Movie Review: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Shakespeare 2


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.

Krysta 643 stars

11 thoughts on “Movie Review: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

  1. SERIESous Book Reviews says:

    I really struggled with the presentation of Shakespeare as well here knowing what historically has been known about his life. So I tried to push that to the back of my mind and enjoy this “adaption” of his story. But you’re right, it does romanticize the idea that it’s ok to cheat on your partner if you are “just not that into them” anymore.

    I was lucky enough to see the stage adaption of this last year and really enjoyed it. The play is a lot more fun and focuses more on Shakespeare’s inability to write and Viola’s constrictions in society than their romance–which I really enjoyed!


    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s fairly common for stories to romanticize adultery. I remember doing a post about that awhile ago and a lot of the comments said adultery was fine in the examples I gave because they were stories set in the past (I think I even used this film!) and the people were probably in arranged marriages and didn’t really love each other. That’s exactly what the stories want audiences to do–project contemporary ideals of love onto the stories so they’re more willing to accept the cheating–which I think is rather a fascinating move. (Alternatively, the story must present one person in the couple as selfish, shrewish or otherwise unsympathetic so audiences sympathize with their partner looking elsewhere for love.)

      But I think that part of the reason people make public marriage vows to remain faithful until death is precisely because one day the feeling of love may wear off, so the vow is supposed to hold the couple together. So what do we do with that? Justify vow-breaking when the person isn’t invested in the vow anymore? Would we accept this if the vow were about something besides love? What if a knight vows to protect his best friend’s widow but gets tired of it one day? Would audiences sympathize with him if he retired to the country and left the widow vulnerable to rogue knights? But maybe I’m on a tangent over here.

      I hadn’t realized there was a stage adaptation! Those are some intriguing changes and I’m wondering why they were made.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. SERIESous Book Reviews says:

    I think when it comes to cheating, people want to justify it in some way. That’s why you make the partner who is getting cheated on unlikeable or some other circumstance to convey sympathy. And people like the idea of a passionate romance over-ruling all reason (look at classic a love stories like Tristan and Isolde or even Romeo and Juliet). So put it all together and you get people behind the idea. Which is a shame because I think some people can’t separate fiction from real life relationships.

    I highly recommend the stage version! I don’t know how often it is performed but it was a lot of fun!


    • Krysta says:

      True. I guess I find it interesting that people are willing to justify cheating in stories or when they are the cheater. But a person who has been cheated on doesn’t typically say to themselves, “Well she’s right. I’m not as young as I once was. That other man makes her feel alive, so good for her. Love has overcome all obstacles, including me her husband! Hurray!” But we are encouraged by stories to do that when we see a cheating partner in fiction. There’s a strange disconnect.

      I’ll have to check it out if I ever see a performance near me!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Hehe yes it’s not terribly historically accurate, though I doubt they could hardly have portrayed the rowdy crowds wandering in and out of the theatre as they went for another pint of beer and shouted their way through the first act… Then again that might have made for a more entertaining film! (Green Street meets Shakespeare! I’d watch that!! 😉 ) Honestly, I liked this film when I was a lot younger, but me and my sister rewatched this recently and couldn’t understand what we liked about it. Like you said, the love affair is pretty repugnant and the story’s not great. I think you summed it up perfectly in the last line of your review!


    • Krysta says:

      Doesn’t Stage Beauty sort of do that? It’s about Restoration drama but I think more accurate in regards to theatre life!

      I’m really not sure why this film won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Maybe it was just Shakespeare’s magical aura. He adds culture and credibility to anything, right? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Ha I’d never heard of it before- but that sounds like something I should check it out!! haha yes, I think that was probably it- I often have no idea why some movies win oscars though, but maybe that’s just me 😉


        • Krysta says:

          Stage Beauty is about Ned Kynaston playing the role of Desdemona so it has some Shakespeare in it! It also relies upon historically-inaccurate naturalistic acting to get audience sympathy but I guess that’s to be expecting.

          I’m not sure anyone understands awards shows but I’m increasingly convinced that awards are given based on the subject matter of the film and not based on how good the film is.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. littlebookynook says:

    Oh wow I have never seen this movie so never knew that the love interests had partners already…I have to say I don’t find that romantic at all. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if this movie won an Academy award because Gwenyth Paltrow is in it (I’m not a massive fan of hers). Awesome review!!


    • Krysta says:

      Well there are many speculations about how attached Shakespeare was to his wife since she didn’t move with him to London. However, it’s doubtful he would have had a good reputation (which seems to have had from the few historical records available) if he’d been going out with other women while in London!

      True. Star power can do a lot for a film.

      Liked by 1 person

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