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Folger Chronicles How Elizabethans Marketed the Bard

Ever wonder how William Shakespeare got to be so popular? I mean, Leonardo DiCaprio played Romeo—how cool is that?

Sure, the Bard was a pretty decent writer and poet, and he certainly knew his way around the Elizabethan theater business, but marketing for posterity was not his game. After all, what kind of guy practically leaves his plays lying around to be saved by some assistants?

If Will were around today, he might give a hearty thanks to a fellow by the name of John Boydell, who was perhaps the first true marketing genius behind England’s own national literary genius.

Who was Boydell and how did he market Shakespeare and his plays? For the answer, you have to check out the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Marketing Shakespeare: The Boydell Gallery (1789-1805) and Beyond,” a fascinating journey through the life and times of a man who not only marketed Shakespeare, but invented the concept of subscription publishing and helped pave the road for the creation of modern museums of art. He also suffered some economic difficulties for doing what he did, thanks to that meddling Corsican named Napoleon Bonaparte.

The exhibition features many of the paintings and engravings commissioned by Boydell for his London gallery and for his books depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. In detailing how Boydell and his Shakespeare Gallery changed the world of museums, the Folger has created yet another show that bubbles with ideas about how the Bard’s work was spread not just throughout the world, but throughout our imaginations.

Another nod of appreciation on the part of Shakespeare should go out to David Garrick, the great 18th-century actor, producer, director and showman who properly revived interest in Shakespeare by making his plays accessible. Garrick, who managed London’s Drury Lane Theatre, ignited a new wave of Bard consumerism by pushing the manufacture of Shakespearean stuff, if you will—souvenirs such as vases, snuff boxes and figurines, several of which are on display here. (Garrick was also the subject of a previous exhibition at the Folger Shakes-peare Library.)

No doubt Garrick was something of an inspiration to Boydell, a highly respectable and prominent London printmaker, publisher and politician (he was an elected alderman) who in 1789 opened up the Shakespeare Gallery at 52 Pall Mall in a fashionable London district. He had some encouragement from the royalty of the day—King George III and his Queen Charlotte—who were avid cultural supporters.

The grandest endeavors always come down to an idea. Boydell’s was to create a gallery made up of nothing but paintings of Shakespearean scenes, assayed by prominent artists such as George Romney, Henry Fuseli, Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kaufmann and Benjamin West. There was even a little something by the storied poet William Blake, although it is actually a copy of a copy of a copy of a work on the theme of Juliet’s death scene.

Boydell’s gallery—visited by the real and quasi-celebrities of the day and no doubt a few dukes and duchesses—stood out in a time when most art was housed in, well, houses. There were no museums to be had where the general population, high and low, could come view works of art, which were generally secluded among private collections in the homes of the rich.

So in a way, Boydell—who saw himself as an instigator of great art in the service of a great writer—was primarily interested in spreading this very same art through prints that could be purchased by way of the subscription process, which also allowed patrons to buy books with prints, engravings and portfolios. Presto: Boydell became a forerunner of the special edition concept—versions of classic literature created specially for subscribers and treated as works of art themselves.

All of the material on display here has been culled from the Folger Library collection. In addition to examples of the Boydell paintings, the exhibition is replete with objects from the period. These include cartoons made by an acidic and disappointed artist ridiculing Boydell for sacrificing Shakespeare on the altar of avarice, along with letters, engraver and printmaker tools, portraits of King George III and Queen Charlotte, and tickets from a lottery in which many of the Boydell works were sold.

That lottery came about because of Napoleon. When Bonaparte controlled much of Europe during his rampages and wars, Boydell lost most if not all of his continental customers and had to hold a lottery-auction to sell off his holdings.

The paintings themselves are fascinating and give an inkling of the kind of Shakespeare that the British public seemed to adore during this period. Surprisingly, they didn’t much care to see anything about “Julius Caesar,” but “As You Like It” was a popular subject. So were “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Henry VIII,” a play rarely performed in this century but certainly popular in the 18th. This was also an era, by the way, in which “King Lear” and “Romeo and Juliet” were performed with happy endings.

Much of what we know and remember about Shakespeare’s plays today tends to be visual. We often encounter him first in paintings, books, drawings, engravings or illustrated versions of his plays long before we can recite “to be or not to be.” And Boydell’s great idea and experiment resulted in these visual heirlooms that led so many of us to the real thing on stage.

Marketing Shakespeare: The Boydell Gallery (1789-1805) and Beyond through Jan. 5 Folger Shakespeare Library 201 East Capitol St., SE For more information, call (202) 675-0342 or visit www.folger.edu.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999