Love's Labour's Relocated


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.