Shakespeare for Sale

In Shakespeare’s day, the modern English language was still in the early stages of its development. Unified rules for grammar and spelling had yet to be established, and low literacy rates slowed the expansion and blunted the dynamism of a shared cultural vocabulary. In other words, writers had room for linguistic creativity as well as a mandate for making key expressive contributions if English was to mature into a versatile national language.

Shakespeare responded by coining or popularizing thousands of words and expressions that today we take for granted. Without Shakespeare, floppy disks would not be dead as a doornail, you couldn’t see through your mind’s eye, and a wild-goose chase would simply be a fruitless search for something.

Just as Shakespeare’s language, over time, has been detached from its original context and given new shades of meaning, uses, and associations, so has Shakespeare himself. Every generation creates its own Shakespeare, enlisting him for both noble and crass pursuits. The Newberry’s collection contains materials covering a range of these repurposings.

Coming out of the rich tradition of Shakespearian pedagogy is an 1849 edition of The Tempest using a phonetic alphabet, which, in theory, would appeal to readers’ intuitive feel for spelling and make the play more accessible.

For materials of a less elevated variety, look no further than The Shakespearian Advertiser. Published by H. P. Boyce in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1871, this booklet contains cartoons illustrating lines from Shakespeare alongside advertisements for goods and services available in Rhode Island and Boston. The illustrations can be droll, and occasionally they match up thematically with the businesses listed on their facing pages. The publisher, in his preface, is frank about the intent behind the illustrations—namely, that they are supposed to ensure that prospective customers actually read the ads. Boyce does not mention Shakespeare explicitly, only allusively, referencing the “illustrations of a higher class of humor than is usually presented to the public by the so-called comic papers.”

Using Shakespeare for profit may strike some as unconscionable, but such was—and is—the brave new world of American commerce.

This essay was posted by Alex Teller, Manager of Communications and Editorial Services at the Newberry, in conjunction with the Statue Stories Chicago project.