Shakespeare in Love  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Shakespeare in Love is an award-winning 1998 romantic comedy film. The film was directed by John Madden and co-written by playwright Tom Stoppard, whose first major success was with the Shakespeare-influenced play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

The film is largely fictional, although several of the characters are based on real people. In addition, some of the characters, lines, and plot devices are references to Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare in Love won a number of Academy Awards in 1998, including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Gwyneth Paltrow) and Best Supporting Actress (for Judi Dench). It was the first comedy to win the Best Picture award since Annie Hall (1977) and no comedy has won the award since.


Historical accuracy

The film makes no pretense at historical accuracy and features many comic anachronisms (such as a psychotherapist, a mug marked "A present from Stratford-on-Avon", Shakespeare leaping into a ferry and saying "Follow that boat!", and Henslowe anticipating the phrase "The show must go on!"). However, the costumes and portrayal of certain famous figures, especially Queen Elizabeth I, do in fact portray accurately the fashion and mode of the time.


The film centres around the forbidden love of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) and a noble woman, Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow). According to her, Viola hotly disagrees with the way men play females on stage.

To settle his debt to businessman Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson), Shakepeare's patron Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) offers Fennyman, a model of a 16th century Loan Shark, a partnership in the upcoming production of Shakespeare's newest comedy, Romeo and Ethel The Pirate's Daughter. This play will later be renamed Romeo and Juliet and be reworked into a tragedy (but with some comical undertones with a few characters, like the Nurse).

The playwright William Shakespeare is caught with writer's block and searching for a new muse, which he finds in Viola de Lesseps, a young girl inspired by his work and in love with his rhymes. Although forbidden by the laws and customs of the 16th century, Viola dresses as a man and auditions for a part in Shakespeare's new play under the alias Thomas Kent. After receiving the part of Romeo, she continues her ruse. She is eventually found out by the playwright, and the two share a secret affair. The romance between the two shows obvious allusions to scenes in Romeo and Juliet, including the ballroom scene from act 2 and the balcony scene immediately following it. The element of forbidden love forms the basis of Shakespeare's inspiration, and many of their conversations later show up as some of the most famous quotes in the play. (eg. "anon, good nurse" "What light through yonder window breaks?" "It is moonlight".)

Shakespeare begins writing feverishly, and thanks to the pressures of his romance with Viola, who is soon to be married, produces a tragedy instead of the promised comedy. Viola plays the part of Romeo throughout the rehearsals, but through her pillow-talk with William, learns Juliet's lines as well.

The climax of the film comes days before Viola's wedding to the poor colonist Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) and the opening night of the play. The Lord of Revels, an official of the Queen (Judi Dench), discovers that there is a woman in the playhouse and shuts down the entire company. Left without a stage and a leading role, all hope seems lost. All hope is lost for the two lovers when Viola is married. However, Shakespeare is offered one last chance by the owner of the competing theatre, and offer that allows him to play his story on a different stage. Viola receives news that the play is going on on the day of her wedding and escapes her new husband (with the help of her nurse, portrayed by Imelda Staunton) to rush to the theater. There, she plays Juliet to Shakespeare's Romeo and the two lovers' passionate portrayal of two lovers inspires the entire audience, including the Queen, who makes a surprise appearance.

Still, the two lovers must part; in their final scene they discuss Shakespeare's next play, "Twelfth Night". This one, as ordered by the Queen, is happier, and features a heroine named Viola.

The film contains many references to other historical characters, not the least of which is Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), who, in the movie, Shakespeare at first wrongly believes has been killed because he was mistaken for himself, when in fact Marlowe has died in a bar brawl of his own instigation.



  • Ben Affleck was not considered for his role until Paltrow put him forward, supplying an audition tape to the producers that they had prepared together.

References to Shakespeare's work

The main source for much of the action in the film is Romeo and Juliet, which the events in the film ultimately inspire Will to write. Will and Viola play out the famous balcony and bedroom scenes; like Juliet, Viola has a witty nurse, and is separated from Will by a gulf of duty (although not the family enmity of the play—the "two households" of Romeo and Juliet are supposedly inspired by the two rival playhouses). In addition, the two lovers are equally 'star-crossed' — they are not ultimately destined to be together (since Viola is of nobility promised to marry Earl of Wessex and Shakespeare himself is already married).

Many other plot devices used in the film are common in various Shakespearean comedies and in the works of the other playwrights of the Elizabethan era: the Queen disguised as a commoner, the cross-dressing disguises, mistaken identities, the swordfight, the suspicion of adultery (or, at least, cheating), the appearance of a 'ghost', and the 'play within a play'.

The film also features numerous sequences in which Shakespeare and the other characters utter words that will later appear in his plays:

  • On the street, Shakespeare hears a Puritan preaching against the two London stages: "The Rose smells thusly rank, by any name! I say, a plague on both their houses!" Two references in one, both to Romeo and Juliet; first, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (Act II, scene ii, lines 1 and 2); second, "a plague on both their houses" (Act III, scene i, line 94).
  • Backstage of a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare sees William Kempe in full make-up, silently contemplating a skull (a reference to Hamlet).
  • Shakespeare utters the lines "Doubt thou the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move" (from Hamlet) to Philip Henslowe.
  • As Shakespeare's writer's block is introduced, he is seen crumpling balls of paper and throwing them around his room. They land near props which represent scenes in his several plays: a skull (Hamlet), and an open chest (The Merchant of Venice).
  • Viola, as well as being Paltrow's name in the film, is the lead character in Twelfth Night and also dresses as a man after the death of her brother.
  • At the end of the film, Shakespeare imagines a shipwreck overtaking Viola on her way to America, inspiring the opening scene of his next play, Twelfth Night.
  • Shakespeare writes a sonnet to Viola which begins: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (from Sonnet 18).

Christopher Marlowe appears in the film as the master playwright whom everyone in the film considers the greatest English dramatist — this is humorous, since everyone in the audience knows what will eventually happen to Shakespeare. He gives Shakespeare a plot for his next play, "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" ("Romeo is Italian...always in and out of love...until he meets...Ethel. The daughter of his enemy! His best friend is killed in a duel by Ethel's brother or something. His name is Mercutio.") Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is quoted ad nauseam: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burned the topless towers of Ilium?"

The child John Webster who plays with mice is a reference to the leading figure in the Jacobean generation of playwrights. His plays (The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil) are known for their blood and gore, which is why he says that he enjoys Titus Andronicus, and why he says of Romeo and Juliet when asked by The Queen "I liked it when she stabbed herself."

When the clown Will Kempe says to Shakespeare that he would like to play in a drama, he is told that "they would laugh at Seneca if you played it," a reference to the Roman tragedian renowned for his sombre and bloody plotlines which were a major influence on the development of English tragedy.

Will is shown signing a paper repeatedly, with many relatively illegible signatures visible. This is a reference to the fact that several versions of Shakespeare's signature exist — no two alike.


After the film's release, publications including Private Eye noted strong similarities between the film and the 1941 novel No Bed for Bacon, by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon, which also features Shakespeare falling in love and finding inspiration for his later plays.

In a foreword to a subsequent edition of No Bed for Bacon (which traded on the association by declaring itself "A Story of Shakespeare and Lady Viola in Love"), Ned Sherrin mentioned that he had lent a copy of the novel to Stoppard after he joined the writing team, but that the basic plot of the film had been independently developed by Marc Norman, who was unaware of the novel.

Additionally, the writers of Shakespeare in Love were sued in 1999 by Faye Kellerman, author of the book The Quality of Mercy. Ms. Kellerman claimed that the story was lifted from her book.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Shakespeare in Love" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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