Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs. 3 min.

Release Date: December 11th, 1998 MPAA Rating: R

Director: John Madden Actors: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Colin Firth, Sandra Reinton, Simon Callow




n London in 1593, during the glory days of the Elizabethan theatre, two playhouses were duking it out for writers and audiences. To the north was the Curtain Theatre, home of England’s most famous actor, Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes), and across the river was the competition, The Rose, built by Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) – who has a cash flow problem. Just as he’s being tortured by his lender, Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson), to whom he owes more than 16 pounds, Henslowe abandons his ambitions for the play “Moneylender Reveng’d” and promises a new comedy by the renowned Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) – which intrigues Fennyman into signing a partnership for a grand opening.

“Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter” is to be the new masterpiece, which Will promises he has locked up in his mind, to be relinquished as soon as he finds his muse. Will’s interests lie predominantly in tragedy and drama, but Henslowe assures him that audiences – such as the Queen (Judi Dench) herself – only want light romance and comedy. But there are those who can appreciate deeper productions. ”Playhouses are not for well-born ladies,” exclaims a nurse (Imelda Staunton) to her mistress – a delicately-featured woman attending a show with the other upper-class patrons. “I will have poetry in my life!” responds Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the one observer utterly infatuated by the choice verbiage of the works of Shakespeare, and who respects the morbidity found in the artist’s subjects.

When promiscuous actress Rosaline (Sandra Reinton) turns out to be a poor choice for a muse, Will encounters the actor Thomas Kent – a young man with a gift for reciting Shakespeare’s lines. Of course, Kent is merely Viola in disguise – a routine that also serves as a component in a Shakespeare play (“Twelfth Night”). Humor and uncomfortable situations arise with this cross-dressing ruse (unconvincing as it may be), though she becomes the perfect muse, even as the opposite of the sex intended. It’s hilarious yet phony when Will fails to identify Thomas up close, especially as she leans in for a kiss (mustache notwithstanding). But it’s all part of a series of visual setups that mirror iconic moments in the master’s writing, including, most notably, as he serenades Viola under her balcony (and then when a mixup over dead suitors supplies the fuel for both the famous switcheroo conclusion, and a nobleman fearful of ghosts).

Brilliantly, the film further takes a plethora of lines from Shakespeare’s plays and either incorporates them into the dialogue or has them spoken in the background, as if to suggest that Shakespeare received his inspiration from the conversations of passerby or from those with whom he interacted – or that, perhaps, he mined his personal life for just the right verbs and adjectives. Many of those lines appear as outbursts of literal commentary; a hilarious alteration of the poetic words used originally as metaphors and similes. At one point, the rehearsal of the play transforms directly into a brawl – with such fluidity that onlookers can’t tell when the play has stopped and the actual fighting has begun. The authors clearly wish to reinforce the idea that real experiences motivate the most honest writing – and that true art commands respect even from skeptics.

There’s also plenty of new material, penned cleverly in the same vein, which would lend to an Oscar win for screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Paralleling the spirit of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, the story is bold enough to incorporate the woes of realistic 16th-century match-making, ending in a fitting manner that, while grievous (corresponding to Will’s deteriorating hopes at love), isn’t morose enough (in fact, it might be too neat and tidy) to counter the magnificent levity and the laugh-out-loud humor of the premise. Also of significant weight is the music by Stephen Warbeck, who has crafted stirring themes that sneak into the movie at all the right spots. “Shakespeare in Love” is a movie that blends historical elements with fictional embellishments so creatively that the likes of it hasn’t been seen since the 1984 magnum opus “Amadeus.”

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10