Fennyman: So what do we do?
Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.
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 Academy's usual insistence that True Art Is Angsty, and 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 (led by Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, and Judi Dench) are at the top of their game.
Meet William Shakespeare (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 (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:
- Actor Allusion: Queen Elizabeth shares a brief affectionate moment with Will, who is played by Joseph Fiennes. The same year he had also starred as the Queen's lover in Elizabeth, which this film ended up competing against at the Oscars.
- 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.
- 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 History:
- The real Shakespeare didn't create the plot of Romeo and Juliet, let alone make it up as he went along — as is the case with pretty much all of his work, he was adapting preexisting 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 stepped foot in a public theatre. Theatrical companies were often invited to play in the Elizabethan court though. The Queen does not go to the theatre, the theatre goes to the Queen.
- 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.
- Becoming the Mask: Hugh Fennyman is originally only interested in the play's success to recoup some of the money Henslowe owes him. Given a small part as an apothecary he becomes obsessed with it and forgets why he allowed the play to go on.
- Biography à Clef: While not the first film or first fictional take on Shakespeare to feature this trope, it was certainly a Trope Codifier in the mainstream. It more or less presents hypothetical analogues to some of the fictional characters and figures that would eventually appear in the Bard's plays, namely Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night.
- 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.
- Casting Gag:
Shakespeare: You, sir, are a gentleman.Alleyn: And you, sir, are a Warwickshire shithouse.
- Ben Affleck has a minor role, playing a big-name actor who is tricked into taking a minor role.
- Imelda Staunton plays Viola's nurse. Her husband Jim Carter plays the actor who plays the nurse in Romeo & Juliet - who is based on Staunton's character.
- 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.
- Creator Breakdown: In-universe. Will turns the play from a comedy into an outright tragedy once he realizes that he and Viola can never be together.
- Creator Recovery: In-universe, followed on from the above. Will is then inspired to write Twelfth Night as a way of giving Viola a happy ending in fiction if she can't have one in real life.
- Deadpan Snarker: Considering the screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard, suffice to say there are several examples.
- 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. Her appearance is foreshadowed by the wager in her court earlier on at least.
- Did Not Get the Girl: History - and the film itself - tells us that Shakespeare married a woman named Anne Hathaway (not that one,note ) so viewers shouldn't get their hopes up (in fact he's already married her at the time, and they have three children, which devastates Viola when she discovers this).
- 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! - and the reveal is not her screaming, but rather pulling the wig off and exposing her long hair.
- Enemy Mine: Shakespeare and Richard Burbage put aside their rivalry when Burbage offers Shakespeare's players the use of the Curtain theater, saying that as theater people they should stand up to the Master of the Revels.
- Follow That Boat!: This is how Will finds out where Viola lives, after she runs out of her audition.
- Foreshadowing: Will asks if Sam's voice has broken yet in a throwaway line early on. His voice breaks on the day of the performance, leaving them without a Juliet.
- 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.
- Hammerspace: How does Viola, when crossdressing, get all that hair under the short wig?
- He Really Can Act: Two in-universe examples.
- Hugh Fennyman is given a small role as the Apothecary and is seen nervously going over his lines. When the time comes, he delivers a very nice performance.
- Wabash is a stutterer who's hired against Will's will. He overcomes his stutter to deliver a lovely performance as the Prince. Will congratulates him afterwards.
- HeelFace Turn: Fennyman starts the film as a greedy moneylender, but becomes enamored by the theater and is overjoyed to be given a small part as the Apothecary.
- 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 - for example, Stoppard spoofs the Shakespeare Authorship Question by having one character just plain ask him, "Are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?" To which Will answers yes.
- 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).
- Humiliation Conga: Even though Wessex gets what he wants in the end, he still has to go through the indignity of being stuffed down a stage trap (at least in the theatre version), being forced by the queen to pay up a wager, and have the entire audience know that his fiancée cuckolded him.
- Impoverished Patrician: The Wessex family, and Lord Wessex wishes to marry Viola to secure some money.
- 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 enamored of the theater.
- Mood Whiplash: A few examples:
Henslowe: *deadpan* Well, that'll have 'em rolling in the aisles.
- 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 his own knife through the eye.
- After Shakespeare explains how Romeo and Juliet takes a turn for the worse:
- 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 (Puritans were opposed to theater entirely).
- The Muse: Almost the entire point of the movie. Will at first thinks Rosaline will be his muse, but when he catches her in bed with Tilney, he turns her into the Romantic False Lead in the play. Viola then becomes his muse properly.
- 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.
- Not Worth Killing: After Wessex finds out that Shakespeare has slept with Viola, he tries to kill him, but after finding out how much misfortune has befallen him, he tells him, "I came to have your life. But it is not worth the taking." (Admittedly, this was after they had already fought, with Shakespeare besting Wessex.)
- 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.
- Of similar import is the moment of Juliet's initial entrance near the end of the movie. Sam is gargling to try and get his voice high enough, the nurse is calling for Juliet's arrival on-stage, and when it looks like he's about to go on and completely cock up the whole play with his newly christened baritone voice, Viola goes out instead, and EVERYONE from the audience to the actors on-stage knows a cardinal rule was just broken into pieces, but because The Show Must Go On, nobody says anything. Henslowe and Burbage just share a "fuck it, why not" kind of exchange.
- 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.'
- 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 theater 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.
- The Show Must Go Wrong: Lampshaded (see page quote) and then played straight.
- 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.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: It's in the Tudor era and he's a poor playwright and she a noble, he's already married and she's betrothed and bound for America etc. Plus, it involves the very play that immortalized this trope of course.
- Stutter Stop: Wabash never stutters once after he successfully delivers the prologue.
- Stuttering Into Eloquence: Wabash, introducing the play.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: Lady Viola de Lesseps, a wealthy lady, disguises herself as Thomas Kent, a player from the countryside.
- 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.
- Virgin Vision: The Queen has it, unfortunately. As she tells Lord Wessex:"She's been plucked since I saw her last, and not by you."
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Viola, posing as Thomas Kent, and Sam, the actor who is cast as Juliet.
- Only slightly less wholesome is Will himself, when he dresses himself as "Wilhemina," Viola's nursemaid who always holds "her" veil over "her" face (to disguise the beard!). Thus attired, Will accompanies Viola to the Queen's celebration.
- Of course, Her Majesty is not fooled in the slightest.Master Shakespeare, next time you come to Whitecastle, come as yourself and we shall talk of this some more.
- The Wicked Stage: The film shows our actor friends a-whoring and a-wasting in houses of ill repute.
- 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.
- Young Future Famous People: Stoppard imagines early-career-Shakespeare as a mercurial writer, prone to mood swings, and much more a Performer than a Technician. Magpie-like, he snatches up good names and turns of phrase wherever he finds them - that much is accurate - and he has a painful yearning for a great love, as well as to write great works.
- Your Cheating Heart: Shakespeare is already married to Anne and Viola is engaged to Lord Wessex when the two begin their affair.