Shakespeare in Love

(John Madden, USA, 1998)


Although the professional worlds of literary criticism and cultural studies are still torn by wars over the value – eternal or otherwise – of Shakespeare's plays, it seems that Bardolatry is now ascendant and triumphant at the movies.

In the wake of Baz Luhrmann's ground-breaking Romeo + Juliet (1996) comes Shakespeare in Love, a witty and erudite romp that will have teachers and publishers alike ecstatic over the PR generated for old-fashioned literary excellence.

The film is a lively fantasy – dressed up with touches of rude realism – about Shakespeare the man and his times. William (Joseph Fiennes) darts about the poor people of his district, mentally noting down colourful phrases of street vernacular, as he juggles his promises to rival theatre entrepreneurs, and tries to challenge the professional supremacy enjoyed by Marlowe (Rupert Everett).

With the bumbling Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) as his patron – a man who maintains his belief in the divine mystery that plays will always turn out well no matter what catastrophe looms – Shakespeare plunges into the first production of Romeo and Juliet. There is much to contend with – not least, the secret participation in the cast of the fine lady Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), disguised to play a man.

The film's credits thank Stephen Greenblatt, leader of the New Historicism in Shakespearean studies – a critical movement which seeks to place the Bard's works fully in their original social and political context. In truth, once a couple of details establishing the general poverty of the milieu are out of the way, the film dives into the purest reverie about Will and his creative genius.

This film does for Shakespeare what Jesus Christ Superstar did for the Son of God. It makes him glamorous, racy, irresistible, anti-authoritarian, temperamental – in short, a rock star before his time. And, like so many films about rock music, Shakespeare in Love becomes wildly unreal whenever it approaches the dreary labour that any cultural production contains. These actors of the period memorise in a mere second vast reams of text that Shakespeare seems not even to have written down – preferring instead to compose his best soliloquies spontaneously during the act of love.

All this unreality, of course, is part and parcel of the movie's stylisation and artifice. But there is always a faint air of desperation hovering over such efforts to jolly up the classics and the artists who produced them. The feverish attempt to assert the fabulous relevance of this stuff to the latest generation of school kids betrays a deep-seated doubt that it really may not be terribly relevant at all.

Not surprisingly, the only irksome moments in this film are those that disingenuously pretend that Shakespeare's plays are, after all, just the pop culture of their time – with Will and mate Marlowe trading plot lines in a bar like a pair of jaded sitcom writers on deadline.

The film is most agreeably looked at, however, as a dextrous comedy about the intermingling and interchangeability of art and life (in the vein of Ernst Lubitsch's masterpiece To Be or Not to Be [1942]). The actions, moods and meanings of Shakespeare's texts (sonnets as well as plays) are shown as springing directly from the complications of his personal life.

This is another conceit, of course, but it gives co-writer Tom Stoppard the opportunity to achieve at last what he so spectacularly failed at in the film he directed from his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990) – namely, to infuse these Pirandellian games of art and life, truth and masquerade, with a genuine emotional force.

Whatever one's qualms about the project of this movie, it is hard not to be affected by its spirited presentation of the love story involving Will and Viola. Here, romanticism is given full rein and yet subtly interrogated, as the couple must confront (at the wise promptings of an aged Queen Elizabeth, played by Judi Dench) certain preordained duties and responsibilities. The film's ultimate resolution of this eternal human conflict is poignant and wise.

One would not have guessed that director John Madden could bring such élan to this project after the dreary Mrs Brown (1997). He captures the same light, skipping mood that James Lapine gave to Impromptu (1991) – another merry fantasia about famous artists of another era – and he shows comparable skill in guiding a large ensemble cast.

Shakespeare in Love could easily have tipped into either cute farce or Ken Russell-type excess. But it admirably balances its conceits to create a winning, infectious entertainment.

© Adrian Martin February 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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