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Celebrating Shakespeare

A mosaic of Shakespeare above the front door of the HSBC branch in Stratford-upon-Avon

Although there are no official portraits of Shakespeare, HSBC has two unusual images of England’s greatest writer, explains Sara Kinsey, HSBC Global History Manager.

Who was Shakespeare? Since the middle of the 19th century, books and films have cast doubt on the identity of the playwright. The 2011 film Anonymous explored the idea that the actor from Stratford was a front. Over the years, dozens of candidates, including Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford have been put forward as the “real” author of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear.

The majority of Shakespeare scholars are unconvinced. However, there are no verified portraits of Shakespeare drawn in his lifetime – and this lack of an “official” likeness has helped create conspiracy theories.

There are no verified portraits of Shakespeare drawn in his lifetime – and this lack of an ‘official’ likeness has helped create
conspiracy theories

To celebrate the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth on 23 April, HSBC is sharing two unusual portraits in its possession.

The word “money” appears more than 150 times in Shakespeare’s complete works, and rarely in complimentary terms. Iago in Othello says cash is worthless compared to a good reputation (“who steals my purse steals trash”); Polonius in Hamlet warns of the dangers of finance in human relationships (“neither a borrower nor a lender be”); and the ruthless banker Shylock in The Merchant of Venice presents a troubled figure.

This has not stopped printers putting Shakespeare’s likeness on money. A GBP10 note, dating from around 1870, was issued by the branch of the Stourbridge & Kidderminster Banking Company, which would later become part of Midland Bank and then HSBC. The issuing branch was located in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace.

Today, only the Bank of England can print money, but regional banks outside London printed their own notes for decades. It was traditional to include pictures of local landmarks or local heroes, and it is natural that a bank in Stratford-upon-Avon chose Shakespeare.

Privately issued notes became rarer as the Bank of England gradually consolidated its position as the main body for minting currency, and by the 1920s they had almost disappeared. However, in the 1970s, the Bank of England started putting pictures of notable historical figures on the back of its notes – and the first person chosen was Shakespeare. He was on the back of the GBP20 note that was in circulation in the 1970s and 1980s.

A GBP10 note showing Shakespeare's portrait

A GBP10 note, dating from around 1870

The same Stratford-upon-Avon branch that issued the Shakespeare note more than a hundred years ago is still in service today, close to the Royal Shakespeare Company. The town attracts millions of visitors each year and is proud of its heritage, and the local HSBC branch is no exception. A mosaic of Shakespeare sits above the front door, and a frieze showing scenes from his plays winds around the outside walls.

Mike Tate, HSBC’s branch manager, says: “We’re on the town’s heritage trail, and the local tourist board include us among the top 20 sights. Normally as a branch manager I wouldn’t be keen to have people photographing the building, but we make an exception here. We even have a handout which tells them about the building’s history. My favourite scene on the frieze? It’s got to be Macbeth. It’s not always that easy to tell the kings from the history plays apart, but there’s no mistaking the three witches.”

The HSBC Shakespeare portraits, both produced long after his death, do nothing to end or prolong speculation about his identity. But the ongoing interest in them shows the power of Shakespeare’s plays to charm and challenge, and underlines his claim to be one of the UK’s greatest exports. Now that is a birthday worth celebrating.

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