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The New Shakespeare Coins and the Grateful Dead's Skull and Roses

Hungarians used to have the poets Sándor Petőfi and Endre Ady on the their money, and, before they switched to the Euro, the Irish had Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce. The Scots have put Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott on their pounds, and Jane Austen graces the British £10 note. My fellow Americans, let's replace the Indian killer Andrew Jackson with Emily Dickinson on the $20.

Image from Coin World.
The Brits now have three different £2 coins to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's (physical) death: one for tragedies, one for histories, and one for comedies (as in the First Folio, the comedies presumably include the romances). The history coin's design may allude to Richard II's "hollow crown" speech (3.2.151-66), in which he imagines death as a king, holding court inside the English crown. That scene is too busy for a coin, and a dagger in a crown perfectly captures the spirit of the passage and the plays. The tragedy coin probably also alludes to specific plays, to Hamlet staring at Yorick's skull (5.1), and to Juliet wishing Romeo weren't named Montague: "That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet" (2.1.85-86).

The comedy coin, a jester's cap and marotte, shows a lack of imagination. Two comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, have jesters but so does King Lear; and if the design was meant to signify that the comedies are funny, well, so is Hamlet. Shouldn't the coin have alluded to the plays' great subject, to love that must be seized while we're young? A better design would have been the tragedy coin's skull and rose, which conjures the comedies' carpe diem theme. Specifically, it conjures the carpe florem and, even more specifically, carpe rosam metaphor that we find in Twelfth Night when Duke Orsino tells Viola, "[W]omen are as roses, whose fair flower / Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour." The disguised, love-tortured Viola agrees: "And so they are: alas, that they are so; / To die, even when they to perfection grow" (2.4.37-40). You can gripe about the sexism of this, but Orsino and Viola's observation applies equally to young men. We're only young once, and if we miss our chance at love, we won't get another. As Feste says, or rather sings, "Youth's a stuff will not endure" (2.3.48).

E. J. Sullivan's illustration for
quatrain LXIII of the 1859 edition of
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
Image from Dark Star Palace.
We find the same sentiments in Edward FitzGerald's translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies. 
The fin-de-siècle artist E. J. Sullivan illustrated this quatrain with a skeleton-and-roses design that's familiar to more people in Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse's colored version, which was used for a concert poster and then for the Dead's glorious 1971 live album. In its version as a band logo, it closely resembles the new Shakespeare tragedy coin, which should please British Dead Heads.


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