This movie won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1999. Among others it beat out Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan. There was some carping over this as people asked how this little romantic comedy/drama could beat out a big budget war movie with big D-Day battle scenes and Tom Hanks in it. Some people complained that the makers of Shakespeare in Love actually campaigned for the award, as if every other movie maker hadn’t done the same. I am here to tell you that the reason that Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture Oscar is that it is a truly great film. In fact, it is second only to Schindler’s List as the best film of the entire 1990s.
When we are in school we learn about William Shakespeare as this Big Important Writer whose poetry and plays have been Written For All Time. What if Shakespeare was just another guy who was trying to make ends meet by writing some quick stuff that was quickly performed and was expected to just as quickly be forgotten?
When we meet Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) he is suffering from writer’s block. He is working on his new play Romeo and Ethel the Pirate King’s Daughter and he just can’t figure out how to make it work. He is also trying to hustle up some cash so he can join the guild that puts on plays. Not many people care about him; they much prefer his rival Christopher Marlowe’s plays.
When we meet Gwyneth Paltrow’s character of Viola De Lesseps she is a minor noblewoman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench.) Viola is watching a play, but she yearns to be on stage taking part in it herself. Women are barred from performing, though, because being an actor is seen as a thoroughly unwholesome activity that women should not be a part of. This means men play all of the female parts, too. At one point we see a clergyman condemning this “business of show.”
Other major characters are played by Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth, both of whom are in the current Best Picture nominee The King’s Speech. Rush plays the owner of one of the two playhouses in
. He owes a considerable amount of money to a man because his last play flopped. Firth plays a rich man who Viola’s family wants her to marry. London
Viola decides that she is going to perform on stage no matter what. She gets her nurse to help her disguise herself as a man. She shows up to audition for Shakespeare’s newest play, the one that he hasn’t finished yet. She is a huge fan of his earlier works and there is an immediate rapport between them. He decides she is perfect to play Romeo. He finds out later on that she is a woman. When he does, the rapport becomes much, much more.
This movie can be enjoyed on multiple levels. You do not need to know anything about Shakespeare or his plays to like the movie. I will say that the more that you do know about Shakespeare, his play Romeo and Juliet, and to a lesser extent his other plays, then the more you will enjoy the many levels of story that have been woven together to make this film. There are several scenes where you see people utter lines that eventually end up in one of his plays. It shows how he got his inspiration for them. If you don’t recognize lines like “a plague on both your houses” then you don’t enjoy these little extra flavors of the movie.
On a side note, this movie inspired the comedy short George Lucas in Love. The short shows Lucas as a young man trying to come up with his next idea and running across many recognizable parallels with Star Wars, like his rival who is huge, dresses all in black, and has a breathing problem. If you can find it, check it out.
Shakespeare in Love was co-written by Tom Stoppard – a man very familiar with Shakespeare. He had earlier written an alternate version of Hamlet titled Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Stoppard wrote Shakespeare in Love very much in the style of Shakespeare himself. When we are being drilled in school about how important Shakespeare’s plays are they tend to gloss over that he was writing them for a modern (for his time) audience, and one that was not very highbrow.
Shakespeare would put in jokes that his audience could relate to their current situation. In this movie they show Shakespeare having writer’s block, going to see a shrink, trying to hustle up jobs, etc. They show the producer of the play scrambling for money, sets, actors, permits, etc. All of these things parallel the
of today. Hollywood
Shakespeare also wrote for two audiences. You had the “groundlings” who paid the smallest fare and stood on the ground in front of the raised stage to watch the play. These people were the lower class workers and they appreciated humor and a bawdy joke or two. Shakespeare would oblige. You then had the business class of people who could afford to pay for seats in the gallery. They appreciated a good story.
Shakespeare in Love also plays to both of those audiences. There are some naughty parts, like when the whole acting troupe, including Viola disguised as a man, goes to what she thinks is an eating place to celebrate. She finds out that it is a whorehouse when one of the women squeezes her near her crotch and asks “him” if he wants to “dip his wick.” In a shocked voice she says to Shakespeare, “this is a house of ill repute!” He laughs and replies, “Aye, but of fine reputation.” She relaxes and finds out that it can be fun to be relieved of the restrictions of being a proper young woman.
Finally, Shakespeare often had his characters in disguise, and was not above having his men disguised as women and his women disguised as men. In this movie Shakespeare pretends to be a woman to attend an event for Queen Elizabeth I. Viola also disguises herself as a man, not unlike the character of Viola in the play Twelfth Night.
Both Judi Dench and Gwyneth Paltrow won Oscars for their acting. Dench played a very intelligent and not a little mischievous Queen. There was some hate for Paltrow winning the Oscar. In my opinion she more than deserved it. In this movie she, at various times, plays a young noblewoman, a young noblewoman pretending to be a man, a young noblewoman pretending to be a man playing Romeo, and a young noblewoman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman playing Juliet.
The heart of the movie is the romance between Shakespeare and Viola. Her love inspires him to greatness. He immediately changes his play Romeo and Ethel the Pirate King’s Daughter to Romeo and Juliet, and starts basing the romance between the two of them on his own romance with Viola. He is furiously writing the play between lovemaking bouts with Viola. He also writes his famous Sonnet 18 (“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day”) for Viola.
In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, this is not intended to be a real biography of William Shakespeare. This is a highly fictional account of a period of his life.
I love this movie. I have watched it several times since I originally saw it. This movie is highly recommended even if you know nothing about Shakespeare, and it is an absolute must see if you are at all familiar with him.
Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
DVD Blu-ray Combo DVD
DVD Blu-ray Combo DVD
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