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Shakespeare in Love, the RomCom with Too Many Shakespearean Plays

by Oana-Maria Moldovan

In between all the cheesy RomComs inspired by the Bard, and all the romance movies that suggest the never ending tale of Romeo and Juliet alone, stands one film; the middle ground, ‘Shakespeare in Love.’

At first glance the 1998 movie, directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, seems like your typical period drama production. Spoiler, it’s not. It’s just as much of a RomCom as She’s the Man, maybe even more so.

The film is a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare’s life and the creation of his most well known play Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare in Love combines seven different plays in the making of this movie - but does not work the concept as well as you might think.

Set in London during the late 16th century, a struggling young playwright named Will Shakespeare (kind of on the nose, don’t you think?) is suffering from writer’s block. Despite the pressure from his producers and the looming deadline for his next play, Will, played by Joseph Fiennes, finds himself unable to come up with a new idea.

In the midst of his creative struggles, Shakespeare meets Viola de Lesseps, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, a wealthy young woman who is passionate about theater. 

Viola is betrothed and soon to be wed to the cold and calculating Lord Wessex, but she longs for a life of excitement and dreams of becoming an actress. To pursue her love for the stage, Viola disguises herself as a man and auditions for Shakespeare’s play.

As Viola and Shakespeare become increasingly involved in a passionate love affair, their relationship inspires the creation of Romeo and Juliet – tragic love stories were all the rage in the 16th Century apparently. 

The film weaves a complex and – not so much – humorous tale of mistaken identities, backstage antics, and the challenges of love in Elizabethan England.

Shakespeare in Love received critical acclaim and won several awards, including seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, and Best Original Screenplay.

However, that being said, the film still is neither good enough as a RomCom nor a great representation on Shakespere’s work.

Let’s start with the seven ways the film’s creator’s destroyed seven plays of Shakespeare. 

The central plot of the film revolves around the forbidden love between Will and Viola, paralleling the theme of forbidden love in Romeo and Juliet. The characters of Will and Viola want – and fail – to serve as the real-life inspiration for the characters of Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet, the play, is tragic not only for the forbidden love, but for the fact that teenagers and children (let’s remember Juliet’s actual age of 13) die in the middle of a war between two families. The story surely isn’t about a thirty-something man who left his wife and pursued a younger girl.

Viola disguising herself as a man to pursue her passion for acting is reminiscent of the plot of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, where a female character, Viola, disguises herself as a man named Cesario. The gender disguise adds a layer of complexity and humor to both stories.

The play’s Viola needs to be seen as a man in order to work, to live, while this ‘90s re-imagination uses it as a pretext to run from an unwanted engagement. Still sad, still a good reason, not the same.

The film includes elements of mistaken identity and the chaos that ensues, much like the comedic mix-ups in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The character of Puck, from the play, also makes a brief appearance in Shakespeare in Love. Not the worst usage of the original play, but not the best either.

The character of Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary playwright in the film, plays a role similar (but arguably not similar enough) to Hamlet’s friend Horatio. Marlowe is portrayed as a confidant and supporter of Will, much like Horatio is to Hamlet.

The character of Queen Elizabeth I, who plays a crucial role in the film, is reminiscent of the character Rosalind in As You Like It – a not so well known play about gender roles in high society at the time. In the play, Rosalind disguises herself as a man, just as Viola does in Shakespeare in Love.

Once again, Rosalind’s original reasons to do so are different, but this time, at least, love and courtship are two of them.

The theme of political intrigue and betrayal, particularly involving the character of Lord Wessex, can be compared to elements found in Julius Caesar. There is not so much to say here other than the fact that in Shakespeare in Love there is more of an economical and political conflict, rather than just a political one.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” This famous line from Sonnet 18 is recited in part during the film, expressing the beauty of Viola. It aims to serve as a nod to Shakespeare’s poetry. The interesting part here is that the 18th Sonnet is thought to have been written for a man and not a woman.

Now that all these things are out of the way, there is one more problematic thing about this combination of interpretations. Anne Hathaway (not the actress, rather William Shakespeare’s wife) was also, once upon a time, a play writer, and if we are to go with what he had written both about and for her, he was madly in love with the woman.

Here comes the problem. The film depicts this real person, Anne, that existed once in history, as an older wife Will was forced to wed, with nothing interesting about her and who he did not love. This Will much more preferred the young and perky Viola, a stereotype I’m sick of seeing. 

It’s great to have films that pay homage to people in history. But when those people are men falling in love with young girls, it’s less great. To underestimate a woman, a scholar of those times at that, only for the sake of inventing a character that fits better on the screen is pure misogyny.

Shakespeare in Love is a great way for us to go from Shakespeare’s other ‘lesser known’ works to the infamous tale of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s a bad way to represent the late writer, his entire work, and his loved ones.

Edited by Emily Duff

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