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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.

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