Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love Information

Shakespeare in Love is a 1998 British romantic comedy-drama film directed by John Madden, written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard. The film depicts a love affair involving playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) while he was writing the play Romeo and Juliet. The story is fiction, though several of the characters are based on real people. In addition, many of the characters, lines, and plot devices are references to Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare in Love won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench).


William Shakespeare is a poor playwright for Philip Henslowe, owner of The Rose Theatre, in 1593 London. After learning that his love was cheating on him with his patron, Shakeaspere burns the comedy and restarts, then writing Twelfth Night. Suffering from writer's block, he is unable to complete the play, but begins auditions for Romeo. A young man named Thomas Kent is cast in the role after impressing Shakespeare with his performance and his love of Shakespeare's previous work. Kent is actually Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who desires to act but, since women are banned from the stage, she must disguise herself.

After Shakespeare discovers his star's true identity, he and Viola begin a passionate secret affair. Inspired by her, Shakespeare writes quickly, and benefits from the advice of playwright and friendly rival Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe. Shakespeare and Viola know, however, that their romance is doomed. He is married, albeit long separated from his wife, while Viola's parents have arranged her betrothal to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), an aristocrat who needs money. When Viola is summoned to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare dons a woman's disguise to accompany her as her cousin. At court, he persuades Wessex to bet 50 that a play cannot capture the nature of true love. If Romeo and Juliet is a success, Shakespeare as playwright will win the money. The Queen, who enjoys Shakespeare's plays, agrees to witness the wager.

Edmund Tilney, the Master of the Revels, the Queen's official in charge of the theatres, learns that there is a woman in the theatre company at The Rose playhouse, and orders the theatre closed for violating morality and the law. Left without a stage or lead actor, it seems that Romeo and Juliet must close before it even opens, until Richard Burbage, the owner of a competing theatre, the Curtain, offers his stage to Shakespeare. Shakespeare assumes the lead role of Romeo, with a boy actor, playing Juliet. Viola learns that the play will be performed on her wedding day, and after the ceremony secretly travels to the theatre. Shortly before the play begins, the boy playing Juliet starts experiencing the voice change of puberty. Viola replaces him and plays Juliet to Shakespeare's Romeo. Their passionate portrayal of two lovers inspires the entire audience.

Tilney arrives at the theatre with Wessex, who has deduced his new bride's location. Tilney plans to arrest the audience and cast for indecency, but the Queen is in attendance. Although she recognizes Viola, the Queen does not unmask her, instead declaring that the role of Juliet is being performed by Thomas Kent. However, even a queen is powerless to end a lawful marriage, so she orders "Kent" to fetch Viola so that she may sail with Wessex to the Colony of Virginia. The Queen also states that Romeo and Juliet has accurately portrayed true love so Wessex must pay Shakespeare 50, the exact amount Shakespeare requires to buy a share in the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The Queen then directs "Kent" to tell Shakespeare to write something "a little more cheerful next time, for Twelfth Night".

Viola and Shakespeare part, resigned to their fates. The film closes as Shakespeare begins to write Twelfth Night, Or What You Will imagining his love washed ashore in a strange land after a shipwreck and musing, "For she will be my heroine for all time, and her name will be...Viola", a strong young woman castaway who disguises herself as a young man.



The original idea for Shakespeare in Love came to screenwriter Marc Norman in the late 1980s. He pitched a draft screenplay to director Edward Zwick. The screenplay attracted Julia Roberts who agreed to play Viola. However, Zwick disliked Norman's screenplay and hired the playwright Tom Stoppard to improve it (Stoppard's first major success had been with the Shakespeare-themed play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead).

The film went into production in 1991 at Universal Pictures, with Zwick as director, but although sets and costumes were in construction, Shakespeare had not yet been cast, because Julia Roberts insisted that only Daniel Day-Lewis could play the role. Day-Lewis was uninterested, and when Roberts failed to persuade him, she withdrew from the film, six weeks before shooting was due to begin. The production went into turnaround, and Zwick was unable to persuade other studios to take up the screenplay.

Eventually, Zwick got Miramax interested in the screenplay, but Miramax chose John Madden as director. Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein acted as producer, and successfully persuaded Ben Affleck to take a small role as Ned Alleyn.

The film was considerably reworked after the first test screenings. The scene with Shakespeare and Viola in the punt was re-shot, to make it more emotional, and some lines were re-recorded to clarify the reasons why Viola had to marry Wessex. The ending was re-shot several times, until Stoppard eventually came up with the idea of Viola suggesting to Shakespeare that their parting could inspire his next play.

References to Shakespeare's work

The main source for much of the action in the film is 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.

Many other plot devices used in the film are common in various Shakespearean comedies and in the works of the other playwrights of the Elizabethan era: the Queen disguised as a commoner, the cross-dressing disguises, mistaken identities, the sword fight, the suspicion of adultery (or, at least, cheating), the appearance of a "ghost" (cf. Macbeth), and the "play within a play".

The film also has sequences in which Shakespeare and the other characters utter words that will later appear in his 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 of a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare sees William Kempe in full make-up, silently contemplating a skull, a reference to 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 his several 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 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, and perhaps also 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 the boat, when Shakespeare tells Viola, disguised as Thomas Kent, of his lady's beauty and charms, she dismisses his praise, as no real woman could live up to the ideal. This is a set up for Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun".
Christopher Marlowe appears in the film as the master playwright whom the characters within the film consider the greatest English dramatist of that time"?this is accurate, yet also humorous, since everyone in the film's audience knows what will eventually happen to Shakespeare. 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 (Rupert Everett) 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 Marlowe was killed. The only surviving text of The Massacre at Paris is an undated quarto that is too short to represent the complete original play and in all probability it is a memorial reconstruction by the actors who performed the work.

The child John Webster, who torments mice, is a reference to a leading figure in the succeeding generation of playwrights. His plays (The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil) are known for their blood and gore, which is why he says that he enjoys Titus Andronicus and why, when asked by the Queen, he says of Romeo and Juliet "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.


After the film's release, certain publications, including Private Eye, noted strong similarities between the film and the 1941 novel No Bed for Bacon, by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, which also features Shakespeare falling in love and finding inspiration for his later plays. In a foreword to a subsequent edition of No Bed for Bacon (which traded on the association by declaring itself "A Story of Shakespeare and Lady Viola in Love") Ned Sherrin, Private Eye insider and former writing partner of Brahms', confirmed that he had lent a copy of the novel to Stoppard after he joined the writing team, but that the basic plot of the film had been independently developed by Marc Norman, who was unaware of the earlier work.

The film's plot can claim a tradition in fiction reaching back to Alexandre Duval's "Shakespeare amoureux ou la Piece a l'Etude" (1804), in which Shakespeare falls in love with an actress who is playing Richard III.

The writers of Shakespeare in Love were sued in 1999 by bestselling author Faye Kellerman. She claimed that the plotline was stolen from her 1989 novel The Quality of Mercy, in which Shakespeare romances a Jewish woman who dresses as a man, and attempts to solve a murder. Miramax Films spokesman Andrew Stengel derided the claim, filed in the US District Court six days before the 1999 Academy Awards, as "absurd", and argued that the timing "suggests a publicity stunt".


The film is "not constrained by worries about literary or historical accuracy" and includes anachronisms such as a reference to Virginia tobacco plantations, when there was no Virginia. The most apparent deviation from the actual literary history is the made-up play title "Romeo and Ethel" allegedly preceding the present version. In fact, the story of Romeo and Juliet had been invented before Shakespeare. It was well-known from Arthur Brooke's 1562 narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which itself was rooted in an Italian original.


Janet Maslin made the film an "NYT Critics' Pick", calling it "pure enchantment"; according to Maslin, the film is "far richer and more deft than the other Elizabethan film in town (Elizabeth); she notes "Gwyneth Paltrow, in her first great, fully realized starring performance, makes a heroine so breathtaking that she seems utterly plausible as the playwright's guiding light." According to Roger Ebert, who gave the film four stars out of four:

"The contemporary feel of the humor (like Shakespeare's coffee mug, inscribed "Souvenir of Stratford-Upon-Avon") makes the movie play like a contest between "Masterpiece Theatre" and Mel Brooks. Then the movie stirs in a sweet love story, juicy court intrigue, backstage politics and some lovely moments from "Romeo and Juliet"... Is this a movie or an anthology? I didn't care. I was carried along by the wit, the energy and a surprising sweetness."
Shakespeare in Love was among 1999's box office number-one films in the United Kingdom. The U.S. box office reached over $100 million; including the box office from the rest of the world, the film took in over $289 million.

It has been reported by The Sunday Telegraph that the film had an impact on the British Royal Family in prompting the revival of the title of Earl of Wessex, which had been extinct since the 11th century. Prince Edward was originally to have been titled Duke of Cambridge following his marriage to Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999, the year after the film's release. However, after watching Shakespeare in Love, he reportedly became attracted to the title of the character played by Colin Firth, and asked Queen Elizabeth II to be given the title of Earl of Wessex instead.


American Film Institute recognition:

  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions " #50
  • AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs " Nominated
Award Category Recipient(s) Outcome
71st Academy Awards Best Picture David Parfitt, Donna Gigliotti, Marc Norman, Harvey Weinstein and Edward Zwick
Best Actress Gwyneth Paltrow
Best Supporting Actress Judi Dench
Best Art Direction Martin Childs and Jill Quertier
Best Costume Design Sandy Powell
Best Original Musical or Comedy Score Stephen Warbeck
Best Original Screenplay Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Best Director John Madden
Best Supporting Actor Geoffrey Rush
Best Cinematography Richard Greatrex
Best Film Editing David Gamble
Best Makeup Lisa Westcott and Veronica Brebner
Best Sound Robin O'Donoghue, Dominic Lester and Peter Glossop
52nd British Academy Film Awards BAFTA Award for Best Film
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role Judi Dench
BAFTA Award for Best Editing David Gamble
BAFTA Award for Best Direction John Madden
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role Gwyneth Paltrow
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role Joseph Fiennes
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role Geoffrey Rush
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role Tom Wilkinson
BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography Richard Greatrex
BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
BAFTA Award for Best Makeup and Hair Lisa Westcott
BAFTA Award for Best Sound Robin O'Donoghue, Dominic Lester, Peter Glossop, and John Downer
Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music Stephen Warbeck
BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design Sandy Powell
BAFTA Award for Best Production Design Martin Childs
49th Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear
Silver Bear Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Directors Guild of America Awards 1998 Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures John Madden
56th Golden Globe Awards Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture " Musical or Comedy
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress " Motion Picture Musical or Comedy Gwyneth Paltrow
Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Golden Globe Award for Best Director John Madden
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor " Motion Picture Geoffrey Rush
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress " Motion Picture Judi Dench
5th Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role Joseph Fiennes
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role Gwyneth Paltrow
Writers Guild of America Awards 1998 Best Original Screenplay Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
1998 New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Screenplay Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard

Cultural influence

  • The film was spoofed and homaged, along with Star Wars, in the 1999 short film George Lucas in Love.
  • The film was seen and frequently interrupted by Brenda Meeks in Scary Movie.

Stage adaptation

In October 2011 the show-business paper Variety reported that Disney Theatrical Productions, linked to Miramax through former owners Disney Corporation, intend to mount a stage version of the movie in London. Co-producer will be Sonia Friedmann Productions. The writer will again be Stoppard and he will be joined by director Jack O'Brien and designer Bob Crowley, who worked with Stoppard on his Coast of Utopia trilogy and The Invention of Love.

This webpage uses material from the Wikipedia article "Shakespeare_in_Love" and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Reality TV World is not responsible for any errors or omissions the Wikipedia article may contain.



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