Shakespearean Self-Fashioning

This post features guest essays by students in my Introduction to Shakespeare course. Everyone is welcome to comment on this post, but please make sure that all discussion is constructive and positive.

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Will Power Tie

If you are a major fan of Shakespeare, want a little of the Bard with you at the office, (and are willing to spend a large amount of money to act on these feelings), this may just be the tie for you (available at Zazzle). Printed on this tie is Droeshout’s portrait of Shakespeare that was originally found in the First Folio, accompanied by the words, “Will Power”. Just about the only people I can image wearing tie like this are middle and high school English teachers who are trying to be cool in a perfectly awkward and dorky way.

This tie makes a statement about common culture’s perception of Shakespeare in the way that it interacts with one of the most famous images of one of the most famous writers in a way that is humorous and relatable to most people. When you mention Shakespeare’s name, most people conjure up the image of Droeshout’s portrait – most everybody is familiar with the image, even if they don’t know where from. The image, in people’s minds, is equated with Shakespeare himself and takes on the same status and regard as its subject. Thus, it is humorous that, on this tie, it is accompanied by the phrase “Will Power”. This is obviously a play on words, taken from the word “willpower”. The original word in itself, “willpower” evokes images of sports, exercise, endurance, hardship – things that aren’t normally associated with artists, let alone Shakespeare. Society tends to think of artists as people who work with their minds, with creativity and a muse serving as their forces, not willpower. Here, however, the two ideas combine: artistry and force, will power and Will Shakespeare. The humor comes from this dichotomy between these two ideas.

Another interpretation of the phrase “Will Power” is that, rather than being a play on the word “willpower”, it is referring to some sort of power that was possessed by Shakespeare to create and become famous. In this sense, this tie is comical because it as if the wearing, by wearing this tie, is hoping that some piece of Shakespeare’s “power” – his creativity, his artistic ability, his status – will be imparted to him. Through this interpretation, it makes sense that this print appears on a tie: men would wear this tie to work knowing that it is ironic to invoke the power of Shakespeare in their day to day lives which probably won’t leave behind a legacy like that of Shakespeare’s.

As stated above, the only audience I can envision for this product are teachers who want to be cool and funny, but are going about it in the awkward sort of way that teachers usually do. I imagine teachers looking at this because I can’t see anybody else comparing their job to Shakespeare in the way that this tie implies. I wouldn’t believe that the person who designed this tie did it for any other reason than the sake of humor. Aside from teachers, perhaps a writer or someone involved with theatre may be seen wearing this tie, but I like to image that those people have a better sense of humor.

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The works of Shakespeare are seen as the height of culture, the sophisticated interest of the upper class. One’s enjoyment of the theatre should then be displayed for all to see, such as with this t-shirt, available through Litographs.

Hamlet Skull Shirt

The iconic image from the performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is created from the text of the play printed in order to display the image, a readable version that can be carried with you, emblazoned on your person. The individual that wears this shirt likely wishes to show their culture and intelligence to those around them, to be noticed for their dedication to literature and art.

The design itself of the shirt is representative of the designer’s choices and their own ideas about what Shakespeare should be. Unlike some of the other designs from the same company featuring Shakespeare’s works (Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, respectively), the image for this design encompasses Hamlet in a way that the others do not, an instantly recognizable version of what is arguably one of his most influential plays. By choosing such an image, the designer, Rachelle Meyer, defines what Hamlet and Shakespeare should be, showing it as a vision of death, complete with a red-eyed skull. While this is accurate in regard to the play itself, the image represents the whole of Shakespeare, not solely the tragedy but the romance, the comedy, and the history. By choosing to represent an author’s body of work with a relatively violent image from Hamlet, Meyer perpetuates a stereotype of Shakespeare as the author of tragedies, rather than playwright’s full spectrum of work.

The method of presentation in the piece, the printing of words to create an image, displays the relevance of the words on a page in addition to a performed stage version of the play. In the contemporary understanding of Shakespeare, the two concepts are intrinsically entwined, and no longer can one exist without the other. This is represented in the combination of words and image, that neither is truly identifiable without the other in tow.

The work of Shakespeare is so prevalent in contemporary culture that it is entirely acceptable to wear his words adorned on one’s body, and pay to do so. Meyer’s t-shirt is an unusual example of this, as rather than a single image or quote, the shirt features almost the entirety of the text. Though an unusually detailed example of Shakespearean objects, this shirt is certainly representative of both his work and its modern cultural perception.

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British Icons T-Shirt

Although this shirt (available at Redbubble) is not a Shakespeare centered item of clothing, the British icons that he is grouped with show that the artist thinks of Shakespeare as weird. This t-shirt was given the caption “A tribute to everything British on one shirt” and features classic symbols like the royal guards, tea, Big Ben, and a big Union Jack. These bits of English culture mesh well with the popular view of Shakespeare as the great and hallowed playwright, but the artist also drew in modern day icons with very different reputations.

Shakespeare has a high-class reputation today; only those with money can attend the theater while the rest have to settle for lower interests like television or movies. This artist shows Shakespeare to be the comparable to shows like Doctor Who or Harry Potter which both are considered to be “nerdy”. Shakespeare has a lot of supernatural elements in his plays: the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, the faeries and spirits of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. These types of characters are also seen in Harry Potter and Doctor Who, only adapted to better fit a modern audience. People haven’t lost their interest in the supernatural, but in recent years the genre has gained a nerdy reputation. People who enjoy shows with a supernatural theme may have an easier time identifying with Shakespeare’s works and associating it with modern day fantasies.

If modern day supernatural themed shows can compare to Shakespeare’s works then how can something as slapstick as Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks compare to the wit and charm of Shakespearean comedies? Is this artist just lowering the great playwright of England to no more then entertainment for the masses? Shakespeare wrote comedy, some of it witty, like Benedick and Beatrice’s arguments in Much Ado about Nothing, and some of it was just slapstick humor. The movie Shakespeare in Love’s character Philip Henslowe says, “You see – comedy. Love, and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want”. Some humor is the same through the ages; Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks skit is associated with Shakespeare on this t-shirt showing that over hundreds of years, his humor has a place in the modern genre.

Products like this shirt easily dispel the view that Shakespeare is a hallowed figure for the entertainment of the rich. Shakespeare was a playwright for the people with interests in the supernatural and slapstick and crude humor. Many of Shakespeare’s works have some kind of connection to many of these modern day British icons, which allows the modern audience to identify with his works.

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About Dave McAvoy

Shakespeare and media scholar, film geek, and marginally good amateur homebrewer. Check out my course pages, online portfolio, and blog!

Posted on March 4, 2014, in Class Discussions, Shakespearean Meditations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Looking at the Hamlet T-Shirt there is another interesting detail to take note of. The hand that is holding the skull faces away from the person in the shirt. That illustrates that the person wearing Shakespeare’s symbolic image is not the one mimicking Hamlet, but rather his audience. If a friend of his were to notice the shirt, it is the friend that embodies Hamlet’s role and position. When viewed this way, it is as if one way to spread the literature of Shakespeare to others is by forcing it upon them. In that scene of Hamlet, he realizes that death is a great equalizer that buries class, wealth, and gender differences, in a sort of “dust to dust” idea. By portraying the symbol of this moment on a shirt, the artist could be hinting to that idea and eliminating barriers between people familiar and unfamiliar with Shakespeare. This illustrates that Shakespeare is a universal writer whom everyone can appreciate and enjoy.
    Anna G

  2. I was curious to see the variations between Shakespeare-themed clothing for men and women, so I did a quick Google search and I noticed that clothing intended for women rarely has the actual image of Shakespeare printed on it. Whereas men’s shirts, and other clothing like the Shakespeare tie mentioned above, often have a printed portrait of Shakespeare on it. I think this relates to the idea of “willpower” mentioned in the post, although more likely related to predominantly power alone. It seems that maybe this image is paired more with men’s clothing because men would identify with Shakespeare more. Identifying with his powerful presence and history. However, at the same time it seems more likely the men would be wearing clothing like this for the humor or irony. But it’s interesting to consider why designers of the clothing often put the image of Shakespeare predominantly on men’s clothing rather than only why men wear it. Maybe it’s just supposed to evoke the idea that Shakespeare is just “one of the guys” and men can identify with that symbol on their clothing.
    Kaylee S.

  3. In regards to the British at Heart t-shirt, while I agree with much of what the original post states, I have to respectfully disagree with the idea that the creator of the shirt thought of Shakespeare as “weird.” Weird, especially in modern times, has a negative connotation to it and judging by the other images on the shirt, I am not convinced that is the message the shirt is actually trying to send. Shakespeare is surrounded by images such as The Beatles, Big Ben, Harry Potter, and many other wildly famous things. I believe that “iconic” would be a more appropriate word than “weird” for several reasons. Rather than trying to demote the legacy of Shakespeare as something that appeals to the masses, this shirt actually works to praise Shakespeare as something iconic that everyone from across the globe can recognize and appreciate, even if they do not personally have experience with it just like the other images on the shirt. For example, I have never been to London but I knew right away that the building pictured was Big Ben and I can still appreciate the beauty and significance of it. Rather than insult, this shirt actually compliments Shakespeare as being someone who is unique to Britain but anyone, anywhere can still appreciate his talent. I agree with the original post that this shirt dispels the image that Shakespeare is only for the entertainment of the rich, as putting Shakespeare on a t-shirt in the first place makes him automatically less exclusively elitist, however this is not a bad thing. Because of this, I believe the intent of the creator was to regard Shakespeare as iconic rather than weird. The shirt acknowledges the significance and influentially of Shakespeare that is found in high culture, but also by putting Shakespeare on a t-shirt shows that anyone, regardless of location or class, knows of his greatness just like other popular cultural icons such as Harry Potter or The Beatles.

    SD

  4. When I first saw that the person who wrote the Hamlet t-shirt said that the design was stereotyping Shakespeare as a tragic author, I was a little skeptical. But when I went onto the website, I saw another that the shirt has an interesting design in the back of it. On the back, there is a representation of Ophelia drowning. There is something very morbid about this t-shirt, the design is somewhere between beauty and death. In this case, the artist is saying something about the work which is not completely stereotyping Shakespeare as a “tragic” author. Maddow is also saying that the artistic value of the play should be revered, even as some people might force Shakespeare into the “tragic” category. The only thing that ties Hamlet together in the minds of people are the skull and Ophelia drowning, which takes the two depressing symbols and turns them into an artistic visual representation, one that we need to physically wear in order to pay homage to the Bard’s themes and story of a young troubled man having a bit of an existential crisis. Additionally, most readers find the events of the play horrible and depressing, while Maddow views them as beautiful, partly because of the iconic language and speeches Shakespeare uses to illustrate such themes.

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