Read This Before You Watch “Shakespeare in Love”

For our final week of “Secret Shakespeare: Covert Classics, vol. 1” we’re watching “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), a charming romantic comedy that imagines the setting and circumstances that might have caused Shakespeare to write Romeo & Juliet (1595-97). The story is partly inspired by the plot of that play, but in a backward, art-imitating-life sort of way. This movie gives us a really fun way to finish off this series. It’s Shakespearean qualities are not secret, but they do update his language and ideas in delightful manner that provides us some new ways of thinking about our enduring cultural fascination with the Bard and his work. You’ll have lots of fun recognizing references to many Shakespeare plays in the dialogue, the plot, and even the props.

In the movie, the struggling young playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is a London player, in more ways that one. He spends as much time drinking and chasing women as he does penning his poetry and plays. His genius is emerging but he lacks the inspiration to work on his next play, tentatively titled Romeo & Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. However, his creative spirit soars as he becomes entangled in an impossible love affair with a young noblewoman, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose father has already promised her hand in marriage to another nobleman. A thoroughgoing romantic who loves poetry and the theater, Viola admires Shakespeare’s writing and has always wanted to perform in his plays, despite the prohibition against women appearing on the stage, which was very real at the time.

While this movie might not get every historical detail exactly right, it nails a lot of them and and gives us a wonderful, if romanticized, glimpse into the environment from which Shakespeare’s plays emerged. Elizabethan London really did have muddy streets, packed taverns and brothels, and a number of small, competing theaters, which were periodically closed by decency laws and to stop the spread of the plague.

Shakespeare’s friend Christopher “Kit” Marlowe really was the major playwright of the age. He certainly would have known and inspired Shakespeare, who had been best known as an actor until about the time when this movie is set. In fact, the iambic pentameter dialogue with which Shakespeare has since become identified, was actually an innovation brought to the English stage by Marlowe. Indeed, that dramatic style of writing was originally called “Marlowe’s mighty line.”

We don’t really know why Marlowe was killed. He was entangled in many court intrigues, may have worked as a spy for Queen Elizabeth, did serve some time in the Tower of London, and was dangerously open about his atheism and non-binary sexuality. We don’t know what secret motives might lie behind Marlowe’s mysterious death, but he truly was stabbed in a Debtford tavern brawl, supposedly in an argument over the “reckoning,” as they used to call the check or the bill.

The movie’s joke about actors, playwrights, and producers fighting over the “bill” or the “billing” (whose name comes first and gets printed in larger font) is a good one, and one that Shakespeare would have appreciated. As such, it’s a nice example of how the language and the humor in this film find the perfect balance between feeling authentically Shakespearean and feeling contemporary enough to ensure that we in the audience connect without feeling like we’re working too hard.

Whether you’ve seen this one before or not, you will find lots to love about “Shakespeare in Love.”

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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