British television viewers who tuned into the Rediffusion network at 9:45 pm on the evening of May 6th, 1964 saw a program that began with a silhouette of three early modern trumpeters playing a fanfare.1 After the fanfare subsided, lights came up to reveal that the trumpeters were actually John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. The shot then cut to a troupe of actors entering a thrust stage which was ringed by a screaming throng of young fans treated to the sight of Paul McCartney under a ridiculous styrofoam helmet as Pyramus, John Lennon in white dress, blonde pigtails and gap-tooth as Thisbe, George Harrison with lantern and dog as Moonshine, and Ringo in costume as Lion.2
In the present essay I want to suggest that the performance which followed was a mass media enactment of festive uncrowning-not only of Shakespeare himself, but perhaps more importantly, of a certain established way of relating to his works, one which was epitomized in the more formal quatercentenary celebrations of Shakespeare's birth that were taking place at precisely the same moment, in the spring of 1964. As a particular episode in the history of Shakespeare in mass media, the Beatles' television skit anticipates a large-scale transformation in the forms of adoration commonly associated with Shakespeare in contemporary mass culture, from the august object of bardolatry to a figure more our contemporary, like the Beatles themselves, one whose conspicuous strangeness and oddity might now be construed as endearing, in much the same way that theirs had become.
You Say It's Your Birthday: Bardolatry's Proprietary Rite
In contradistinction to the Beatles' television performance, the other, more notable celebrations of Shakespeare's 400th birthday were largely the expression of a cultural elite, endorsed by a collection of temporarily affiliated economic and political interests. The quatercentenary prompted a predictably enormous number of commercial tie-ins, with most of the nation's important cultural institutions participating to some extent.3 Even at the time, the event seems to have been recognized as what I would call a "proprietary rite," a ritual observance principally distinguishable by the way in which certain stakeholders in the occasion projected an annoying, self-appointed sense of priestly stewardship over it. On the day before Shakespeare's birthday, The Times chose to take the high road, pointedly reprinting a brief editorial column that had appeared exactly one hundred years previously, on April 22, 1864:
Was ever a mighty reputation so ruthlessly sold for the last farthing it would fetch? Did ever local selfishness, and personal vanity, and fussy self-importance, and greediness, and meanness of all kinds sit to gorge themselves upon so noble a quarry? The poet of the world is made a commodity, the anniversary of his birth is made a commercial and educational speculation...
The high road is often a short road, however; the following day's paper featured a large ad for Shell oil that depicted a hitchhiking Shakespeare: "What's the best way to Stratford-on-Avon? Go to Stratford-on-- Shell. All's well that goes Shell."
The epicentre of the quatercentenary celebrations was undoubtedly Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford-on-Avon. On the morning of the 23rd, the Duke of Edinburgh arrived by helicopter to officially open the Shakespeare Exhibition there, which led visitors through a reconstruction of the Globe theatre complete with voice recordings of famous Shakespearean actors, and past various portraits, miniatures, and other artistic installations which ranged wildly in style, according to one Times reporter, from "baroque to beatnick." At a luncheon that day, the Duke was in attendance as Lord Avon conveyed a message from the Queen to 750 members of the assembled Diplomatic Corps and other cultural luminaries. Later, the Duke attended a performance of Henry IV, part one at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where the RSC had mounted a sequence of the history plays. …