Shakespeare In Love (1998)

dir. John Madden

starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes

genre: Comedy

awards: Academy Award Winner including Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Actress


What if Romeo and Juliet had been called Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirates Daughter? Just doesn't have the same ring, does it? In the rollicking, yet, ingenious Shakespeare in Love, poor Will Shakespeare is so low on inspiration that Romeo and Ethyl is the best he can come up with. "It's as if my quill has broken; my inkwell is dry . . . . I cannot love nor write," Will tells his therapist/confessor (who times his sessions with an hourglass) in a crossover of writing and sexual metaphors. Because we have so little actual biographical data on Shakespeare, it seems natural to speculate on the inception of Romeo and Juliet. What if . . . ? the screenwriters (Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard) seem to be asking. What was the catalyst for Shakespeare to make such a leap, conceptually, from his early comedies to the profound emotions of Romeo and Juliet?

Young Will (played tempestuously well by Joseph Fiennes) owes a comedy to each of two theatre producers. When one corners him and asks where his play is, Will smiles as he points to his head, "It is locked safely in here." And when will the story be "unlocked" the producer asks suspiciously. "As soon as I find my Muse," Will laments. For Will, the Muse is always Aphrodite.

Enter Viola de Lesseps. As played by a breathtaking Gwyneth Paltrow, we have no trouble believing that Viola, indeed, is a luminous incarnation of both the Muse and Aphrodite. But Viola's allure extends far beyond her golden beauty. "I will have poetry in my life and adventure and love," she audaciously tells her nurse after she has auditioned for Shakespeare's as yet partially written new comedy. Of course, during Elizabethan times, it was unlawful for women to perform on-stage, so Viola must disguise herself as a man -- albeit a very beautiful and effeminate one. Will is immediately drawn to her, er, him and, wishing the "actor" to perform in his play pursues him to his canal-side villa. But he is instantly smitten when he soon envisions the radiant Viola. After a few balcony love scenes, and the revelation that Viola is already betrothed to another -- in a purely business arrangement between the charmless, but titled, Lord Wessex and her father -- we get a sense of how Romeo and Juliet -- and, later, Twelfth Night -- begin to take form.

It isn't long before Will and Viola are engaging in "poetry, adventure, and love." In between bouts of lovemaking, Will ardently pens a series of Sonnets -- "Shall I compare thee . . . -- in Viola's honor, and, together, they create the dialogue which will become Romeo and Juliet. In love, Will's potency -- both artistic and sexual -- not only has returned, but far exceeded his previous capacity.

"Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?" the unwed dowager, Queen Elizabeth, wagers with Lord Wessex. Romeo and Juliet answers with a resounding . . . and how! And so does Shakespeare in Love. For the nature of "true love" is to be reciprocal; and just as Viola has inflamed Will's imagination, so, too, has he afforded Viola her own creative expression through acting on a stage -- even if briefly.

In the final scene, as Will and Viola are set to return to their separate lives -- he to his wife and playwriting; she to Lord Wessex and a sail across the Atlantic to (an anachronistic) "Virginia" and a tobacco plantation -- Will swears that for him Viola will never age and will remain as beautiful as she is that day and promises to give his lover immortality. She encourages him to write out his passion in a new play. Instantly the playwright begins to unfold the storyline of a character named Viola, who is shipwrecked on an unfriendly island Illyria and, believing her twin brother to be lost at sea, disguises herself in male attire in order to join the retinue of the island's duke . . . .

As Will writes Twelfth Night at the top of a sheet of paper, the screen fills with his imaginings of a shipwreck and a lovely, flaxen-haired woman walking, walking toward . . .

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