that the Stratford man's will was doctored to link it to the London stage. Worse, There is another Stratford on another Avon, namely Stratford sub Castle, a suburb of Salisbury, Wiltshire, where lived the Herbert family, dedicatees of the first Folio.
William Shakespeare was a phantom (just like Michelin Man, Captain Birdseye or Mister Kipling) on whom was hung the authorship of 36 plays and four works of poetry. It was probably a precocious Maid of Honour to the Queen, Mary Fitton, who secretly had a crush on the Earl of Southampton, who wrote in 1593, under the pseudonym William Shakespeare, the narrative poem Venus & Adonis. The same Mary Fitton later (1597-1605) had the love affair with William Herbert, Earl Pembroke, between them composing the Shakespeare Sonnets (printed in 1609). Some years later it was the same William Herbert who, as Lord Chamberlain, was almost certainly the instigator of the printing the first folio of thirty-six plays (1623). The printing of this thousand-page book was a gamble and needed the sort of finance and support the Pembrokes had.
The William Shakespeare pseudonym had then been around for nearly thirty years. Anyone can use a pseudonym. I could; you could. I could call myself William Wordsworth, write a sonnet or two, and nobody can accuse me of passing-off. Twelve of the thirty-six plays had hitherto not been printed, others had no author ascribed. They became William Shakespeare's plays because they came out of the same "factory" and appeared in the first Folio. The lie was in the advertising literature. It has led us to believe that there was a playwright, a genius called William Shakespeare; a man who could speak six languages, had extensive knowledge of philosophy, medicine, the law, the flowers of the field and things nautical, who moved amongst the most exalted in the land, and yet of whom there is not one mention in a firsthand, contemporary letter relating to literature, or the theatre.
Who would dare argue about the existence of such a man? I do! It is more likely that Christopher Marlowe was not killed at Deptford in 1593 and found refuge, as it is rumoured, at Wilton House, the home of the Pembrokes, than a man baptised William Shakespeare in Warwickshire ever wrote a line of verse.
4: Image or logo
People's image of William Shakespeare is the posthumous, roughcast and surreal engraving at the front of the first Folio. On the opposite page is a poem written by the poet Ben Jonson complimenting the artist on getting a like image but suggesting the reader should not dwell on the portrait, but concentrate on the plays contained in the book. The portrait has been reproduced in oils by a number of artists and fakers. People have a recognisable and feel-good image, just as they do for KFC, Shell or Coca Cola - they do not question the intrinsic value of what they are buying.
The probable truth is that the image in the first folio is that of the same William Herbert - without his beard, and that the artist's name, Martin Dro es hout is a spoof. The name Martin then was a sobriquet for someone who was somewhat of an idiot, and the surname almost sounds like "door is shut". The whole name is also an anagram of THE MAN IST OUR DOR, the word dor then meaning a jest.
The advertising lie, whose object was to sell an expensive book, was put together by people of great intelligence. The lie has been repeated countless millions of times. The product being endorsed is robust, of the highest quality, well presented and the message is constantly being reinforced - this is what makes a brand.
For more information about the authorship of William Shakespeare's sonnets, read Ben Alexander's book.
(c) 2005 Ben Alexander