Shakespeare in Love

By Dykstal, Timothy | National Forum, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Shakespeare in Love

Dykstal, Timothy, National Forum

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, directed by John Madden, Miramax Films, 1998.

The first stop for many a movie reviewer these days must be a film's official website, and on that for the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love (, we learn that the screenplay for the film began as a simple question. Writer Marc Norman's son, who was studying Elizabethan Drama in school, was talking with his father about Shakespeare when Norman began to wonder just what inspired the young bard to write Romeo and Juliet. Could it have been that Shakespeare himself was madly in love?

There are many reasons to love Shakespeare in Love, not the least of which is that it has made Shakespeare sexy again, but that anecdote about the imaginative concept behind the film also exemplifies the difficulty with loving it unreservedly.

The film begins amusingly, with a perpetual writer's problem. Will Shakespeare, a mildly successful if still budding playwright in the last decade of sixteenth-century London, is having trouble coming up with his next play, a comedy that his producer has given the "high-concept" title Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. While casting about for ideas, he attends a royal performance of one of his earlier successes, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman in the audience who is silently mouthing the dialogue from the play. The woman -- Viola De Lesseps - is rich, and beyond the reach of the common playwright: besides, he happens already to be married. Because of her true admiration for his work, however, she seeks him out and - at a time when only men were allowed on stage (it was thought that female actors would inflame the passions of the audience) - poses as a man to audition for his new play. As Will gradually realizes that this man - Thomas Kent - is really Viola, he falls in love with her, and the play he is writing now titled Romeo and Juliet, of course -- changes from clumsy comedy to sublime tragedy. Things come to a head at the premiere of the play: Lord Wessex, the venal nobleman to whom Viola is betrothed, discovers their affair; Tilney, Queen Elizabeth's Master of the Revels, discovers Thomas's real gender; and both Will and Viola are called to account for their transgressions. But Elizabeth herself appears like a deus ex machina to set things right, or as right as they can be, and applauds the playwright for showing "the very truth and nature about love."

The film mixes fact with generous fiction. Viola and Wessex are fictional creations; Shakespeare may never have been employed by Philip Henslow, the proprietor of the Rose Theatre and landlord of the Lord Admiral's Men; and Twelfth Night did not immediately follow Romeo and Juliet, as the ending of the film implies. The two contemporary likenesses of Shakespeare do not depict a figure nearly as hunkish as Joseph Fiennes, the actor who plays him in the film. Yet what little we do know of the historical Shakespeare almost invites such embellishment. He did leave a wife and children behind in Stratford to ply his trade in London-- that, and a line in his will leaving his wife, Anne Hathaway, his "second-best bed" has led to speculation that the marriage was not a happy one. (When asked about his marriage in the film, Will replies, "Banishment [from that bed] was a blessing.") Besides, the film never purports to tell the truth about Shakespeare's life.

What it does do, however, is advance two potentially misleading propositions about the relationship between life - any life - and art: 1) that writing well agrees with living well - in this case, falling madly in love - and that 2) a work of art such as Romeo and Juliet must find its "inspiration" in the life of its creator. The film thus ends up essentially endorsing the speculation that the real William Shakespeare could not have produced the greatest body of literature in the English language. Surely, the film implies, the historical Shakespeare must have been the stuff of legend, every bit as romantic as Romeo.

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