I spoke too soon. I nearly forgot one of my favorite movies! How could I? Shakespeare in Love is such a perfect way to end my Romeo and Juliet postings. It’s modern, it’s witty, it’s romantic, it’s beautiful, and… it’s all about the writing of Romeo and Juliet! It’s entirely fictional, but quite believable—such a wonderful story and it’s easy to get drawn into it.
Will Shakespeare (played by Joseph Fiennes) is a young playwright with writer’s block. He’s worried about money and getting his work produced and meeting deadlines. You get a real sense of the business of theater back then. The audiences want to be laughing in the aisles. They want dogs doing goofy tricks. There is pressure from theater managers and loan sharks to produce popular, funny material that people will pay to see.
So, Will is supposed to be writing a play called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter (and it’s supposed to have dogs in it!). But he can’t find his muse. He thinks his muse is Rosaline. We’ll call this version of Rosaline “savvy.” There may be words that describe her better. Let’s say she’s “well-known” in the theater business.
While chatting in a tavern, rival playwright Christopher Marlowe gives Shakespeare some quick plot ideas to get him started with Romeo and Ethel—his off-the-cuff ideas lay down the basics of what will become Romeo and Juliet.
Will eventually finds his muse. Turns out it’s a young aristocratic woman named Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) who longs to be an actor (in a time when only men could be actors). She dresses as a man to audition for the part of Romeo and gets it. Shakespeare soon figures out her secret and they fall in love.
As their star-crossed love story unfolds, it is entwined with the storyline of Romeo and Juliet. Much of Will and Viola’s relationship becomes embedded in the play as Shakespeare writes it. And he’s writing it while the actors rehearse it in the theater. It is a wonderful thing to watch! There’s a party much like the Capulet feast at Viola’s home where Will spies Viola and falls in love the way Romeo does. Viola’s father plans to wed her to Lord Wessex (played by Colin Firth), a man she doesn’t love (paralleling Juliet’s intended marriage to Paris). Viola’s nurse is very similar to Juliet’s. The parallels and references to Romeo and Juliet are continuous and ingenious and knit seamlessly into the film. There is never an awkward moment; it all works together perfectly.
And then there’s the production of Romeo and Juliet. It almost doesn’t get off the ground when the theater is closed for indecency when Viola is outed as a woman playing a man. But another theater manager lends them his stage and Will himself takes on the role of Romeo. Through more hilarious convolutions, Viola ends up unexpectedly onstage to play the perfect Juliet, and we get to see them performing the play together. Fiennes and Paltrow create a lovely version of Romeo and Juliet (along with Ben Affleck as Mercutio). It is so fun to watch it all come together.
There are so many wonderful convolutions to the plot. It truly is Shakespeare-inspired. I love the play within the play aspect. Also, the implications of the cross-dressing are really hilarious, especially at the end, when the Queen (Judi Dench) intervenes on behalf of Viola who played Juliet while pretending to be the actor Thomas Kent. The Wikipedia article describes the Shakespearean references in more detail.
I’m not the only one who loves this film. It won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Paltrow), and Best Supporting Actress (Dench). I feel like I am barely doing it justice here. It’s a wonderful and very Shakespearean film. Take a look at Roger Ebert’s review—he loved it, too!
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