Shakespeare in Love
Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench
Period of history in focus: Elizabethan England (specifically the year 1593)
Originally, I was going to try to tackle a film on Asian history for this week’s review, but I settled on Shakespeare in Love instead because that gives my first four reviews the honor of having all been nominated for Best Picture. Three of these films also happened to win Best Picture (including this film). I think this gives nod to Hollywood’s tendency to reward historically focused films, regarding them as a higher art form than other films, despite their inaccuracies or other faults. (Don’t get me wrong, I loved The King’s Speech, but did it really deserve top honors?)
This film in particular caused a great deal of controversy when it beat out Saving Private Ryan at the Oscars, which in hindsight seems kind of silly. Not to say this film isn’t good. It is quite entertaining. The screenplay – co-written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman – rightly deserved its Oscar for some really good, clever writing. (This is not completely surprising. Tom Stoppard has written some phenomenal and funny plays, particularly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.) However, the overall plot is not terribly serious, and the whole film is constructed in a way as if to wink at the fact that it knows the historical accuracy is not there.
Nonetheless, considering the film’s popularity and the fact that I think most people don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare’s writing process, the film is worth considering. I’ll mostly be addressing issues of writing and inspiration in the post, but I will start with some cultural things. For anybody who read my previous post on Elizabethan Theater, some of these inaccuracies are ones that you would have been able to find yourself.
Things that probably would have never happened in Elizabethan England
– Gwyneth Paltrow‘s character, Viola de Lesseps, would never have auditioned for a play. The movie addresses the obvious problem, being that she’s a woman. However, what made no sense to me in watching the film, was that a woman of high standing with a good family name and a lot of money would ever want to find herself involved with the horrible scandal that was the theater. Even if she did, how in the world did she hear about the auditions that Shakespeare was holding? This makes little to no sense, and the idea that she could have participated in rehearsals because her parents were out of town for three weeks is also absurd. I find it unbelievable that her parents would have left her on her own and not taken her with them, or at least left her in the hands of a prominent family friend.
– Say that Viola did audition for the play and got cast. She probably would have been able to do the performance before her parents ever got home. Rehearsals would take place after a play was completed and might only last for a week. Actors in the Elizabethan period could memorize lines like nobody’s business. Shakespeare would probably not be allowed to creatively work on scenes while the troupe memorized lines. The man who agrees to finance the whole production at the beginning of the film plans on two performances of this new play. Which would not be out of the ordinary for a run-of-the-mill play. However, if plays became popular, the performances could initially run for much longer than that (a little like Broadway). Viola believes Shakespeare to be the true heart of poetry. Did she ever think that she could be screwing everybody over by only being able to do those first two performances?
– I know the film is supposed to parallel Romeo and Juliet, which is why Viola and Shakespeare immediately fall in love and then into bed with each other. Even though Juliet gave it up after two days, at least she had the common sense to demand marriage first. A woman of Viola’s standing in Elizabethan England would never have the privilege of having sex with a man she wasn’t married to. The film speculates that Lord Wessex is so desperate for money that he will marry Viola no matter what. If he knew for a fact that she was sleeping with another man, he would never marry her. He would drag her name through the mud and she would never be able to find a good match. (Which, considering the horrible guy she marries might not be such a bad thing.) I happen to find it highly unbelievable that she doesn’t least say something about her virtue before they have sex the first time. On a less historical note, I also can’t believe she’s almost immediately ready for another go. You can at least pretend to be sore.
– Concerning the marriage between Wessex and Viola: I like that she ends up marrying him. That’s realistic. However, the idea that he would approach her while her parents are gone and announce that they will be married is ridiculous. Her response: “But I do not love you, my lord” is even more ridiculous. Viola’s father would have told her about the arrangement, and she would have known as the daughter of a wealthy man that it was her duty to get married for economic benefits. Viola’s obsession with love is tilted the wrong way. A young woman of her standing could certainly have dreamed that she might make a love match, but I don’t think she ever would have expected it.
– A playhouse shut down due to plague would not be re-opened within a day. They were shut down if a certain number of deaths happened, not for giggles.
– Queen Elizabeth would never condescend to attend a common theater. The theater would always come to her. No exceptions. (Especially Judi Dench’s Elizabeth, who I love dearly.)
About writing, Shakespeare, and inspiration
I’ve already said that I like this film. However, I think it’s unfair for Hollywood to draw the conclusion that the only way somebody can become a great writer is through some sort of emotional transformation. In this film, particularly, falling in love is what starts producing great works from Shakespeare. I really don’t want to burst anybody’s romantic bubbles, but – all right, that’s a lie, I’d love to burst your romantic bubbles.
At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the dashing young Will Shakespeare (played by the wonderful Joseph Fiennes) who is struggling with writer’s block. We know that he’s already written at least one play, Titus Andronicus, and get a wink from the screenwriters when he says that he still needs to get paid for One Gentleman of Verona (as opposed to the Two it really is). Other than that, we don’t get the sense that Shakespeare is really known at all, or that he’s written much of anything that’s good. He lies on a couch in a shrink’s office and talks about his problems.
Aside from the fact that this form of therapy would not have been happening, this idea of writer’s block and lack of creative inspiration isn’t true to the time. Playwrights in the Elizabethan world were borrowing from all kinds of sources. Anybody who could read and write would have received an education heavily steeped in Latin works, which provided the basis for a lot of plot ideas. Particularly dull playwrights could take a poem and turn into dialogue to be performed on the stage. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are borrowed – some more heavily than others – from older works. This writer’s block would probably not have been an issue, and if it was, it wouldn’t have stemmed from that fact that he and his wife are estranged.
Romeo and Juliet was not a new and exciting concept. There are several older stories that can account for the plot, but the one that Shakespeare likely used was Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke. I love all the fun that stems from constant references to Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, but alas, that was never a working title. The Brooke work would have been fairly well known in England at the time, and the play that stemmed from it would have been a plot mostly recognized by a good deal of the crowd. The actors in the play would never have sat around transfixed as Shakespeare explained the newest plot points. This, of course, does not make for great drama, so there’s a reason the movie isn’t called Shakespeare Painstakingly Reworks an Arthur Brooke’s Poem for the Stage.
That scene in the bar where Christopher Marlowe helps him plot? Perhaps some form of that could have taken place, but not in the way it does in the film. I thought that scene was cute, but it also makes Shakespeare look like a bit of a hack. Marlowe gives him the idea for the play to be set in Italy, for Romeo to be constantly in and out of love until he meets “the girl” daughter of his enemy, for Romeo’s best friend to be killed in a duel, and that the friend’s name should be Mercutio. With this, and the added fact that most of his romantic scenes stem from interactions with Viola, it’s amazing that Shakespeare ever wrote another good play. Did he also enter a money deal with someone who threatened to cut out a pound of flesh, try to divide his kingdom between his daughters, and suddenly become Scottish and talk to witches?
Aside from this issue of where Shakespeare got the idea for Romeo and Juliet and the assertion that falling in love unlock his power to write, is the idea that he was relatively unknown and that his earlier plays are kind of crap. After all, we know (or can guess in an educated manner) that he wrote Titus Andronicus earlier. This play, which is a blood bath of fun, is obviously less mature, but the crowds ate it up. Titus was wildly popular – probably because of all the blood – and would have helped make a name for him already. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, but in general it is possible that he wrote a great deal of work before Romeo and Juliet: see Two Gentleman of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, Henry VI parts 1, 2, 3, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some of them might come after, but from this body of early works, Shakespeare was already likely pretty popular. Also, and this is impossible to pinpoint exactly, he could already have been part of Lord Chamberlain’s Men upon writing the play. He certainly would have been part of a company, and a steadily paid writer – not the potential boy genius searching for a job.
Also, and this is not just to be harsh, but Romeo and Juliet is not the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s writing career. It has certainly become one of his most well known plays, and an easily identifiable one. Most teenagers’ first encounter with Shakespeare will be this play (earlier it would have been Julius Caesar. Can you imagine this movie focusing on him falling in love with a man who gets stabbed to death? Maybe…Christopher Marlowe?). This doesn’t change that the tragedy was written a little earlier on and is usually not included in the pantheon of his great plays. Not to mention that for a couple hundred years the real star roles of the play would have been Mercutio and the Nurse. I remember reading in an English textbook somewhere that most actors would not want to be cast as Romeo, considering his character offers a considerably lesser challenge.
He also didn’t write Twelfth Night directly after Romeo and Juliet either. Partly because his plays were based around who was acting for him at the time – his early comedic actor was more clownish and outright funny while his later comedic actor gave rise to clown roles that were more musical and less outright slapstick. Partly also because he wrote it right around the same time as Hamlet, which is at a much more mature part of his career. There is no doubt that Twelfth Night is a more mature play than Romeo and Juliet, even if you happen to like the latter play better. One nitpicky note: the opening of the play does not begin with Viola speaking on a desolate shore. It begins with the totally ridiculous Count Orsino being totally ridiculous. That’s something we can point to and definitively say is just wrong.
The sonnet he writes Viola about midway through the movie is one most everybody knows: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” This was not a sonnet written for a woman, but for a man. Which would make sense if Shakespeare in the film was in love with a man and wrote him a sonnet not knowing that he was secretly Gwyneth Paltrow. But this Shakespeare is unquestionably heterosexual. Sorry to anybody who doesn’t like the idea of Shakespeare writing sonnets to a man, but that sonnet is addressed to a man. Shakespeare’s sonnets were also written in a sequence, and while it’s possible that he wrote some here and there and then connected them all together, it’s more likely that he would have written that in the midst of a larger project, not because he wasn’t to get into some rich girl’s pantaloons.
I’d like to end this post on a brief discussion of sexuality. There is no way of knowing if Shakespeare slept with both men and women. We can look at his sonnets and the fluidity of the sexuality of his some of the characters in his plays and make guesses. However, it’s foolish to assume biography from fictional works. It’s also completely wrong to label Shakespeare as gay or bisexual. At that time there was no concept of categories of sexuality, and even a man who slept exclusively with other men – as we think Christopher Marlowe probably did – would not be considered “gay.” Sex was what you did, it did not make up part of your identity.
That being said, it is interesting to think that Shakespeare could have dabbled with multiple people of multiple genders. In studying for my English thesis, I stumbled across a little bit of a gem. In the book Unhistorical Shakespeare: queer theory in Shakespearen literature and film, the author Madhavi Menon opens a chapter by talking about this movie. The Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt was approached by Marc Norton (co-writer of the screenplay) and asked what in Shakespeare’s life would translate well to film. We don’t know much about his life, and therefore do have to do some amount of fictionalizing for cinematic effect, but Greenblatt suggested something a little different for Hollywood:
Why not have Shakespeare, whose sexuality was ambiguous, have an affair with Marlowe and then become involved, in some way or other, with Marlowe’s death…You could have that death serve as the turning point of Shakespeare’s career, since the truly great plays began to emerge later.
Menon goes on to interpret this a bit:
Such an imbrication between literary genius and sexual orientation could suggest that Shakespeare’s “masterpieces” are either a result of being involved with Marlowe, or with finally being rid of him. Greenblatt clearly meant to suggest the former possibility – for him, a queer Shakespeare is a good Shakespeare, or at least, a good cinematic one.
How awesome would that have been? That story would have been much more daring and risky than a love story between a man and a woman, but when a scholar hands you an idea with that, you should at least consider running with it. Think about it: instead of being remembered as the film that shouldn’t have beat out Saving Private Ryan, it could be remembered as the film that helped to change the way sexuality is portrayed onscreen.
Stephen Greenblatt. Will in the World. An exploration of how living in the Elizabethan world helped inspire Shakespeare and give him the fodder to write his plays.
Peter Ackroyd. Shakespeare: The Biography. Another look into the man’s life.
The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition. This a complete works, with a great introduction about Shakespeare’s time, including theater, politics, and gender relations. It also has good editions of all the plays with helpful footnotes.
Norrie Epstein. The Friendly Shakespeare. This is a good book for anybody who doesn’t know much about Shakespeare. Epstein introduces bits on Elizabethan theater and society, as well as providing some pretty interesting tidbits on most of his plays.
No Fear Shakespeare: A Companion. This is for people who are also Shakespeare novices. It lays out Elizabethan theater and bits of biography, as well as summaries of all the plays. This particular series can be helpful for people who really struggle with the plays.
Madhavi Menon. Unhistorical Shakespeare: queer theory in Shakespearean literature and film. I would only recommend this book for people who are really into Shakespeare. It looks at several of his plays, as well as an epic poem, and gets into pretty dry and technical talk sometimes.