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Film / Shakespeare in Love


The Shakespeare in Fiction Romantic Comedy that won Best Picture of 1998 at the Academy Awards, surprising all those who were backing Saving Private Ryan. To some, it's one of the greatest award snubs in the history of the Oscars. To others, it's a blessed relief from the Oscar's usual insistence that True Art Is Angsty, a very intelligent and fun romp through a not-quite-accurate Elizabethan England. Tom Stoppard's script is witty and wise, and all of the cast, especially Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola, is at the top of their game.

Meet William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), aspiring playwright who can't find the inspiration to write another Screwball Comedy, and works for a theater that needs money, badly. In the bed of his mistress, Rosaline, he tries to find inspiration for a comedy titled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter. Meanwhile, Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a noblewoman engaged to marry an entrepreneur in the Americas, dreams of the stage but is frustrated, because women are banned from the boards. However, she goes out to audition anyway, dressed up as a boy, and is astounded when she gets the part... of Romeo. Tension soon erupts between her and the suddenly single Will, and Hilarity, Angst, Secrecy, and a Little Sex Ensue. Much like a Shakespeare comedy, you might say.

This film provides examples of:

  • Always Someone Better: Marlowe, to poor Shakespeare. It's a one-sided rivalry with poor Will envious of all the fame Marlowe has, while Marlowe easily passes along story ideas without a care. A bit of a Historical In-Joke because at the time Marlowe was the better regarded writer: Shakespeare's reputation really didn't take off until later.
  • Alter Ego: Thomas Kent, a player from the countryside, to Lady Viola de Lesseps, a wealthy lady.
  • Anachronism Stew: The film does not hesitate to throw historical accuracy out the window if they can sneak in a joke about the modern studio system. Standouts are Shakespeare's visit to Dr Monk (poking fun at modern psychiatrists), and the audition scene (Elizabethan companies of players didn't do this, although they do make the excuse that the normal troupe is still coming back from a country tour and is running late).
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Played with; by the standards of the time, the Earl of Wessex was in the right to act as he did, considering Lady Viola, who was betrothed to him, lost her maidenhead to a playwright.
  • Artistic License - Theatrical Production: In the Play Within a Play, there are a few instances of staging that work great on film, but would be really poor choices on stage — let alone in an open-air theater with no amplification. A glaring example: during Mercutio's death scene, he sinks against a pillar, then Romeo upstages him, back to the audience, and Mercutio growls his Famous Last Words in a near-whisper, which shouldn't have been heard by anyone past the first row of groundlings.
  • Artistic License History: The real Shakespeare definitely didn't make the plot of Romeo and Juliet up as he went along since - as is the case with pretty much all of his work - he was adapting pre-existing poems, stories or historical records for the stage; in this case he used The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.
    • Royalty at this point in time would never have attended a public theatre. Full stop.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Shakespeare and Viola don't end up together, and Viola is destined for a loveless marriage, but they console each other with the knowledge that they will be ageless in each other's memories. The film ends with Shakespeare writing Twelfth Night, with Viola as his muse, as a way to imagine an unlikely happy ending for the two of them.
    • In better news, Shakespeare becomes in-story the next great dramatist, whose literary works in Real Life will shape the English language and have remained... will remain... timeless.
  • Catch Phrase: "I don't know... it's a mystery."
  • Coitus Uninterruptus: Probably more realistic than most modern examples, as back in the day notions of privacy (especially among the lower classes, which certainly included actors) were... different. (Read: almost non-existent.) Regardless, it doesn't last.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In the Play Within a Play, the Capulet family actors wear orange, red, and (for Juliet) pale gold, while the Montague members of the cast wears deep blues. This is very similar to Franco Zefirelli's definitive film of Romeo and Juliet — with the difference that the Prince's family, instead of wearing brown, wears purple.
  • Deus ex Machina: Queen Elizabeth I. Of course, there wasn't as much of a stigma attached to the trope back in Shakespeare's day — many of his plays had a duke or prince showing up in the last act to pass judgment and ensure a happy ending — so it could be justified by the Grandfather Clause.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Doomed by Canon; History - and the film itself - tells us that Shakespeare married a woman named Anne Hathaway (not that one), so viewers shouldn't get their hopes up.
  • Driver of a Black Cab: Rower of A Thames Ferry Boat.
    "I had Christopher Marlowe in my boat once."
  • Eek, a Mouse!!: Webster uses his pet rat to make 'Thomas Kent' give 'himself' away as Viola when Mister Tilney gets confused about which "woman" is supposed to actually be a woman. A more justified example than most, because he drops it onto her head!
  • Enemy Mine: Shakespeare and Richard Burbage put aside their rivalry when Burbage offers Shakespeare's players the use of the Curtain theatre, saying that as theater people they should stand up to the Master of the Revels.
  • Follow That Boat!
  • Gondor Calls for Aid:
    "The Master of the Revels despises us all for vagrants and peddlers of bombast. But my father, James Burbage, had the first license to make a company of players from Her Majesty; and he drew from poets the literature of the age. We must show them that we are men of parts. Will Shakespeare has a play. I have a theater. The Curtain is yours."
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Shakespeare is married and Viola is engaged to Lord Wessex, but Lord Wessex is only marrying her for her money and Anne Hathaway is in Stratford-upon-Avon, and not particularly well inclined towards Will at present.
  • He Really Can Act: an in-universe example as the Loan Shark Fennyman worms his way into the performance as the Apothecary. Shown nervous and worried beforehand, when the scene comes Fennyman gives an incredible performance that stuns Shakespeare.
    • Although part of the reason he stuns Will is that, in his nerves, he repeatedly cuts in over Will's dialogue before it's his time to speak.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, Shakespeare himself, not to mention the entire cast of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Historical In-Joke: Tied with Genius Bonus.
  • Historical Person Punchline: The boy who wants to write violent plays is actually John Webster. (For clarification, he'll eventually write The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, both considered quite dark and macabre works with plenty of gruesome deaths.)
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Wessex family.
  • Instant Expert: Thomas Kent aka Viola de Lesseps, despite having never acted before, is utterly captivating as Romeo and, later, as Juliet despite a few flubs in the dancing rehearsals. Helped out by Viola's passion for the material (and the playwright) and her very good memory.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: A Running Joke.
  • King Incognito: Queen Elizabeth and her attendants go to the performance of Romeo and Juliet in disguise.
  • Lampshaded Double Entendre: In the grand Shakespearian tradition, penis jokes:
    Will: "It's as if my quill is broken, as if the organ of my imagination has dried up, as if the proud tower of genius is collapsed. Nothing comes. It's like trying to pick a lock with a wet herring."
    Dr. Moth: Tell me, are you lately humbled in the act of love? How long has it been?
    Will: A goodly length, in times past, but, lately...
  • Last Kiss: Shakespeare and Viola share one before she leaves with her new husband (not Shakespeare) to a colony in the new world.
  • Loan Shark: The movie opens with Fennyman the Moneylender torturing the owner of the Rose for his unpaid debts. He ends up being enamoured of the theatre.
  • Mood Whiplash: A few examples:
    • One minute, the troupe is carousing in a local bar/brothel, the next, Henslowe mentions Shakespeare's wife in passing, and Viola takes off. Then one of the actors comes in with the news that Marlowe has been killed, and Shakespeare thinks he's responsible because he gave Wessex Marlowe's name as a pseudonym, and told him that he's been visiting his future wife.
    • The scene where Shakespeare learns the truth behind Marlowe's death. He holds Wessex at knifepoint and loudly proclaims him to be Marlowe's murderer... only to be informed that Marlowe actually died in a bar fight over his tab, after getting a knife through the eye.
    • After Shakespeare explains how Romeo and Juliet takes a turn for the worse:
    Henslowe: *deadpan* Well, that'll have 'em rolling in the aisles.
    • Another example comes after Tilney closes the Rose because they were unknowingly letting Viola act. Fennyman comes in, still wrapped up in trying to memorize his lines, and asks "Everything all right?"
  • Moral Guardians: There are two.
    • Part of Tilney's job as Master of the Revels is to censor plays intended for public performance so that they do not offend either the Queen or the people.
    • Before the play opens at The Curtain there's a Puritan protesting the performance.
  • The Muse: Almost the entire point of the movie.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Shakespeare, when he thinks he got Marlowe killed by Wessex.
  • Nobility Marries Money: Viola, a daughter of a wealthy merchant, marries Lord Wessex, who needs money to fund his colony in the new world.
  • Oh Crap!: Romeo and Juliet, debut performance. At stake, Shakespeare's entire reputation. Will, playing Romeo, is in the depths of despair; Sam, the boy supposed to play Juliet, has just hit puberty with a horrifically broken voice; and as the curtain rises, the actor reciting the Prologue can't get out a single word in his stuttering panic. The fifteen or twenty seconds that follows is one drawn-out Oh Crap! moment before he starts off what has to be the most touching version of Romeo and Juliet ever to be performed onscreen.
  • Oscar Bait: An English period piece, featuring (however briefly) a royal. Works every time.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: It's the Elizabethan period. Duh. It's actually in the script that Viola's dress be literally stunning.
  • Puddle-Covering Chivalry: The queen stops in front of a puddle and looks for help. All the guys hesitate and then reach to throw their jackets down for her. But she loses patience and just steps in the mud.
  • Recursive Crossdressing: Features a woman, dressing as a male actor, who plays Juliet... resulting in this classic line:
    "That woman... is a woman!"
  • Rich Suitor, Poor Suitor: Struggling playwright Shakespeare vs. Lord Wessex (who isn't actually rich - that's why he's marrying Viola in the first place - but has the noble name to back himself up.) Wessex inevitably 'wins.'
  • Romantic Comedy
  • A Round of Drinks for the House: The producer orders one before exclaiming "Oh, happy hour!" (with the inflection one would use for "oh, happy day!").
  • Running Gag: Henslowe saying "It's a mystery" when he does not know how a problem will be solved. And, in the good tradition of theater, it does, every time.
  • Sexposition: An early scene with the theatre manager has him discussing the staging of the play while having energetic sex with a prostitute. As with many instances of Sexposition, this one overlaps with Coitus Uninterruptus.
  • Shakespeare in Fiction: Here, he's young, charismatic, melancholy, mostly lovelorn, and looking for a muse.
  • Shaped Like Itself: "That woman is a woman!"
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Obviously.
  • Shown Their Work
  • Slow Clap: The first performance is met with this... mostly because the audience is weeping.
  • Spanner in the Works: Two, in fact; Elizabeth I snidely informs Lord Wessex that Viola has "been plucked since I saw her last, and not by you" and John Webster spies Shakespeare and Viola kissing and later squeals on them to Mr Tilney.
  • Stuttering Into Eloquence : Wabash, introducing the play.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver
  • Virgin Vision: The Queen has it, unfortunately.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Viola and Sam, the actor who is cast as Juliet.
  • Writer's Block Montage: Played with. Our first shot of Will sees him busily and confidently scribbling away, and we cut to his paper to see that he's just trying out different signatures over and over (A Historical In-Joke on the famously inconsistent signatures we have records of.) However, he does crumple up a sheet of parchment and toss it away moodily - only for it to land next to a very Hamlet-esque skull.
  • Take That: Fennyman proposes to Henslowe that the actors get paid for the play from the nonexistent profits the company will receive, a swipe at Hollywood's rather loose accounting procedures.
  • Young Future Famous People

Alternative Title(s): Shakespeare In Love