“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” – it must be the most famous line Keats ever wrote. At least it is if you watched British television during the 1980s when Mr Kipling used the opening line of the consumptive young poet’s Ode to Autumn to flog his cakes. I thought of good old Mr Kipling the other day when I drove past an advertising hoarding for Alfa Romeo. The Italian carmaker has borrowed from Shakespeare to burnish the image of its doubtless exceedingly good motor vehicles. “I am Giulietta. And I am such stuff as dreams are made on.”
A big claim.
Once upon a time in the 1930s Alfa did have a reputation, and when I was at university half a century later I was intrigued by a young German aristocrat of an old family who drove an Alfa Giulietta, but on balance I was more taken by his buckle-over “monk” shoes (although there was little that was monastic about his behaviour). Anyway, dredging the patchy store of Shakespearean lore that remains from my undergraduate years – I was a not a diligent student – I seem to recall that Louis MacNeice wrote an otherwise marvellously insightful essay on The Tempest that neglected the car-dealing aspects of the play. Even if I am imagining MacNeice’s essay, I feel I am on reasonably firm ground when I say that it is unlikely that Prospero was flogging a lovely little motor, any more than Keats sat down to write his Ode to Autumn with the intention of unloading pies.
As I have said, I am by no means a Shakespearean scholar, but I did heave the collected works off my bookshelf, blow off a decade of dust and read the Alfa slogan in its context and as far as I can tell it is a meditation on the futility of human existence and, sorry to have to break it you Alfa Romeo, the complete inconsequentiality of life on earth. There is plenty of stuff about how the “the cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself”, and more or less anything else you can think of , presumably including car showrooms, “shall dissolve”. And although Alfa Romeo drivers are not singled out specifically, the entire sweep of humanity is deemed so unimportant and fleeting that we might as well be dreams. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” intones Prospero, “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Then again maybe the literary critics at Alfa Romeo are onto something. It might be a bit of a stretch but I suppose you could say that Prospero is warning against the perils of nodding off at the wheel. Perhaps Shakespeare intended his shipwrecked sorcerer to enter the canon of car salesmen, which contains some pretty memorable characters: Dennis Price in School for Scoundrels, Mike Reid in EastEnders, and of course the immortal George Cole, whose Arthur Daley is an automotive salesman of Chekhovian depth.
In flicking through my long neglected works of Shakespeare, I came across plenty of evidence to support the thesis that, were he alive today, Shakespeare would be a presenter on Top Gear or perhaps running a successful car sales franchise. For instance, The Two Gentlemen of Verona has a character called Speed. The Merry Wives of Windsor features a Mistress Ford. Clifford in Henry VI (part three) uses the image of a “burning car” when talking of the battle in which he is wounded (much as you and I might describe an event as a car crash). Surely it is clear that when in Troilus and Cressida Aeneas utters the line “I bring a trumpet to awake his car”, he is referring to the salutary effect that a blast on the horn can have on sleepy fellow road users? And what else is King Richard III offering to swap a kingdom for, if not more in the way of horsepower?
However, by far the most compelling piece of evidence in this jigsaw puzzle of literary detective work is the name he gave to his 1613 play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre. I am sure that when Shakespearean experts re-examine the original folios in the light of my discoveries they will find that this play is in fact about an auto accessories salesman named Pericles, Prince of Tyres.
The only slight barrier to this Gone in Sixty Seconds reading of Shakespeare is that Shakespeare did make the mistake of setting one or two of his plays in Venice, where the main roads are flooded – a question that as an Italian motor manufacturer I am sure Alfa Romeo will be able to clear up.