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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#7: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Sooner or later, we had to talk about Shakespeare in Love.

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This is kind of the British version of a Hollywood-does-Shakespeare treatment.

Joseph Fiennes, brother to Ralph Fiennes, plays Shakespeare.

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Rupert Everett plays the playright Philip Marlow. Judi Dench plays an imperious Queen Elizabeth.

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Simon Callow plays the Master of the Revels. Martin Clunes plays the actor Richard Burbage. Imelda Staunton plays the real-world equivalent of Juliet’s nurse. Colin Firth, who graduate students in my day pined over as Mr. Darcy in the BBC Pride and Prejudice, plays the monstrously-arrogant Lord Wessex.

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Tom Wilkinson plays Hugh Fennyman.

Geoffrey Rush, who is Australian, plays theatre-owner Philip Henslowe.

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From Hollywood, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Viola De Lesseps, and Ben Affleck plays Ned Alleyn, actor extraordinaire.

The premise is that Shakespeare is a scattered genius who stole ideas and lines from the very atmosphere of London, and the plot of Romeo and Juliet from the love affair he was having at the time. For hardcore Shakespeareans, there is an abundance of inside jokes.

Of course, the entire film is an inside joke—the Elizabethan period is both worshipfully recreated and occasionally undercut by a postmodern understanding of history and psychology.

Tom Stoppard co-wrote Shakespeare in Love with Marc Norman, a mysterious television and film writer who wrote an episode of Mission Impossible in 1970, and directed three episodes of White Shadow. Marc Norman has a decade-long gap in his career from 1985 to 1995. In that mid-nineties return, he wrote the Geena Davis pirate-epic Cutthroat Island.

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Shakespeare in Love won the best picture Oscar for 1998. I like it anyway.

What I want to know is how Stoppard and Norman collaborated on the script. The idea that Shakespeare was not some absolute literary deity was put forth in Stoppard’s 1976 play, The Fifteen Minute Hamlet (filmed in 1995), and one is inclined to believe that Stoppard did most of the work. It is that witty, despite the occasional Hollywood flourish and old-fashioned mores that one might be inclined to assign to Norman.

Then again, if the thesis of Shakespeare in Love is correct, then perhaps Norman is responsible for much of what was good in the screenplay, and dignified and ennobled Stoppard’s contributions, whatever they are.

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The occasional Hollywood moments make the film seem momentarily trite, or too contrived, but the climax of the film, and the major moments of the film, manage to be compelling work.

And the acting is top-notch. Even the Americans perform well, including Ben Affleck. Especially Ben Affleck.

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If you have watched Romeo and Juliet lately (a good version, say Franco Zeffirelli’s, and not Baz fucking Luhrmann’s), then Shakespeare in Love is a fine film, better than many more serious, straightforward adaptations of the bard’s work.

The idea of Shakespeare being a horn-dog and a playwright capable of sublime affection is a dialectic that feels about right. And its thesis—that if we are imaginative enough, we can survive love—is an impressive one.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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