What is that that makes this film so good? There are a couple of things. Firstly most importantly it’s the script by Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard.
Secondly, there is enough acting talent to launch 1000 Shakespeares. To start with, there is Joseph Fiennes
Then there’s the supporting cast of Rush, Dench, Fiennes, Firth, Callow, Wilkinson, Clunes, Everett, Sher, Staunton with the eye candy and some acting talent added by Gwyneth Paltrow. Kenneth Branagh must’ve been miffed that he wasn’t given a role.
But it’s the script that makes this work so well. Stoppard retrieves the technique he used to such brilliant effect in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead where his play follows the life of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they’re not on stage in Hamlet. In Shakespeare in Love, we have the backstory to the writing of Romeo and Juliet, starting life as Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. In the film, the young Shakespeare draws inspiration for his play from his romance with Viola De Lesseps, who also doubles as Romeo and Juliet in the first production of the play.
This clever technique lends the beautiful poetry of the play to the romance between Shakespeare and Viola. It also demonstrates the way in which the play (or the playwright) can “hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”.
There are also parallels between the film and play. The balcony scene in the film foreshadows that in the play, Will and Viola waking up together in the morning before Viola must marry Wessex is seen as providing the basis for Act III Sc v with the two lovers part before Romeo must leave Verona under pain of banishment.
In constructing these parallel plots, Norman and Stoppard show us the raw material of life being transformed into art. It’s a remarkable feat and nonetheless remarkable for being a lot of fun. Much of this comes down to the quality of the acting. I am not a great fan of the beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow as an actor and I think the Norman and Stoppard script was what secured her the Oscar. Is interesting to watch her in this movie and then to watch her in Alfonso Cuarón version of Great Expectations. She’s at her best playing romantic characters supported by a great cinematographer, a great script and a brilliant soundtrack. But I don’t think she could ever do a Philomena or a Jasmine.
The everyday events of Elizabethan London are woven brilliantly into the play. A brawl between the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men parallels the fight between the Montagues and the Capulets. This is a wonderful scene that also contains the running joke about the dog.
Henslowe, a little slow to catch up on the situation, checks the page in his hand. Fennyman, much slower to catch up, watches enthralled.
Fennyman (to Henslowe) Wonderful, wonderful! And a dog!
It’s a wonderful scene with life imitating art. It’s a scene that is repeated a number of times in the film where the audience and the players watch what is happening on the stage absolutely spellbound.
There are also lovely little touches for the Shakespeare fans:
Henslowe: You are writing it for me! I gave you three pounds a month since.
Will: Half what you owed me. I am still due for One Gentleman of Verona.
When Shakespeare visits his shrink, Dr Moth, Moth recounts Shakespeare’s girlfriends – Black Sue, Fat Phoebe, Rosaline, Burbage’s seamstress; Aphrodite, who does it behind the Dog and… (Here Shakespeare cuts him off)
But it is Rosaline who has a special place
Will: Are you to be my muse, Rosaline?
Rosaline: Burbage has my keeping but you have my heart.
However Rosaline is at it with pretty much everybody and when Will surprises her in bed with Edmund Tilney the Master of the Revels, he is devastated.
So Rosaline appears, well she doesn’t actually appear she’s only referred to, as Romeo’s first love, only to be swept away when Romeo first sees Juliet.
The ending is a masterpiece. In one of the final scenes, when Viola says goodbye to Will she says
Viola: The Queen commands a comedy, Will, for Twelfth Night.
When Wessex arrives at the Playhouse to retrieve his wife he says to the Queen:
Wessex: How is this to end?
Queen: As stories must when love’s denied – with tears and a journey.
The play ends with Shakespeare writing Twelfth Night and with Viola, the heroine of Twelfth Night walking ashore after a shipwreck.
But for Shakespeare fans, the scene has other resonances: the shipwreck of Miranda and Prospero in the Tempest, of Aegeon and his family in Comedy of Errors, the two shipwrecks in Pericles and that of Antigonus in Winter’s Tale. All of which resonate with the themes of reunion and reconciliation.