The 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love, was both a critical and popular success, and one somewhat recapturing the tone and spirit of the madcap Hollywood romances of the 1940s. The film is beautifully produced and visually stunning, as it offers excellent performances and a lively, highly intelligent screenplay.
The entirety of the movie, in fact, presents something not often perceived in modern film: a kind of consistent pleasure, if not joy, as demonstrated by all involved with the production. That the brilliant playwright Tom Stoppard, working with Marc Norman, wrote the script is no small component of this reality; directors and actors alike very much commit themselves more fully when the material is strong, and the writing here, again, is masterful, witty, and engaging. Therein lies the great irony of Shakespeare in Love, in that the excellence of the screenplay both reflects at least a measure of Shakespearean quality, even as it almost gleefully massacres the historical truth of the title character. Certain aspects of Shakespeare’s life and career are somewhat accurate; far more are thrown away to enhance the fairy-tale romance of the story. Typical of Stoppard, in fact, what is evident here is a lively and captivating “take” on a Shakespearean comedy itself, full of improbability, gender disguise, and inaccuracies. It is a bold effort, and it succeeds precisely because the writers are so familiar with the rules, they are entitled to break them. As hopelessly skewed as Shakespeare in Love is in terms of historical reality, its triumph lies in the likelihood that the master himself, so comically misrepresented, would applaud its spirit and charm.
Before the content, performances, scenes, and story of the film are discussed, attention must be given to the seamlessness of presentation director John Madden achieves. It is, like the film itself, somewhat daring; it seeks to simultaneously offer the messy reality of Elizabethan life while glamorizing it. There is a consistent earthiness in everything presented, which is glowingly offered in the lush cinematography. Costumes are rich and complex, and seemingly true to Elizabethan design; at the same time, every button, tie, and boot reveals the mechanics necessary to be so dressed. The lighting is romantic and, usually, golden in tone, while the muddy streets of London splatter filth on the frenetic characters. This is a highly stylized image of the place and era that also conveys the sloppiness of even a great city of the period.
Moreover, another quality infuses virtually every scene, in that there is a powerful sense of human physicality filling the screen. This physicality is always sensual, if not always sexual, and this is exactly the visual atmosphere needed to set the viewer into the fabricated and authentic world. Put another way, it seems that Madden and his team are determined, and in a “Shakespearean” way, to emphasize above all the human in their story. Moments are held when hands reach out to take one another, and it is the actual flesh that is perceived. When characters engage in passionate dialogue, they are so near to one another that the audience may almost smell their breath, as in the boat scene between Shakespeare and Viola. In every scene of the film, there is an inescapable dimension and richness of texture. It may be supposed that Madden (and Stoppard and Norman) were committed to breathing human life into what may otherwise have been taken as “costume” comedy/romance.
Then, a more removed digression is called for before evaluating the film as a film, simply because it goes to the fabric of the movie itself: the reality of the story. In a very real sense, Shakespeare in Love is about many things, but William Shakespeare is not one of them. Were the film not a romantic comedy, in fact, this treatment of the man would be almost unconscionable; how often are important historical figures, after all, so wildly taken away from established truth? This rampant strategy is, moreover, inconsistent. Certain realities are adhered to, as in the writing of Romeo and Juliet, Elizabeth’s favor of Shakespeare’s work, and – perhaps most significantly – the actual trajectory of Shakespeare’s career, in terms of the importance of admission to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Everything else, however, is conjecture or outright fantasy, given the substantial information known regarding the playwright. That the Shakespeare of the film is conveniently locked within an unhappy marriage, for instance, defies a great deal of reasonable thinking, just as the desperate circumstances of this young Shakespeare do not conform to the actual pace of his career. It is even more improbable that Shakespeare and Marlowe enjoyed such a friendly rivalry, or even had any sort of relationship at all.
All of this then begs the question: why not simply fabricate a story using an unknown playwright of the era? The answer, of course, lies with the writers’ agenda. Shakespeare is not merely “a” playwright of the time; he is the preeminent master, and essentially the iconic representation of the greatest literary artist. This is what was needed, in order to explore – and have a great deal of Shakespearean fun with – the basics of human romance and interaction. The actual man provides a lens, or instrument, unlike any other by virtue of his status. That other principle characters, and most notably Viola, are wholly fictitious only reinforces the integrity of this strategy. The point is not to present a different interpretation of Shakespeare’s life, but rather to employ his legendary presence as the unique entity it is. This is Shakespeare, not the man, but the myth, which is not incidentally linked to his repute as the finest poet in the English language, and consequently the artist most skilled at investigating love. No other character, real or fictional, could fill this role, and this may indicate something of a message from the film. Simply, human nature is such that even the greatest “experts” of it – and the psychological brilliance of Shakespeare is rarely disputed – are as subject to the confusions and messes of the heart as any ordinary person. This is also, not unexpectedly, a message that is timeless. More to the point, and with no equivocation, Madden and the writers in no way abuse Shakespeare the man, because they simply and effectively use him only as a human shell for the essence of romantic art.
These twin elements of production and dubious authenticity, then, directly influence the experience of the film. They also play off one another masterfully, and it is tempting to once again credit the talent of Stoppard for this, even as Madden’s direction enhances each scene in the script. The writing reveals its boldness, as well as its awareness of historical truth, in the scene when Viola is presented to Elizabeth. Here, too, performances mirror the intent and quality of the other components. Judi Dench’s Elizabeth, for example, is both a stunning recreation of the actual monarch and a departure from her, which in turn reflects the playfulness used in regard to Shakespeare. Elizabeth was angular and thin; Dench is portly. This is important only because it emphasizes the greater truth to be presented, which is that of character. Whether the audience knows that the real Elizabeth was, in fact, precisely this authoritative and majestic is beside the point; she is all of that in Dench, so the historical truth works with the portrayal required by the scene. This scene is extraordinary in a number of ways, in fact, all of which are in evidence throughout the film. There is, for instance, a sense of the atmosphere of the court that fully conveys – and without words – the enormity of the experience of being presented. In this world, the queen is absolutely central, and in social influences as well as political. Woven into the dialogue between Viola and Elizabeth, then, is a critical understanding: plays are important to the queen, so they have immense importance in this culture.
Then, the device of the gambit is critical in providing momentum and structure to the film, and that the challenge occurs within this presentation scene amplifies the tension. In a remarkably subtle way, the writers are conveying that seeking the truth of love is not only a concern for individuals, but to the actual state. This is a challenge of great complexity, in that it also acknowledges the Elizabethan zeal to employ intellect in regard to matters of the heart. Very simply, everything is at stake in this exchange, from the queen’s sense of correct order and majesty to Viola’s visceral appreciation of love as paramount to existence. The sparse wit of the dialogue underscores the power through understatement. On one level, certainly, there is an element of the preposterous in the scene; it hardly seems likely that Elizabeth would so give so formal a recognition to a challenge so ephemeral, or subjective. This, however, is why the scene succeeds. More exactly, in blending the fantastic with the real, the film carries consistently on in its fusion of the pragmatic and the ideal. In every scene, Shakespeare in Love skillfully marries reality and the unreal, and it does this with the same confidence it gives to Viola, in the importance of pursuing the meaning of love.
It is tempting here, as it is elsewhere in the film, to unfavorably assess Paltrow’s performance.
She is invariably “breathy,” always seeming to be on the edge of an emotional episode of no small proportion. This quality is, of course, more striking when opposed to Dench’s cool, clipped austerity, and it may seem to weaken the character. In fairness to Paltrow, however, Viola, like Shakespeare himself, is never intended to be fully “real”; she is as representational of womanly desire and tenderness as he is of brilliance and passionate spirit. The performance takes risks, in fact, because it must, just as Fiennes’s Shakespeare may be accused of a relentless, and improbable, passion of expression. It is not precisely the writing that demands this hyperbole from each character, but the essences of the characters themselves. As Viola and Shakespeare are perpetually on the brink of danger and love, they each present their moments as “breathlessly” tense. The symbolism is strong and apparent, too. That is, Viola is the female seeker of love, who desperately requires it even as she alone can give it fulfillment; Shakespeare is the masculine provider of love, yet as needful as Viola of its acquisition. This is not, however, denigrating in terms of how the characters are written or, in fact, performed. Men and women are unique beings, yet they are symbolic as well when their actions are viewed by others, a fact taken to brilliant heights by the real Shakespeare. Consequently, the effusion of the performances, like the perpetual tension of the characters, is all of a piece.
Not unexpectedly, what rescues all of this from the severe dangers of romantic excess is the humor carefully built into the script. There is a balance here throughout the film that is absolutely essential, and no stronger evidence of it may be seen than in the conversation on the water between Shakespeare and “Thomas,” or Viola in disguise. It is, first and foremost, a risky business to attempt to imitate actual Shakespearean poetry in dialogue. It is reasonable to suppose that Stoppard makes this artistic leap, as early in his career he did the same, to stunning effect, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. If this is indeed the case, Stoppard here trusts to what has served him well before, which is a combination of brief phrases that echo Shakespearean cadence and sharp dashes of humor. There is also a kind of musicality to the dialogue, adding to the dreaminess of the scene played out on the water. The exchanges are quick, reflecting the rapid talk – and growing tension – that marks so many Shakespearean scenes. Point is immediately struck by counterpoint, and the scene expands in meaning with each response. “Thomas” begins a list of questions regarding the appeal of Shakespeare’s beloved, and the replies are both terse and exquisitely phrased, employing the conventions of roses and songbirds often found in Shakespearean romantic discourse. As quickly paced as this is, it would descend into bathos were it not for the perfectly timed infusion of stark humor. Viola’s eyes, lips, and voice are rhapsodized, and then “Thomas” bluntly asks about her breasts. Suddenly, the real force of a woman’s less than idealized concerns deflates the poetry and brings the scene joyously back down to earth. The poetry, however, has not vanished. It remains with the audience, given greater integrity through the injection of hard, and funny, reality. Another masterstroke of humor comes near the end, as Elizabeth exits the playhouse. Toying with the legendary laying down of his cloak by Raleigh, Dench impatiently dismisses the clumsy attempt and splashes forward through the muck. It is difficult to recall a scene in any modern film that so perfectly captures a film’s entire spirit of irreverence mixed with authentic respect, and in so genuinely witty a way.
Shakespeare in Love succeeds as a film because, beyond anything else, it does what a fine film must: it adheres to its own purpose and evinces confidence in every phase of its execution.
Set, costumes, performances, direction, and writing do not compete; they each amplify the integrity of the others and work to create a perfect whole. This in itself generates a conundrum, in that any such movie should be a “great” film. It is not. It is not, however, because there is no aspiration to greatness in it. It happily settles for being an exceptionally accomplished, “good” film which – ironically – allows it a greatness all its own.
It may be argued that Shakespeare in Love is not so much a film as an extended gimmick. It takes a single conceit and tosses it back and forth, mocking obsession with love as eagerly as it pays tribute to it. Love, here, is a great platform for foolishness and misadventure, even as the film shamelessly exploits the presence of the greatest poet of it. It must be countered, however, that an oblique approach to the subject of love is likely the best of all avenues to take, given the gravity of the subject. As the real Shakespeare knew very well, this ultimate concern of humanity must be tempered by irony and humor, or the audience is washed away by excess of sentiment. Then, the movie by no means ignores elements crucial to any good film. It is beautifully paced, careening along at a rhythm that matches the exuberant physicality of the earthy era. It creates pockets of suspense, and it does not dismiss actual, period concerns in the process; for instance, the determination of the aristocrat Wessex to marry into money is a valid statement regarding the culture of the day, just as the theaters were always in danger of being shut down as houses of immorality. If there is a gimmick underlying Shakespeare in Love, then, it is only that of honoring the legacy of the greatest of all playwrights, in constructing a rich, elaborate, witty, and romantic comedy.