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The Highbrow/Lowbrow Split

The Highbrow/Lowbrow Split

One of the most influential books on Shakespeare in American life was the work of a history professor well outside his own field of expertise. In the years since its publication, researchers have agreed with, disagreed with, or modified the arguments in Lawrence Levine’s 1988 book Highbrow/Lowbrow, but few have ignored it. The focus of his book was the tension between “lowbrow” and “highbrow” forms of American culture—with Shakespeare’s plays as a prime example.

Until the late 1800s, Levine argued, “lowbrow” working class audiences in America enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays as much as elite or “highbrow” theatergoers—and knew the plays just as well. In his book, he pointed to minstrel shows and other popular entertainments that parodied speeches and characters from Shakespeare. For those acts to be funny, he wrote, the audiences must have known the original plays. Levine also recounted how Shakespeare appeared on stage in the United States in the early to mid-1800s, when the plays often shared the evening with songs, dances, novelty acts, and farces. It was only in the late 1800s, he argued, that Shakespeare became a cultural marker for upper-class audiences and university scholars. Still, the tension between lowbrow and highbrow Shakespeare never entirely disappeared.

Select "Shakespeare and High and Low Culture" from the list at left to read a portion of Levine's 2002 interview with Karen Lyon, managing editor of the Folger Magazine. In their conversation, he talked about highbrow and lowbrow Shakespeare and praised Joe Papp’s free Shakespeare productions, which he himself enjoyed in the 1950s in New York. This portion of the interview is published here in full for the first time. Lawrence Levine died in October 2006.

Levine, Highbrow / Lowbrow. Cambridge, 1988.