Thanks to all of you who joined our five-week exploration of “Secret Shakespeare: Covert Classics, vol. 1.” We’ve seen a nice range of movies, and I hope you’ve managed to learn a fair amount about Shakespeare’s enduring cultural influence. As you’ve discovered, without the frustration of having to actually read much Elizabethan English, the plays of Shakespeare continue to resonate across a wide range of human experience. Even four hundred years later, we still fall in love, struggle with jealousy, compete in social situations that feel stacked against us, and wonder about the meaning of life.
We finished by watching “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), a romantic comedy that takes us back to Shakespeare’s time as it imagines a rather vain and self-centered version of the young playwright trying to make a name for himself in on the London stage. While we can’t really know what compelled him to write Romeo & Juliet, this movie gives us a delightful way to think about how the lives of writers can inspire the work they produce.
The very title, “Shakespeare in Love” immediately alerts us to the primary theme of this film: love. While riffing in humorous ways on the complicated tragedy of Romeo & Juliet, the movie maintains the core conceit of that play. While Will and Viola don’t die at the end of their impossible romance (like Romeo and Juliet do), the implicit suggestion in both the movie and the play is that romantic love must be demonstrated by certain types of behavior. Lovers lose their reason. They must be together as much as possible. They can think of nothing but each other. They swoon and kiss and hold hands. They shower each other in an endless stream of adoring words, both written and spoken.
Not surprisingly, in both Romeo & Juliet and in “Shakespeare in Love,” all these characteristic, romantic behaviors are demonstrated by the couples supposed to be in love. In fact, the movie weaves lines from the original play back and forth between the lovers in the movie and the lovers in the play within the movie. In this way, we can see how life imitates art, which in turn imitates life and inspires art.
But aside from all these intra-relationship ways that we expect people in love to act, the movie (and the play) insist upon one essential fact about love. Namely, that it must be impossible.
During the movie, Will and Wessex wager about whether or not a play can “capture the nature of true love.” Queen Elizabeth witness the bet and later (after seeing the stage debut of Romeo & Juliet) declares that Wessex has lost this bet. For the astronomical sum of fifty pounds, no less. Wessex concedes and the other characters nod their agreement. As the viewers of this movie, who are doubtlessly at least passingly familiar with the play, we are encouraged to agree as well. Shakespeare has indeed captured the nature of true love in his play.
But what is this “nature of true love” if not that it is impossible. Yes, there are obstacles all around. We can accept that romantic love seems to thrive when faced with endless, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But in order to be “true love” the lovers must, in fact, be thwarted. True love cannot last, or else it’s not true love.
Yes, we cry, and we think “if only…” but we accept this underlying impossibility of true love as the secret message of both the movie and the play that inspired it.
But, sad as that is, the movie ends with a gentle ray of sunshine. Queen Elizabeth demands that the next play be a comedy. And a romantic comedy demands that we get a “happily ever after ending.” So, Will and Viola start hatching the storyline for Twelfth Night (which we recently saw updated in “She’s the Man”).
And so “hope springs eternal,” though that particular line isn’t from Shakespeare. It’s from a poem by Alexander Pope.
Incidentally, the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love” was co-written by one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, Tom Stoppard. If you enjoyed this movie, I’d recommend you check out more of Stoppard’s work, which has a consistently lively wit, and a profound, philosophical humor that often combines earlier influences like Shakespeare with more modern touchstones like Samuel Beckett.
Thank you again for joining me in this five-week series. I’m already working on planning my next series. I hope to see you next time.
And here we must bid this first volume of the “Secret Shakespeare” series farewell. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”