Shakespeare in Love (1997) directed by John Madden

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Shakespeare in Love (1997) directed by John Madden


  • Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola de Lesseps

  • Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare

  • Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe

  • Colin Firth as Lord Wessex

  • Ben Affleck as Ned Alleyn

  • Judi Dench as Elizabeth I of England

  • Simon Callow as Edmund Tilney

  • Jim Carter as Ralph Bashford

  • Martin Clunes as Richard Burbage

  • Antony Sher as Dr. Moth

  • Imelda Staunton as Nurse

  • Tom Wilkinson as Hugh Fennyman

  • Mark Williams as Wabash

  • Daniel Brocklebank as Sam Gosse

  • Jill Baker as Lady de Lesseps

  • Patrick Barlow as Will Kempe

  • Joe Roberts as John Webster

  • John Inman as Lady Capulet

  • Rupert Everett as Christopher Marlowe

References to Elizabethan literature

Much of the action of the film echoes that of Romeo and Juliet. Will and Viola play out the famous balcony and bedroom scenes; like Juliet, Viola has a witty nurse, and is separated from Will by a gulf of duty (although not the family enmity of the play: the "two households" of Romeo and Juliet are supposedly inspired by the two rival playhouses). In addition, the two lovers are equally "star-crossed" — they are not ultimately destined to be together (since Viola is of rich and socially ambitious merchant stock and is promised to marry Lord Wessex, while Shakespeare himself is poor and already married). There is also a Rosaline, with whom Will is in love at the beginning of the film. There are also references to earlier cinematic versions of Shakespeare, such as the banquet and balcony scenes, pastiches from the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet.

Many other plot devices used in the film are common in Shakespearean comedies and other plays of the Elizabethan era: the Queen disguised as a commoner, the cross-dressing disguises, mistaken identities, the sword fight, the suspicion of adultery, the appearance of a "ghost" (cf. Hamlet), and the "play within a play". According to Douglas Brode, the film deftly portrays many of these devices as though the events depicted were the inspiration for Shakespeare's own use of them in his plays.

The film also has sequences in which Shakespeare and the other characters utter words that later appear in his plays, or in other ways echo those plays:

  • On the street, Shakespeare hears a Puritan preaching against the two London stages: "The Rose smells thusly rank, by any name! I say, a plague on both their houses!" Two references in one, both to Romeo and Juliet; first, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (Act II, scene ii, lines 1 and 2); second, "a plague on both your houses" (Act III, scene I, line 94).

  • Backstage at a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare sees William Kempe in full make-up, silently contemplating a skull, a reference to the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet.

  • Shakespeare utters the lines "Doubt thou the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move" (from Hamlet) to Philip Henslowe.

  • As Shakespeare's writer's block is introduced, he is seen crumpling balls of paper and throwing them around his room. They land near props which represent scenes in several of his plays: a skull (Hamlet), and an open chest (The Merchant of Venice).

  • Viola, as well as being Paltrow's character in the film, is the name of the lead character in Twelfth Night who dresses as a man after the supposed death of her brother.

  • At the end of the film, Shakespeare imagines a shipwreck overtaking Viola on her way to America, inspiring the second scene of his next play, Twelfth Night, a scene which also echoes the beginning of The Tempest.

  • Shakespeare writes a sonnet to Viola which begins: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (from “Sonnet 18”).

  • Shakespeare tells Henslowe that he still owes him for "one gentleman of Verona", a reference to Two Gentlemen of Verona, part of which we also see being acted before the Queen later in the film.

  • In a boat, Shakespeare tells Viola, who is disguised as Thomas Kent, of his lady’s beauty and charms, she dismisses his praise, as no real woman could live up to this ideal, this is a 'set up' for “Sonnet 130”, "My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun".

Christopher Marlowe, slyly played by the gay actor Rupert Everett, is presented in the film as the master playwright whom the characters consider the greatest English dramatist of that time — this is historically accurate, yet also humorous, since the film's audience knows what will eventually happen to Shakespeare's reputation. Marlowe gives Shakespeare a plot for his next play, "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" ("Romeo is Italian...always in and out of love...until he meets...Ethel. The daughter of his enemy! His best friend is killed in a duel by Ethel's brother or something. His name is Mercutio.”) Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is quoted repeatedly: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burned the topless towers of Ilium?" A reference is also made to Marlowe's final, unfinished play The Massacre at Paris in a scene wherein Marlowe seeks payment for the final act of the play from Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes). Burbage promises the payment the next day, so Marlowe refuses to part with the pages and departs for Deptford, where he is killed. The only surviving text of The Massacre at Paris is an undated octavo that is probably too short to represent the complete original play. It has been suggested to be a memorial reconstruction by the actors who performed the work.

Ben Affleck, jokingly capitalizing on his reputation as a swollen-headed mediocrity, is cast as the famous tragedian Edward Alleyn. The child John Webster who plays with mice is a reference to the leading figure in the next, Jacobean, generation of playwrights. His plays (The Duchess of MalfiThe White Devil) are known for their 'blood and gore', which is humorously referred to by the child saying that he enjoys Titus Andronicus, and also saying of Romeo and Juliet, when asked his opinion by the Queen, "I liked it when she stabbed herself."

When the clown Will Kempe (Patrick Barlow) says to Shakespeare that he would like to play in a drama, he is told that "they would laugh at Seneca if you played it," a reference to the Roman tragedian renowned for his sombre and bloody plot lines, which were a major influence on the development of English tragedy.

Will is shown signing a paper repeatedly, with many relatively illegible signatures visible. This is a reference to the fact that several versions of Shakespeare's signature exist, and in each one he spelled his name differently.

(Adapted from the Wikipedia entry for Shakespeare in Love)

Thank you for coming out to this evening’s gala screening of Shakespeare in Love, here at Buffalo’s beautifully-restored North Park Theater.

And many thanks to proprietor Ray Barker for suggesting that we screen this film tonight as part of “Bvffalo Bard 2016: 400 Years Since Shakespeare,” a regional-wide, year-long series of public humanities events during this commemorative year.
Please check out our web-site at, where you will find references to major library exhibits, over a dozen performances—including those on the new stage this summer at “Shakespeare Delaware Park”—additional screenings—including the March 25th- March 30th screening of the restored print of the great Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight right here at the North Park—two festivals—a city-wide celebration of Shakespeare’s Birthday on April 23rd, and the Humanities Festival on “Renaissance Remix” in late September—and a major academic conference on “Object and Adaptation: The Worlds of Shakespeare and Cervantes” which begins with the March 28th visit of First Folio scholar Dr, Emma Smith of Oxford University, runs through April with the visits of book historians Drs. Roger Chartier and Peter Stallybrass of the University of Pennsylvania, with one-day conferences featuring UB undergraduate and graduate students, and concludes in October with eight additional academic speakers and a festive “Shakespeare Jubilee” at the Hotel @ the Layfette. Most of these events are free and open to the public, or carry at most a small admission fee, so that we hope you will attend many of them.cid:f22c8984-f968-4930-aac2-b09e369ec1ea
The 1990s were a great decade for movies based on Shakespeare.

  • The great Japanese film master Akira Kurosawa had already showed the way, in 1985 closing out his career-long preoccupation with the resonances among his own post-world-War II Japan and late feudal Japanese and Shakespearean culture with his Shakespeare-inflected samurai films; his samurai Macbeth, Throne of Blood (1957); his modernized Hamlet, Only the Bad Sleep Well (1960); and his nihilistic Lear, Ran (1985).

  • 25 years after the Shakespearean Godfather I (1972) and Godfather II (1974) movies, Francis Ford Coppola opened the decade in 1990 by reconvening the franchise and upping the eternal stakes with the operatic, King Lear-inflected Godfather III, pitting the corporate giant Immobilare against the Vatican in a war for Michael Corleone’s very soul. The next year William Reilly imitated the Godfather strategy by modernizing Macbeth as the mafioso B-movie, Men of Respect (1991).

  • Mel Gibson’s highly emotional medieval Hamlet (1990) cast him as Mad Max (1979-1985) against Glenn Close as Gertrude, reprising her career-making role as Alex Forest in Fatal Attraction (1987). Peter Greenway made a phantasmagoric Tempest, Prospero’s Books (1991), starring the daring and beautiful Helen Mirren.

elen Mirren

  • In 1996 Trevor Nunn filmed a stagey Twelfth Night (1996) with Helena Bonham Carter as a lush and pouty Olivia and Ben Kingsley as a world-weary, weather-beaten Feste. But the real gender-bender shocker had been Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992), a film that took transvestitism to the edge of the Renaissance one-sex system to argue for love crossing both gender and terrorist/nationalistic divides.

  • Kenneth Branagh continued his project to out-Olivier Laurence Olivier by following his successes with his smart, ironic Henry V (1989) and his warm, deliberately diverse Much Ado About Nothing (1993), with his handsome but overblown full-text four-hour Hamlet (1996). And in 1996 he also starred as Iago opposite a leonine Laurence Fishburne in Oliver Parker’s cinematically beautiful Othello. Meanwhile, the release of Tim Blake Nelson’s southern prep school basketball Othello, O, was held back from 1999 to 2001 by the Columbine massacre.

  • Gay director Gus van Sant updated and spliced a Pacific Northwest grunge aesthetic on to Orson Welles masterful 1966 take on the Henriad, Chimes at Midnight, with his achingly poignant My Own Private Idaho (1996).

  • In 1996 Baz Luhmann played characteristic smack-down with Franco Zeffirelli’s classic 1969 Romeo and Juliet, updating it with his post-modern, MTV-inflected Romeo + Juliet, starring a deliberately plain and edgy Claire Danes, just coming off of the quirky TV series My So Called Life, and a gorgeous Leonard Di Caprio about to skyrocket into superstardom with Titanic (1998).

  • That same year Al Pacino filmed a “making-of” movie called Looking for Richard in which he sought an American style of acting to reach the man-in-the street in New York City. (There, by recruiting his friend Kevin Spacey, just off his Academy Award-winning turn as Keyser Söse in The Usual Suspects (1995), and on his way to his second Academy Award for American Beauty, to play his hit-man Buckingham, Pacino advertently launched Spacey’s own career as a Shakespearean, a career which includes his eleven-year tenure as artistic Director of Britain’s Old Vic Theater, his own star turn in a world-wide production of Richard III, and now his fourth, election-year season as Frank Underwood in the Macbeth-like TV series House of Cards. Spacey will come to UB as the final speaker in this year’s Distinguished Speakers’ series on Wednesday, April 27th.)

  • In 1998 Shekar Kapur began his lurid, gorgeously costumed, and still unfinished trilogy about the long-lived Queen Elizabeth I with Elizabeth, (followed in 2007 by Elizabeth: The Golden Age), which helped launch the mega-film career of Cate Blanchett.

  • In 1999 there was Michael Hoffman’s cheesy Hollywood star-studded 19th century folly version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with multi-generic Shakespearean Kevin Kline as an hilarious and romantic Bottom, and Julie Taymor followed her success with directing and costuming the on-stage musical Hamlet-inflected Lion King (1994) with her equally spectacular Titus starring Anthony Hopkins, now famous through the Hannibal Lecter films (1991, 2001, 2002).

  • And Michael Almeryda closed out the century with Hamlet 2000, a clever postmodern Hamlet where Denmark, Inc. is a media conglomerate and a young Ethan Hawke is a dismayed slacker indie film maker. However, the trauma of 9/11 then made its traumas seem rather narrowly self-indulgent.

Amid all of this creative production no film stands out as more delightful and successful than the 1998 Shakespeare in Love, an American romantic comedy-drama directed by John Madden, written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead fame, and produced by UB’s own Harvey Weinstein. The film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won 7 of them, including Best Picture; Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola De Lesseps, the upper-middle class heiress who only wants to see plays and to act); Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench as the aging Queen Elizabeth I); and Best Original Screen Play for Stoppard and Norman. (Its only real competitors were Saving Private Ryan, where Steven Spielberg won the award for Best Director, and Elizabeth, which competed head-to-head with it in categories like makeup and costuming.) There had been nothing like it since 1949, when Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet received 7 nominations and won 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Olivier himself as Hamlet), best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design, with only John Huston beating Olivier out for Best Director with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

But if Olivier’s Hitchcock-influenced Cold War-style Hamlet is late medieval film noir, governed by its psychanalytic thesis (“This is a play about a man who could not make up his mind”) and shot inside an Escher-like black-and-white palace set designed to make you feel that Hamlet is a creature trapped both inside the mechanisms of surveillance and the prisonhouse of his own mind, Shakespeare in Love is all motion and light.\'s_relativity.jpg/220px-escher\'s_relativity.jpg
It begins as low comedy in the watershed year of 1593, with a dejected young Shakespeare, not yet a real playwright, much less an author, a baggy-pants Charlie Chaplin who has lost his gift—as he tells his apothecary/ shrink “as if my quill is broken. As if the organ of the imagination has dried up. As if the proud tower of my genius has collapsed”---running back and forth between the rival producers Henslowe and Burbage trying to parley his early success with Two Gentlemen of Verona (1589-1593) into a commission for a new play. Henslowe, played with terrific comic verve by Geoffrey Rush (he was nominated for, but did not win, the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), has his own financial troubles, and so he insists that what people want these days is just a repeat of Two Gentlemen, “comedy, and a bit with a dog”—and, indeed, we see the aging Queen Elizabeth laughing at a command court performance of that play. And so the blocked Shakespeare sets himself to write, at his imposing mentor Marlowe’s suggestion, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter—a romantic/comic farrago—rather than the inspired, the genuinely moving, work for which he longs.
In the film his inspiration comes from Viola De Lesseps, a merchant-class heiress whose money wins her entry to court but who loves plays most of all, and desires nothing more than simply to ACT, to be able to play her desires rather than to be a pawn in an arranged marriage. Although her parents are setting her up with an impoverished nobleman, Lord Wessick (played with wonderful comic bluster by Colin Firth), she takes advantage of their three-week absence in the countryside to respond to the casting call for the play disguised as one Thomas Kent, her Nurse’s nephew come down from the country, and her impassioned delivery of Shakespeare’s own lines gets her cast as Romeo.
The rest of the film is an account of how their desire deepens in relation to each other until Romeo and Ethel, the Pirates Daughter—comedy and a bit with a dog—becomes Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s effervescent romantic comedy which deepens to tragedy as time, custom, and fate closes in on the young lovers.
In my Shakespeare courses I typically use this film very early in the semester to teach about the rival companies; about their perilous economies, caught between lucrative but fickle public production and court patronage; about the harum-scarum improvisatory but also highly professional and accomplished nature of the theatre. But most of all I use it, as we home in upon the imagined first production of Romeo and Juliet, to talk about the theater of this period as an echo chamber of desire, where both a stuttering Tailor brought into the production for in-kind payment for his expensive costumes, and a grasping moneylender now honored to play a crucial bit part, can find their voice: for the film is carefully orchestrated sp that almost all of us—including, I hope, most of my students—can find a part.
Two historical caveats: unlike Viola de Lesseps, no woman—that we know of, at least—ever took the public stage in England until after the Restoration. Nor did the Queen of England attend, as she says in this film, “displays of public lewdness,” which would include, of course, the public theater. But in the film these are what Plato and Sir Philip Sidney would call “good lies,” fictions that are truer than a literal truth. For it IS true that Elizabeth I of England did provide the relatively stable political and imaginative conditions for the production of what is still called, in some quarters, Elizabethan literature. And it IS true that sometime around 1593, the year of Christopher Marlowe’s death, William Shakespeare found his will—his voglio, his Viola, his desire—together with the considerable sum of 50 pounds, in order to become a shareholder in Burbage’s company of players, and thus to become not just a poor player or playwright, writing for some 6 pounds and then giving up all rights to his production, but instead a poet, an author, an auctoritatis, someone who would indeed come to court and write “something more cheerful next time,” for Twelfth Night, a play in which an androgynous creature of spirit and will--a will, a voglia, a Viola—gets a stalemated social order moving again.
Since the 1990s, after a lapse of more than 10 years, and under the impetus of the 2014 450th birthday commemoration of Shakespeare and now the 2016 400th commemoration of his death, all the world has been afire yet again with new productions of Shakespeare’s work—sometimes in new media, like the long-form TV British series The Hollow Crown or the recent world-wide movie theater simulcasts of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican or Kenneth Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale from the Garrick Theatre, or sometimes more modestly, like Akala’s Shakespeare raps for the Hip-Hop Shakespeare or our own local “Shakespeare Comes to 716,” which, for more than a half-dozen years now, has run a Shakespeare afterschool program for at-risk kids on Buffalo West Side. This year, the first academic I asked to come to Buffalo to help us celebrate was my friend Jim Shapiro of Columbia University, author of Shakespeare and the Jews, 1599, Shakespeare in America, and, just this past year, 1606: The Year of Lear. But Jim was too busy, teaching his University classes in the morning, and then every afternoon going out with the touring company from Joseph Papp’s great public humanities Shakespeare in Central Park company to prisons and half-way houses throughout the tri-state area. Shakespeare is not just for a cultural elite—Shakespeare is, like the linguistic air we breathe—everywhere. Shakespeare was in love, and we should love Shakespeare.
And now, Shakespeare in Love . . .

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