Marketing Shakespeare


Well, I’m back in Shady Side, MD again, looking in on my parents, and this morning I found a pretty interesting piece on the new Folger exhibit featuring the Boydell gallery illustrations (viewing this may require registration with the Washington Post).

I’ve been familiar with the Boydell paintings, some of which are hung up around the Folger, for some time, but here’s one interesting observation that the Post critic, Philip Kennicott, makes about the nature of these beautiful, sometimes kitschy tableaux:

Boydell’s painters frequently turned to the tradition of theatrical painting, recording intimately the faces and gestures — painfully histrionic by today’s standards — that one might conceivably see in an actual performance of Shakespeare.

William Hamilton’s “The Duke of York Discovering His Son Aumerle’s Treachery” is typical. The scene is from “Richard II”; the subject, a father’s uncovering of his son’s participation in a plot to the kill the king. He tears from the young man’s neck a seal that proves his complicity; he berates him; and he ignores his wife’s plea not to denounce and destroy their child.

The painting feels decidedly stagy. The action is contained within a small space, a window drapery looks suspiciously like a theatrical curtain, and the young man’s gesture — right hand thrust to his forehead, his torso inclined backward as if buffeted by a gusty wind of melodrama — is something one might find on the cover of an old penny dreadful.

As Kennicott notes, “part of the pleasure of this show, an unnerving pleasure at times, is the world of weirdness in another era’s conception of literature that we feel we intimately possess and understand.” 

In this case, these vivid, sometimes embarassing images give us access to a Shakespeare whose high-cultural status was still in the making at the end of the 18th century, partly through the well-known Romantic criticism of his texts, but also through the more vulgar and workmanlike efforts of entrepeneurs in spectacle like Boydell or Garrick. 

I suppose that one of this era’s “weird” preoccupations is its insistence that these two impulses are somehow mutually reinforcing.

One of the other themes in this little piece is about the extreme historicity of performance, and the difficulties of representing it:

Of course, static images of live performance are almost always painful to look at. Just examine any season brochure for a theater or opera company. Just as human beings are not meant to be seen immediately upon waking up, they are not meant to be seen fixed in frozen form while cavorting on stages. What is grand and powerful and shocking behind the footlights is just ridiculous and silly in the glare of the flashbulb.

The Boydell paintings raise this issue of the representability of performance in all sorts of ways, because they stand at one remove from actual performances, yet are still visibly constrained by contemporary norms and expectations of staging. 

For example, the intimate domestic scene of Titania, Puck, and the changeling (see above) seems more cinematic than staged, but the action still seems to be going on for our benefit, not theirs.  We are supposed to register that come-hither look on Titania’s face, for example, but would it be visible in the back rows?

I suspect that this phenomenon, which I’d call the inevitable translation of performance into visual kitsch, is responsible for a lot of the intellectual embarassment that surrounds performance.  It’s too hard to explain in words, and pictures, as they say, “just don’t do it justice.”



3 responses to “Marketing Shakespeare

  1. I so wish that I could go see this exhibit. Here’s a question that I recently realized was at the heart of my current book project: when did kitsch become kitsch? That is, when did people start taking pleasure in the aesthetic value of “badness”? I’m pretty sure that it is a mid-eighteenth century phenomenon, when the valence of “artifice” shifts in aesthetic discourse, and the quotation from Lamb in the WaPo article suggests that these paintings were recognized as “bad art” by certain members of their original audience. But I’d like to know how those who enjoyed them enjoyed them—did Lamb have any contemporaries to say to his “grumpy harrumphings,” “But that’s just what’s so great about it!”

  2. Yeah, I agree, those are good questions. I did some work ages ago on kitsch and sentiment, and I probably have the references somewhere, if you’re interested.

    If I remember correctly, “kitsch” is a late 19c neologism, and seems caught up with the emergence of a modernist aesthetic hostile to a degraded popular culture. I’m pretty sure it started as a specifically German coinage that spread into other languages, though apparently without finding an equivalent in English. I wonder if other languages have equivalents? (Nabokov did do a famous essay on “poshlust” that goes over much of the same ground)

    Calinescu, I think, has some interesting stuff on kitsch aesthetics, and I think it’s hard to read Adorno without running into it on every page.

    As for these kinds of “perverse” or willful revaluations of aesthetic objects known by others to be bad, I get a general sense that there are elements of this in Swift’s Tale or in Pope’s Art of Sinking, or even in Byron’s ostentatiously casual rhymes. Maybe 18c treatment of ballads?

    But I think that the “kitsch” label requires as a precondition the romantic expectation of the individualized form tailored to content, not the conventional form that already assumes an equally conventional content. That is how so much religious, neo-classical, and rhetorical styles–in other words, the most formulaic styles of writing–come to be categorized retrospectively as kitsch.

    [similarly, the Post writer noted the influence of history-painting conventions in these illustrations, and if you’re interested in kitsch, go to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and you’ll find what is essentially a museum of 19c and 20c art in which Modernism Never Happened. A scary thought.]

    But the function of the badness on display in 18c art seems different somehow. I’d say that kitsch seems to be a post-romantic concept, and an important byproduct of Romanticism and Romantic aesthetics: could there be any work more kitschy than the bad parts of Childe Harold?



  3. Oh..i love those days when you just don’t have anything better to do than to search for random blogs trying to find something interesting to read. And i’m always lucky, today i found your blog and it brightened up my day to the MAX, looking forward to coming back for an evening read 🙂