It’s 1593 and William Shakespeare needs a new play, but he’s feeling particularly uninspired. He needs a muse. Then he meets Viola de Lesseps, a merchant’s daughter who dreams of being a player in a time when women were forbidden on the stage. Shakespeare is in love, but can a married man and an engaged woman find a way to make their romance flourish? And will his new play, inspired by Viola, impress the queen?
Shakespeare in Love won an Academy Award for Best Picture, but I have to admit I have never enjoyed this film. It has its funny moments, sure, including a lot of delightful theatre humor and a few “in-jokes” for Shakespeare enthusiasts. Who isn’t tickled by seeing an anachronistic Stratford souvenir mug in Shakespeare’s room or by watching him practice his signature–an allusion to the various forms of his name that have come to us through the years? And yet, the Romantic image of Shakespeare espoused by the film has always annoyed me.
The Shakespeare of this film does not refer to historical chronicles, old stories, or the works of his contemporaries for inspiration. Rather, his adulterous love for Viola becomes his muse and, once he meets her, the words just seem to flow. Yes, he gains dialogue from some of the other people around him and even gets some ideas from Christopher Marlowe, but the general idea is that we’re seeing the genius serving as the instrument of inspiration. No hard work here. No acknowledgment of Shakespeare’s large debt to other authors. Shakespeare is singular in his greatness, not the guy who reworked another plot to write Romeo and Juliet.
This Romantic idea of authorship imposed upon an early modern writer is annoying enough, but then the film expects audiences to sympathize with Shakespeare’s love affair. Shakespeare is, at this point, married with children. His fictional love interest is engaged to a man of status. But we’re supposed to cheer on their relationship because, I guess, Viola’s betrothed is a jerk. Faithfulness and marriage vows are apparently irrelevant. Chase whatever person captures your fancy at the moment, the film insists. (We might also note here that Viola’s lot as a Renaissance woman is actually pretty good, despite her impending marriage to man she doesn’t like. Her obliviousness to her luck in being born wealthy doesn’t make her any more likable as a character.)
I’ll gloss over all the historical inaccuracies because I grant that a popular audience is not likely to care, though I will note that the hopeful ending of Viola having a happy life in the New World at this time period is pretty rich. And that the idea of Queen Elizabeth ever sitting in a public theatre is absolutely hilarious. The rest of it is also somewhat horrifying to the soul of a historical purist, but it’s not likely that most people will notice. In fact, most of them might even be glad that the movie depicts naturalistic acting as existing in the sixteenth century. Would a modern audience be nearly as moved by watching Romeo and Juliet as it must have been performed at the time? One wonders.
The idea of re-presenting Romeo and Juliet is, however, an intriguing idea. It’s a play that’s entered our cultural consciousness, so one does not even need to have read the play to recount the plot or recognize the lines. Shakespeare in Love tries to make it feel new, like audiences are hearing of it for the first time, watching it for the first time. We are the audience of the film, the audience who does not yet know how the play will end. In recapturing the excitement original audiences must have felt, the movie does, I admit, a spectacular job.
But does that make me forget the sappy view of Romantic authorship or the morally repugnant love affair? Not really. I still can’t invest myself emotionally in a film about two people cheating on their partners. Shakespeare may be in love, but I’m sure not.