It is a sincere tribute to the lasting power of Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) that I found myself thinking about its argument as I recently watched X-Men: Days of Future Past. I had just read that one of the film’s stars, Michael Fassbender, has been cast as Macbeth in a new film adaptation of the play. What is notable about that casting is not so much the choice of Fassbender, who is an actor of unusual range, mixing with ease both Old World sophistication and earthy physicality, but the fact that this casting completes a set: as the notice observed, now each of the four principals of X-Men: DOFP—Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, and Fassbender—will have played the role of the Scottish usurper.
The connection I drew to Levine’s book was in thinking about how Levine might have fit this little nugget into his book’s thesis about the transformation of Shakespeare within the context of the late nineteenth century “search for order” in the US:
The problem that requires thoughtful attention is not why Shakespeare disappeared from American culture at the turn of the century, since he did not; but rather why he was transformed from a playwright for the general public into one for a specific audience. This metamorphosis of Shakespearean drama from popular culture to polite culture, from entertainment to erudition, from the property of “Everyman” to the possession of a more elite circle, needs to be seen within the perspective of other transformations that took place in nineteenth-century America. (56)
I have never been entirely convinced that this expropriation of Shakespeare by a cultural elite ever entirely took place, and the way Levine uses Shakespeare as an index for a more general stratification of culture has some issues, but I think the thesis is particularly questionable today, when the casts of prominent Shakespearean adaptations and blockbuster Hollywood extravaganzas are indistinguishable.
Consider, for instance, some of the principal actors of The Hollow Crown,a recent, acclaimed BBC miniseries adaptation of the Henriad (Richard II; Henry IV Parts I and II; Henry V; Henry VI Parts I, II, and III; and Richard III), along with their superhero credits:
- Ben Whishaw (the new Q in Skyfall)
- Jeremy Irons (the new Alfred in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice)
- Tom Hiddleston (Loki in The Avengers and Thor films)
- Clémence Poesy (Fleur in the Harry Potter films)
- Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier in the X-Men films, formerly Jean-Luc Picard)
- Benedict Cumberbatch (KHAN!!!! in the last Star Trek—sorry, spoiler)
- Judi Dench (the former M in the James Bond franchise)
- John Hurt (Harry Potter films, Hellboy II, the last Indiana Jones)
- Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter films)
As one can see, one of the principal vectors in turning the casts of Shakespeare into the casts of superhero films (and back again) has been the Harry Potter franchise—one can add Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh among many others to the list.
I suppose it is possible to see this phenomenon as a more general Anglicization of the American blockbuster rather than a Shakespeareanization, but I would press the Shakespeare angle. It is, after all, a specific form of Englishness (or what decodes on this side of the Atlantic as Englishness, even if its origins might be more variously Scottish, Welsh, or Irish in addition to English) that is demanded, one that has been credentialed with the gravitas and eloquence that is the classically Shakespearean actor’s stock-in-trade. It is really ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Superhero’ that are merging, not ‘England’ and ‘Blockbuster.’
But what does this say about Levine’s thesis? Are we witnessing some kind of epochal re-suturing of high and low culture, one that is occurring far less self-consciously and less combatively than the marriage postmodernism attempted to consummate? Is what Levine called “a shared public culture” re-emerging, and is this trend evidence of a more general re-appropriation by the masses of high culture, one that might next extend to, say, Samuel Beckett? Given that McKellen and Stewart recently performed as Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, would it have been more appropriate to call the latest X-Men film Waiting for Wolverine?
I’m having a laugh, obviously, but my question is serious. Was Levine right and would he see these Shakespeareans running around in spandex as a victory over the years of a purely academic Shakespeare? Or does this merger of Shakespeare and the superhero genre merely suggest that the theses of Levine and others about the intense stratification of culture across the twentieth-century US were overblown, warped by the pressures and heat of the culture wars, where decrying (and historicizing) the expropriation of Shakespeare by the wealthy and well-educated was a good way to pull the rhetorical rug out from under Lynne Cheney and E. D. Hirsch nattering on about declining standards of cultural literacy or Allan Bloom about aesthetic and moral sense? “See? You did this to yourselves by destroying a truly democratic appreciation of Shakespeare.”
Or is it possible that Levine’s larger argument—and variations on it, revelations of the utter historical artificiality of the “natural” divide between high and popular culture—has succeeded wildly? Even if such boundary crossings between cultural strata have long occurred (despite Levine’s thesis), is it possible that thanks to Levine and others, we are simply no longer defensive about a culture that casts the same actor for Macbeth and Magneto, no longer even very conscious of a conflict there?
 Branagh also directed the first Thor film.
 Game of Thrones to the contrary. There are relatively few actors with prominent Shakespearean backgrounds in the series.