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Shakespeare in Poland: High Versus Low Culture in Democratic      Poland

Shakespeare in Poland -- page 11

10. High versus low culture in Democratic Poland

The democratic system means, at least at this moment, an opening for Shakespeare's commercial appropriation, for his absorption by the popular culture, especially in advertising, in free-market economy. Though there is a long tradition of popular burlesque of Shakespeare in the Polish literary tradition, he has only recently become a means of repackaging and marketing of other products. In a way commercialism has revealed to the Polish people that Shakespeare can "sell things to us."[xxvi] Ironically, Shakespeare commercialism in post-Communist Poland is frequently more demanding and restrictive than the institution of a political censor. The cultural values and codes traditionally associated with his works are brought into a sharp confrontation with the rules of the free market economy. "Shakespeare," "blues," "rock" music, and MTV shows become reduced to the same level of significance--a source of financial profit. At the same time the profit, as the cruellest version of authority, not only selects and curtails the original literary material, but also strictly oversees, defines, and prescribes its presentation to the public.

One of the first attempts at applying Shakespeare's presence in promotional material appeared in 1996. In the "Idea" cellular phone company commercial, a young energetic man talked with his friend on the phone. To prove the necessity for purchasing a cellular phone, he informed him of a missed opportunity to play Hamlet:

Daniel [Olchbryski, a famous Polish dramatic actor who successfully acted that role in a cult staging of the play] became sick. There was no way to contact you, and a substitute was required.

The ostensible meaning of this commercial was that the "Idea" phone increases opportunities in life. It was a rational message: it described an actual possibility and gave a logical explanation. However, the significance of the cellular phone was actually the opposite of its social power: the contingency of the famous actor's sudden illness and a chance of filling his shoes were linked not by the line of a reasonable argument, but by their place in the commercial, by its formal structure in which playing Shakespeare's pre-eminent role became the main incentive to purchase a product. The "Idea" cellular phone was turned into a visible conveyor of a specific desire in which playing the Shakespearean role was presented as the ultimate dream-work.

The selection of Hamlet for commercial exploitation was not accidental. After all, for centuries Hamlet has been described as "the Polish Prince," and as one of the most significant characters in Polish culture. It should be stressed in this context that under the Communist regime the play's original text was seldom ignored, though its stagings and criticism tended to treat Hamlet as a convenient commentary upon current political and social experiences and dilemmas. In addition, the frequency of the theatrical productions has firmly secured the play's place in the treasury of national cultural heritage: Hamlet's text (in translations) is a part of colloquial language.

The relatively thorough knowledge of Shakespeare's plays in Poland became the basis of a national advertising campaign of the Warsaw Brewery Royal S. A. in 1999. In an interview (March 2000), the director of the advertising company Communication Unlimited explained:

We use Shakespeare because everyone knows him, and he is the perfect classical author. Our aim was to change the Brewery's image and appeal to a more sophisticated layer of society. [Note 41]

Founded in 1797, the Warsaw Brewery Royal S. A. became nationalised and lost its prestigious place at the market under the communist system: it produced a very cheap assortment of beer, sold in shoddily made bottles, that was the favourite drink of tipplers and slackers. In the new economic system of post-Communism, it had to change its image to compete with such international Molochs as Budweiser, Grolsch, or Heineken; for this reason, Shakespeare's name and his works were used as the means of endowing it with a certain aura of nobility. The advertising campaign included billboards, newspapers, posters, and also special decals on cars, shops, pubs, and radio presentations which capitalise on such Shakespeare's plays as: King Lear, All's Well That Ends Well, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet.

All billboards had the convention of theatrical posters on which the attractiveness of the new beer bottles occupied a central position. The advertisement "The Warsaw Brewery Royal Presents Works Selected by Gulp Shakebeer" ("Warszawskie Browary Krolewskie Przedstawiaja Wybrane Dziela Lykami Szeksbiera") was based on a language game. The Polish word "Lykami" was a clever distortion of "William," while in the word "Szekspir" (the Polish version of "Shakespeare") the letter "z" was hidden and changed the playwright's surname into "beer." The titles of the plays constituted part of this visual promotion. Some became cleverly distorted, e.g. King Lear became King Liter. "The Power of the Classics," the promotional campaign slogan, made overt connection between Shakespeare's status as the author of classical works and the beer as a classical product.

Though advertising ideologies can incorporate almost anything, it is symptomatic of the Polish appropriation of Shakespeare that his distinctively significant cultural position is stable. He continues to have an effect on people, though in democratic Poland, the strict rules of the free-market economy tend to obscure the general knowledge of the "real" Shakespeare by replacing it with the consumption of particular goods or activities offered in Shakespeare's name, and thus turning him slowly into an empty signifier in the response of the less educated, general public.


[41] I would like to thank here Mr. Zdzisław Gajak, the company's director, for his time and assistance. Communication Unlimited is a Polish promotional agency, the full service of which is Polish. In 1998 it occupied the twenty eighth place in the international ranking '"Home and Market." [Back]