Repetition is celebrity: Shakespeare and Austen

WillandJaneCuratorsAs curators of Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity we both began our work in the archives with established interests in the connections between literary greatness and consumer culture. Janine has written about the marketing tactics and packaging of the earliest English novels as well as about modern book jackets, while Kristina studies what literary historians call “material” culture, the relays and relationships between literature, society, and the economy. The amazing collection of “realia,” the objects and nonbook artifacts of all things Shakespeare originally collected by Henry and Emily Folger, however, compelled us to rethink what we knew about literary celebrity and the history of a consumer culture increasingly based on the proliferation of commodities.

We knew that this culture was emerging just at the moment that Shakespeare’s fame began to soar near the end of the 18th century, and that by the 200-year anniversary of Austen’s life, it was full-blown. But the sheer repetitiveness of 18th and 19th-century porcelain figurines of Shakespeare’s most famous characters and the box after box of prints depicting Shakespearean actors in the same pose, over and over, seem to be saying more than just the fact that commodification feeds celebrity.

Then the penny dropped: repetition makes celebrity.

Heather McPherson, another fellow traveler among the Folger realia, has argued for celebrity’s roots in the repetition of mass production in the case of actors; the same process was in play for Shakespeare.

The cultural currency of a celebrated image increases the more it is repeated and copied. For example, David Garrick’s revolutionary performance of Richard III soon crystallized into two iconic poses, one of which is seen in the images above. These poses were endlessly repeated in engraved prints as well as porcelains, and eventually transferred from actor to actor as the features of Garrick were replaced by those of John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) and later, Edmund Kean (1789-1833). We examined colorful Folger shelves that boasted rows of figurines of Richard III in his tent as well as boxes of small engraved prints with the exact same pose. The sheer number of wee Richards conjured up the many Georgian sitting rooms in which this complex soldiering hero must have been a mainstay action figure.

But what about Austen? Although Austen porcelains today are similarly “collectible,” one must look to a more popular medium for contemporary habits of repetition in our modern-day celebrity culture. The same pattern of intense repetition—fed by and feeding on consumer desire—occurs again, at Jane’s 200th anniversary, with the moment in the BBC’s production of Pride and Prejudice, when a wet-shirted Colin-Firth-as-Fitzwilliam-Darcy meets our desiring gaze.

This television moment (a swim is not described in the novel, just as these poses of Richard III are listed neither in Shakespeare’s original stage directions nor in Colley Cibber’s more popular adaptation) has been experienced and re-experienced by millions of viewers and endlessly reproduced and reworked in different media and visual formats. Not only do GIFs on social media endlessly repeat the dampening of Darcy but this scene, fabricated by screenwriter Andrew Davies, has been reenacted and spoofed by many different actors, from Hugh Grant in the film Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) to Benedict Cumberbatch in a recent for-charity shoot. In July 2013, a 12-foot fiberglass Darcy briefly graced the London’s Serpentine lake to mark the launch of a new television channel in the UK.

History’s Richard III may never have posed dramatically thus and the Darcy of the novel may never have taken a swim in the ponds of Pemberley, but that is how fan culture fixes and repeats them for posterity. As a result, the 1995 shirt worn by Colin Firth is as much a central feature of our exhibition as the Georgian porcelains of Richard III—displayed with equal curatorial care inside climate-controlled glass cases.

Recently, The New Yorker brilliantly mocked the shirt’s starring role in Will & Jane in a parody of the celebrity “rider,” the document attached to a business contract that details the often trivial and even silly demands made by famous performers on the set: only green M&Ms, for example, or a certain kind of bottled water.

Your humble curators, transformed by this parody from stodgy English professors into P.T. Barnum-style show biz entrepreneurs, could not have been more pleased. When repetition tips into ridiculous excess and even self-parody—as the multiple Richards and Darcys in our exhibition hopefully demonstrate—it not only fuels the fire of celebrity, but also playfully disrupts the relegation of Shakespeare and Austen to the somber realms of High Culture. As the groundlings in the Globe and the consumers of 20th-century “chick lit” all know, Will and Jane, in many shapes and repeated forms, are for everyone.

Read more blog posts about Shakespeare and Jane Austen in our Will and Jane series.