Is the man in this Shakespeare In Love poster supposed to be the Bard of Avon? The usual bloodless likeness–a stoic old head wrapped in a tight Elizabethan collar–has long been iconic, but this piece of Hollywood marketing suggests not only that Shakespeare was once young but that he was human. Is nothing sacred?
Shakespeare has spent a century as cultural spinach; some cultists have even thought his works too sacred to be performed. Yet he was once American pop. In the 19th century, Lawrence W. Levine points out in Highbrow/Lowbrow, the plays appealed to all classes for their melodrama and oratory. Singers, dancers, and comics even appeared between the (often edited) acts. Shake-speare's later capture by the polite classes was a turning point in establishing class-based cultural authority.
The reappearance of a living, breathing Shakespeare suggests the waning of gatekeeper authority. Better, the film–nominated for 13 Oscars–revives a popular view of the man. There was actually a 19th-century melodrama by Robert Penn Smith called Shakespeare In Love. Like the film, it was about a lovestruck youth, and it too invited audiences to perceive him not as an awesome icon but as fully human. After all, love, first learned in a lady's eyes, lives not alone immured in the brain.