These past few months, especially around Academy Awards time, I’ve noticed a number of on-line opinions expressing the idea that the romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love (1998) didn’t deserve its Best Picture Oscar, and that the award that year should have gone instead to Steven Spielberg’s combat film Saving Private Ryan.
Personally, I don’t care which film actually possesses the Academy’s top honor; as I’ve said before, I don’t take the Oscars very seriously. In fact, as an example of sheer filmmaking virtuosity, I would say that another nominee that year — Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which views World War Two combat with a distant and somewhat otherworldly detachment — stands as the most accomplished. And I will concede that Saving Private Ryan is more socially relevant and better directed than Shakespeare in Love, earning Spielberg his directing Oscar that year. But the recent on-line pieces championing Saving Private Ryan leave the impression that Shakespeare in Love is a vacuous period chick flick with pretty costumes and nothing else to recommend it.
For example, on the website Obsessed with Film, an article titled “10 Films That Should Have Won the Best Picture Oscar!” opines that Saving Private Ryan is the also-ran that most deserves to have won and lambastes that year’s champion: “An overstated rom com in period costume, [Shakespeare in Love is] a piece of forgettable fluff.... Both [films] obviously have historically set narratives, but where Shakespeare in Love is an entirely fabricated piece of near nonsense, Ryan bases itself in a lot of fact and builds fiction upon this.” Which film actually deserved the Oscar that year is neither here nor there with me, but I’d like to set down why Shakespeare in Love is an extraordinary achievement and shouldn’t be denigrated in an effort to build up a rival film.
To start, what kind of film is Shakespeare in Love? It’s first and foremost a romantic comedy. What is the story? In 1593, playwright-for-hire Will Shakespeare (Joseph Feinnes), leading a hardscrabble life in Elizabethan London, accepts a commission to write a comedic play to be titled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter,” but Will has trouble both writing the play and casting the part of Romeo. Attending the audition is Viola de Lessips (Gwyneth Paltrow), the poetry-obsessed daughter of a wealthy merchant. Because Elizabethan law prohibits women from acting on stage, Viola disguises herself as a young man named “Thomas Kent.” Following “Thomas” to the de Lessips estate, Will spies an out-of-disguise Viola at a party and falls in love with her. With Viola inspiring him, Will writes more easily. Her parents out of town, Viola is able to regularly disguise herself as “Thomas” and accept the role of Romeo. During the rehearsals for his new play, Will discovers that “Thomas” is actually Viola, and they begin an affair, which influences the writing of the play. Meanwhile, Viola’s father arranges to have her married to the disagreeable and humorless Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), who plans to move with Viola to the New World. As he writes, Will transforms his comic play into the tragedy Romeo and Juliet. However, “Thomas” is eventually revealed to be a woman, and Viola is cast out of the play, with Will assuming the role of Romeo. But when something happens to the boy actor playing Juliet, Viola is able to take his place at the last second. By performing the roles of Romeo and Juliet together, Will and Viola’s love reaches its apotheosis. After the performance, Viola is forced to sail away to America with Lord Wessex, but Will still uses his memory of her as his muse.
Shakespeare in Love draws upon the life of the world’s most celebrated playwright, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), but it’s not a bio-pic; the film takes too many liberties with the historical record. For example, the story is premised on the idea that the Bard first staged his great tragedy Romeo and Juliet in 1593. But this would have been impossible because an epidemic of the bubonic plague shut down London’s theatres from late 1592 to early 1594. During this time, Shakespeare supported himself by writing his epic poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Shakespeare in Love brings up the historical fact of the plague closing down the theatres but quickly discards it. So, why is the film set in 1593? Read on.
Also historically inaccurate is the film’s portrayal of burgeoning playwright Will Shakespeare as living in the shadow of his more successful rival (and friend) Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593 — played in the movie by Rupert Everett). The film coaxes laughs from the audience when the financier Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) is unimpressed with Shakespeare being the author of penny-pinching impresario Philip Henslowe’s (Geoffrey Rush) new play or when actor Edward Alleyn (Ben Affleck) rattles off the roles he portrayed in plays by Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, and only includes his role in a Shakespeare play as an afterthought. This doesn’t faithfully represent Shakespeare’s standing at the time. While Marlowe was indeed the most renowned Elizabethan playwright, the Shakespeare history play we now know as Henry VI, Part 2, written circa 1591, was a huge hit spawning a sequel (Henry VI, Part 3), a prequel (Henry VI, Part 1), and a followup (Richard III). The play’s success established the historical Shakespeare as a pre-eminent poet of the London stage, so much so that it inspired Marlowe to try his hand at his own history play, Edward II. Alleyn listing his role as Henry VI only as an afterthought is as whimsical as a present-day actor listing his role in Star Wars only as an afterthought.
Why, again, is Shakespeare in Love set in 1593 and not a more historically accurate year? Because that is the year that the historical Marlowe was killed under mysterious circumstances in a small house on the London riverside. The film uses Marlowe’s death as a turning point in its story, as the death of the historical Marlowe was no doubt a turning point in Shakespeare’s professional life — and perhaps his personal life as well.
Another of the film’s unhistorical fabrications is the portrayal of the story of Romeo and Juliet as a product entirely from Shakespeare’s imagination (with some input from Marlowe). But the story of the star-crossed lovers who ultimately take their own lives, he by self-administered poison and she by a self-inflicted dagger, had been told before in the novella Giulietta e Romeo (1530) by Luigi da Porto, which seems to draw on even earlier narrative traditions. Of his 38 plays, almost all of Shakespeare’s story lines are adaptations of a known earlier source (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Tempest are the only exceptions). So, the idea that Shakespeare came up with the entire plot of his great romantic tragedy by drawing upon his own life fools with the known facts.
Not a historically faithful film biography, Shakespeare in Love is instead a fanciful meditation on how the great love story Romeo and Juliet might have been inspired by another great love story. In imagining this, the film maintains a delicate balance between satire and drama, between hilarity and sorrow, that any high-wire act would envy. The dazzling screenplay is credited to Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. The American screenwriter Norman came up with the idea for the story, but his original script, I understand, was given a page-one rewrite by Stoppard, the celebrated British playwright. Best known for his absurdist plays like The Real Inspector Hound (1968) and Travesties (1974), Stoppard is arguably the most renowned playwright working today and a Shakespeare authority to boot, as attested by his revisionist version of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966, filmed by Stoppard in 1990). Shakespeare in Love is perhaps Stoppard’s most accessible work.
Refuting the Obsessed with Film critic’s assertion that “Shakespeare in Love is an entirely fabricated piece of near nonsense,” the film’s story freely mixes historical characters with fictional ones. The non-fictional characters include not only Shakespeare and Marlowe, but also Henslowe (c. 1550-1616), Alleyn (1566-1626), star actor Richard Burbage (1568-1619), Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Master of the Revels Edmund Tylney (1536-1610), and playwright-to-be John Webster (c. 1580-c. 1634). The film places these historical figures and their historical enterprises in an otherwise fictional milieu in order to give its imaginative vision of Elizabethan London some real-world weight, as the fictional world supposes an idealistic love story behind the creation of a real-world dramatic text. The fictional realm of Romeo and Juliet may not have a comparable non-fictional love story behind its writing, but wouldn’t the non-fictional world be an absolutely magical place if it did?
In fact, the liberties that Shakespeare in Love takes with the historical record can be appreciated in light of that very history. (To distinguish the film’s title character from the historical figure, I’ll call the former Will and the latter Shakespeare.) As the film establishes, Shakespeare, while living in London, had a wife, Anne Hathaway (c. 1555-1623), and three children who lived a two-days’ ride away from him in his native Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. Did Shakespeare have extramarital affairs in London? It seems likely that he did, especially if Shakespeare’s sonnets 127-152 — which refer to an inamorata commonly known as the “Dark Lady” — are autobiographical, as most scholars think they are. When the historical Shakespeare died, he famously willed his wife their “second-best bed,” and many scholars take this as a sign that the Bard didn’t really love her. Supporting this hypothesis is the fact that Anne, nine years older than her husband, was pregnant with their first child when she and Shakespeare were wed. This suggests that Shakespeare’s marriage was based on circumstance and not romance. So, if the playwright had a great love who inspired the writing of Romeo and Juliet, she plausibly would not be the wife of his shotgun marriage, nor would she be the ambivalent figure of the unfaithful Dark Lady. For such a woman to exist in the modern imagination, fiction would need to invent her.
For this purpose, Shakespeare in Love creates the character of Viola de Lesseps. What makes her worthy of inspiring both the Bard’s affections and the writing of his great romantic tragedy? She’s daring enough to break an obsolescent law. Until 1629, women were not allowed to appear on the English stage. All of the female characters that Shakespeare wrote were originally played by young boys costumed as girls and women. This is the law that Viola violates, a law at odds with our contemporary inclination for greater gender equality. By disguising herself as a young man, one named “Thomas Kent” (whose name is perhaps a tribute to another fictional character with an alter ego named “Kent”), Viola is able to claim a space on the stage, ironically inverting the Elizabethan theatre’s tradition of gender disguise. In taking such a bold step for her time, Viola establishes herself as a gutsy leading lady worthy of the greatest poet in the English language. And the film takes on political overtones by raising a social issue — women’s equality — however uncontroversial that social issue might be to a present-day audience.
Shakespeare in Love also touches upon another form of inequality during the Elizabethan era, but very obliquely. The character of Dr. Moth (Antony Sher), a psychoanalyst avant la lettre, has the function of establishing exposition by having Will talk about his problem (his inability to write) and his backstory. This scene near the beginning of the film is the only one to include Dr. Moth, who is jettisoned by the story as soon as he has fulfilled his narrative task. What makes this scene so humorous is Dr. Moth hitting upon some of the ideas of Freudian psychoanalysis 300 years before Sigmund Freud. And the film redoubles the humor by coding Dr. Moth as Jewish, since contemporary psychiatry is perceived to be a profession in which Jewish people are prevalent. The scene is more of an anachronistic ribbing of today’s mental-health practices than it is a glimpse into the activities of the Elizabethans. But the scene is anachronistic in another way: in 1290, for unknown reasons, all Jews were expelled from England and would not be readmitted until 1655. Any ethnic Jews who lived in Protestant England during this time were not allowed to live openly as religious Jews. In coding Dr. Moth as Jewish, Shakespeare in Love comically satirizes contemporary psychiatry (as well as evoking the character of Shylock from the Shakespeare play The Merchant of Venice), but it also elliptically reminds its audience of the troubling history of British anti-Semitism.
Another quasi-anachronism is the film’s portrayal of the Elizabethan theatre business as a precursor of today’s entertainment industry. The opening scene — where Fennyman threatens Henslowe’s well-being unless he repays his debts, and Henslowe saves his skin by making Fennyman a partner in his next play — accurately reflects the sometimes cutthroat business practices of the era (as it ups the stakes for the success of Will’s play). But Fennyman’s idea of “paying” the actors and the author with a “share of the profits” — with the full knowledge that any profits can be hidden by creative accounting, thus leaving the talent unpaid — reflects the current practices of today’s entertainment industry. Contemporary show biz is evoked once more in a hilarious exchange between Will and Henslowe. With the curtain ready to rise on Romeo and Juliet and with problem after problem building up backstage, Henslowe says to an exasperated Will, “The show must, you know...” “Go on!” Will impatiently interjects, evoking the present-day theatrical aphorism long before it was coined.
But Shakespeare in Love’s greatest asset is its solidly structured and supremely witty screenplay, which deftly draws upon the Bard’s own writing and whose dialogue strikes a very happy medium between Elizabethan diction and contemporary turns of phrase. But when the film evokes Shakespeare’s writing, it’s not as something untouchable and hermetically sealed. In the scene where Will and Viola-as-Thomas are being rowed across the Thames by a boatman, and “Thomas” gives Will a letter from Viola saying that she reluctantly can’t be with him, Will expresses his anguish to his unrecognized love with a lyrical lament: “Oh, Thomas! She has cut my strings! I am unmanned, unmended, and unmade, like a puppet in a box.” But this poetic bit of dialogue is instantly and humorously undercut when the droll boatman asks regarding Will, “Writer, is he?”
The cleverly constructed script for Shakespeare in Love credibly establishes the conceit of Will needing a muse and Viola passing herself off as a young man — so much so that her unconvincing disguise isn’t usually regarded as a flaw in the film because the story flows so effortlessly around it. The movie’s storyline fits its scenes snugly together as though they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Seen from a distance, the film’s climax — where Viola goes on stage as a last-minute replacement for Juliet — might seem highly improbable, but Stoppard’s script has aligned all of its story-telling stars to make this turn of events appear both logical and desirable. The climax announces itself when moments before Romeo and Juliet is to begin, Viola in the playhouse audience overhears Henslowe saying that the play has lost its female lead. Recognizing Viola, Henslowe asks her if she knows Juliet’s lines. And Viola’s response comes as a rush of narrative inevitability: “Every word.”
Even the film’s ending — where a disguised Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) in the theatre audience reveals herself and ties up the story’s loose ends — risks becoming a contrived deus ex machina resolution. However, the movie has established Elizabeth as knowledgeable of the goings-on in her kingdom, so the moment doesn’t feel false. Also, although Elizabeth is able to bring the film to a tidy conclusion, there is one story strand that she can’t resolve satisfactorily: she can’t undo Viola’s marriage to Wessex. In the end, Will and Viola must part and be separated by an ocean. Had Elizabeth been able to bring Will and Viola together, perhaps her function as the story’s sudden wrapper-upper would have seemed like too much of a contrivance. But because she is unable to bring the movie to a happy boy-gets-girl ending, the audience buys the conceit.
Finally, there’s one fact that disproves the Obsessed with Film critic’s pronouncement of Shakespeare in Love as “a forgettable piece of fluff”: in most of the screenwriting books that I have recently read, the movie is cited alongside such titles as Casablanca (1943) and Chinatown (1974) as an example of the well-crafted screenplay with an air-tight story. Another tribute to the script is the fact that I — an unabashed auteurist — have made it this far into my essay without mentioning Shakespeare in Love’s director: the workman-like John Madden, who wisely gets out of the screenplay’s way and doesn’t feel the need to embellish it with cinematic flourishes.
To return again to the Obsessed with Film critic’s praise for Spielberg’s combat film: “Ryan bases itself in a lot of fact and builds fiction upon this.” But this could also be said of Shakespeare in Love, which takes some intriguing strands of historical fact — the dog-eat-dog nature of the Elizabethan theatre, the way it was performed, the lot of women in Renaissance England, the law against actresses, Shakespeare’s respectful rivalry with Marlowe — and skillfully weaves them into an inventive imagining of how the world’s greatest love story might have been born of another. Did Shakespeare in Love deserve its Best Picture Oscar? The question is irrelevant because cinematic ingenuity can’t be measured by golden statuettes. The film’s finely crafted script and the superb performances by the actors stand on their own and need no award to vindicate them. Contrary to what its detractors say, Shakespeare in Love endures as an impressive accomplishment, a new classic of the romantic comedy.
Trailer for Shakespeare in Love