Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Brush Up Your Shakespeare: Performance Anxieties in Shakespeare in Love

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Brush Up Your Shakespeare: Performance Anxieties in Shakespeare in Love

Article excerpt

I would stay asleep my whole life if I could dream myself into a company of players.

WITH THESE WORDS, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) pierces the heart of the matter of desire in John Madden's Shakespeare in Love (1998). For Viola's story, unlike that of Shakespeare's Juliet, is not a tale of romantic love. Although she yearns for "a love that overthrows life," Viola takes up a structure of desire, which is less transcendent but perhaps more interesting. Shunning Juliet's excellent example, Viola does not run from Queen Elizabeth's (Judi Denen) final edict, embrace Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), and act out a bloody suicide pact. Nor does her apotheosis as the melancholic Will's desert island Muse negate her desires or the meaning of her actions when seen as a whole. The structure of desire, which is the ambition and achievement of the energetic Viola, is a love that does not "overthrow life," but inverts it. It is a love found in the liminal space of the Elizabethan theater and in the poetry and adventures of Shakespeare's plays (Cartelli 30). It is the desire of the player, a longing aptly described by Germaine Greer's reading of Shakespeare's own concept of character: "One of the ways of freeing the spirit from the trammels of its earthly role is to replace the fleshy mask with another, the mask of art, which more faithfully portrays the soul beneath" (42). It is within the actor's "mask of art," the player's longing to perform, that we may locate desire in Shakespeare in Love. Viola expresses this when she complains to her nurse (lmelda Staunton): "All the men at court are without poetry. If they see me, they see my father's fortune. I will have poetry in my life, and adventure, and love-love above all."

In her "lover's complaint" we grasp the extremity of Viola's desire and something of the social restraints imposed on her. Her nouveau nobility, and the inevitable loveless match it promises, shows Viola to be the character most in need of the player's art. But she is not alone. Classical narrative representations of masculinity are not ignored in Shakespeare in Love, and the film does not hide the fact that it is this desire to perform, or to furnish such a performance, and not Viola herself, that lies at the center of Will Shakespeare's melancholy. Fennymen (Tom Wilkinson), Henslowe's tailor, Wabash (Mark Williams), and even the market place Puritan, Makepeace (Steven Beard), are all engulfed in a love that is, above all, the desire of the film's audience. Forthe audience, this desire is enflamed by the film's backstage antics, by a vicarious experience of the pleasures of collective creativity, poetry, and performance, pleasures that touch some part of all cinema- and theatergoers, from the most brazen Miss Worthingtons to the most inconspicuous spectator-mice.

This article reveals the way Shakespeare in Love represents the desire to perform-a desire the film stimulates and instills in its audience.

This performance desire is a longing for release from the cares of everyday life; it is a structure of desire, located beyond traditional notions of romantic love, seeking no end other than its own performative frisson. The representation of performance desire in Shakespeare in Love is contextualized here in two ways: first, within a cultural history of the late Elizabethan debate over the theater, acting, and performance and their wider ideological consequences; second, in relation to a reading based on Julia Kristeva's notions of courtly love as an expression of joy, celebrating its own performance.

"Are you going to do it like that, Darling ?"

In its picture of backstage life and the theatrical creative process, Shakespeare in Love falls within a longtradition of comedies, including recent examples such as A Chorus of Disapproval (1988), A Midwinter's Tale (1995), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Topsy-Turvy (1999), and Moulin Rouge (2001). Central to this subgenre is a level of reflexivity that goes well beyond its play-within-a-film subject matter. …

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