Speaking strictly from an average moviegoer's perspective, without any pretensions to critical analysis, "Shakespeare in Love" has all the hallmarks of a hit movie. It has everything going in its favor. First, there's the talented cast garnished with some well-known names (with Gwyneth Paltrow and Geoffrey Rush coming fresh from other acclaimed films, and of course, Ben Affleck, then at the height of his popularity). Then, there's the love story peppered with moments of comedy and drama; and light romantic comedy, more often than not, is the formula for a Hollywood hit. As the character of Henslowe insists: "It's a comedy they want."
Moreover, it's a love story that, as the title proudly proclaims, involves the most famous name in English Literature, William Shakespeare. And finally, it's a period piece that doesn't take itself too seriously; the modern audience gets the pageantry of the costumes and the richness of the settings without the the burden of stilted dialog or convoluted plotline. Strictly as entertainment, "Shakespeare in Love" is eminently watchable.
The plot is straightforward, following the typical Hollywood formula: Shakespeare is commissioned to write a play, just when he feels that his creativity is at an ebb. Then he meets a beautiful woman, Viola de Lessups, who it turns out is probably his biggest fun. Viola so fires up his imagination and his words so that he finally begins "Romeo and Juliet." They have an affair, notwithstanding Viola's impending marital transaction to Lord Wessex. Breaking the taboos of the time, Viola disguises herself as a man to play the role of Romeo. Ultimately, though, Viola, following the conventions of the time, marries Wessex and goes off with him to the colonies, but not before saving the production by playing Juliet. Queen Elizabeth is on hand to make sure that the ending, if a little sad, is not tragic.
Now, "Shakespeare in Love" does not purport to be a historically accurate portrayal of the life of the Bard or of the period that he lived in. It's a fanciful "what-if" scenario that merely avoids major contradictions of what we do know about Shakespeare. It plays loose with elements of Shakespeare's life, e.g., his failed marriage, his contemporaneousness with Christopher Marlowe, his association with the Rose. It also adds other elements to spice up the movie, most notably Viola. Considering how little we do know of Shakespeare, these conjectures are, if not plausible, at least not impossible.
"Shakespeare in Love", however, goes much deeper than strict entertainment. That is part of the delight that it provides. There are textual, intertextual, and subtextual references aplenty that will take more than one viewing to fully catch and appreciate. These references happen on several levels, too.
First, there are the tongue-in-cheek nods to modern conventions. Shakespeare, chucking about crumpled sheets, tosses one to a souvenir mug that says "A PRESENT FROM STRATFORD-ON-AVON." When he chases after the disguised Viola for the first time over the Thames, he tells his boatman (in Hollywood detective fashion): "Follow that boat!" Later, a chatty boatman tells him he had Marlowe for his passenger once (following typical cabbies in modern London and Hollywood); the boatman even claims to be a playwright and tries to foist his play on Shakespeare. Funniest of all is Shakespeare's confession with Dr. Moth, reminiscent of a modern psychoanalysis session, complete with a timer and Freudian double entendre:
"It's as if my quill is broken. As if the organ of the imagination has dried up. As if the proud tower of my genius has collapsed."
The movie also pokes fun at Hollywood itself, with Henslowe and Fennyman as greedy, money-oriented producers. Fennyman, Henslowe's major creditor, only relents to the play on the idea that he can turn a profit from the venture, and to heck with Art! Fennyman's idea of the play is based on the number of seats he can sell:
"A play takes time. Find actors. Rehearsals. Let's say open in three weeks. That's--what--five hundred groundlings at tuppence each, in addition four hundred groundlings tuppence each, in addition four hundred backsides at three pence--a penny extra for a cushion, call it two hundred cushions, say two performance for safety how much is that Mr. Frees?"
And what of the actors and the playwrights?
"But I have to pay the actors and the authors.
"A share of the profits."
"There's never any...."
"Of course not!"
"Mr. Fennyman, I think you may have hit on something."
Then there are the references to famous historical and literary figures. Christopher Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth are the most prominent and have already been mentioned earlier. There are others, too, probably less-known but equally real: Richard Burbage, England's most famous actor of the time and owner of Henslowe's rival, The Curtain; and the young rat-loving snitch John Webster who, in a conversation with Shakespeare, says that he prefers his plays with blood and gore. The real John Webster was a Jacobean playwright known for macabre plays White Devil and The Duchess of Malifi.
Forming their own subset of historical references are those pertaining to the myths around Shakespeare himself. For example, during the meeting when Viola's disguise is finally unmasked, Viola questions Shakespeare:
"Answer me only this: are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?"
Though it seems at first to be a merely circuitous way of asking Shakespeare if he is Shakespeare, it does serve another purpose: it pokes fun at the continuing debate on whether some of Shakespeare's plays were actually written by him or by someone else.
The most recognizable references are the words and scenes from Shakespeare himself. They make appearances at odd moments and in slightly altered form. Disguised and hiding just a bit in the background and yet still identifiable, they humorously hint at the sources of Shakespeare's inspirations.
For instance, the Puritan preacher Makepeace proclaims loudly to the passing crowd intent on ignoring him: "And the Rose smells thusly rank by any name! I say a plague on both their houses!" which is supposed to prefigure Romeo and Juliet's "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" and "A plague on both your houses!"
The balcony scene between Shakespeare and Viola is yet another recognizable riff on Romeo and Juliet, as is the confrontation between the company of players when Burbage discovers Shakespeare making time with his mistress. But there are several others, too: the skull from Hamlet makes several appearances; as does the chest from The Merchant of Venice. Viola's disguise as a man prefigures Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Wessex, thinking that he is seeing the ghost of Shakespeare (whom he thinks is Marlowe), flees: yet another reference to Hamlet. Even the ending, with Viola's ship lost at sea in a storm, follows The Twelfth Night.
This is the conceit of "Shakespeare in Love:" words and scenes inspired by Shakespeare's plays make their way into the make-believe world of the film. The film makes use of these elements to purport that these provided Shakespeare with his inspiration. As presented by the film, it is all quite plausible, too. But in this case, inspiration is cyclical: who inspired whom? Did the world around him inspire Shakespeare? Or rather, is it the world (specifically the world of the film, but the world at large, too) that is inspired by Shakespeare? As Henslowe shrugs: "It's a mystery."
Really, this is the core of "Shakespeare in Love," the very thing that the movie -- either knowingly or unknowingly -- deconstructs: the nature of Inspiration and the Creative Process. How much of Art comes from the artist's genius, and how much of it comes from the world around him? True, the William Shakespeare of "Shakespeare in Love" is a passionate character, and within the movie, an acknowledged talent. But to take that further step into greatness? The movie claims that it comes from the inspiration his milieu. At the heart of all of this is Romeo and Juliet, the play.
Romeo and Juliet starts life out as Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, as silly, as unromantic, and as uninspiring a title as you can get. It must be a comedy, Henslowe insists, because that is what sells. No wonder Shakespeare can't get himself to start writing!
It's only after a chance meeting with Marlowe that Shakespeare's artistic juices start to flow. It is Marlowe who suggests that Romeo be Italian, "always in and out of love," who meets Ethel, "the daughter of his enemy." "His best friend is killed in a duel by Ethel's brother or something. His name is Mercutio."
Even then, Shakespeare turns out the play by the seat of his pants, writing the parts as he goes along and changing scenes as the situation and his moods demand.
"What will you do in Act Two when he meets the love of his life?"
"I am very sorry, sir, I have not seen Act Two."
"Of course you have not! I have not written it!"
It is Ned Alleyn, his most competent actor, who will suggest a scene missing between Romeo and Juliet's marriage and suicide, hinting at the need to depict consummation. Perhaps most important is the decision to change the title, also from Ned:
"The title won't do. Romeo and Juliet. Just a suggestion."
But more than that, it is the tumultuous events of his life at that moment that fuels the fire of the play. Nights spent with Viola provide the spark of passion that inspire the words to flow. It is his poetry for Viola that becomes Romeo's lines. Romeo and Juliet was written for his muse.
Far from the Creative Genius that we revere him to be, this Shakespeare is a harried artisan who must balance his failing finances with a forbidden love affair. It is the people around him who step up and fill in for his failings. Shakespeare the Genius is no longer perched on a pedestal, but is an accessible human figure, all the more so because of his foibles.
Is this, perhaps, the manifestation of the postmodern curse that declares that no man is truly Great? That takes insists on that all men are created equal -- not only in rights but in everything else? That take comfort in weakness if only to be able to say: "He is one of us?" That maybe, given the right circumstances, just about anyone could have written the works of Shakespeare?
What if Shakespeare had been celibate? What if he had been financially secure? What if he had written Romeo and Juliet from the solitude of his room, solely by the power of his word and his imagination? Certainly "Shakespeare in His Room" would not make for a very interesting film, but would it diminish the power of his works? Alas, the postmodern audience imposes these demands on its heroes.
But it is Shakespeare who provides the answers to these questions as he makes his own appearance in this movie that bears his name. Not Shakespeare as played by Joseph Fiennes, but William Shakespeare, the original Bard. Or rather, not so much the playwright but his words, used liberally to great effect throughout the film.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Though speaking from a gulf of five hundred years, Shakespeare's words still manage to convey today the Truth of the human condition with unmatched wit and inimitable turn of phrase. Not only that, his words manage to outdo the modern day script of the film so that they appear "sick and pale with grief." The best that the movie script can really do is mimic Shakespeare, but they cannot better him.
Perhaps some five hundred years from now, the prevailing opinions will run counter to the mode of "Shakespeare in Love." Its in-jokes might no longer seem so fresh, its interpretations of actors and playwrights be inscrutable. Contrast this to Shakespeare who has withstood the test of time, and who, five hundred years from now, will quite likely still continue to delight. Shakespeare will still be Shakespeare, and he will still be Great;
So "Shakespeare in Love:" a fun film? Yes. A watchable film? Undoubtedly. But some interpretations and reinterpretations seem to pander too much to the sensibilities of the modern (or perhaps we should say "postmodern") audience. The playful script tells us what could have been, but it also carries its own colored view of the Bard, in keeping with current philosophy.
The reality, though, is perhaps more basic: the Bard persists because of his Art, and only because of his Art not for his personality. It is the Art that survives.