Beyond these few irrefutable facts, little is known about one of the most important and most influential figures of world´s literature. No letters, books, personal papers or original manuscripts survived. In fact, only six examples of Shakespeare´s signature exist, each one cryptic with various different spellings of his last name. Of the surviving signatures, three appear on Shakespeare´s will (Fakta a fikce).
That void left screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard with freedom to speculate about who Shakespeare really was, what he did and whether real life served as any kind of inspiration for his work. What makes Shakespeare in Love interesting is how Norman and Stoppard refused to examine the untold story -- how they categorically decided to ignore all of the surrounding debate about the true Shakespeare, to ignore the whole controversy surrounding the authorship question as if there could be no other choice. Instead, they presented the audience with a traditional version of the life of William Shakespeare, weaving aspects of the purist´s side into the film.
Apart from that, the film provides an interesting look at Elizabethan England and especially Elizabethan Theatre. The period is presented with great deal of accuracy and some important historical figures make appearances, they include Queen Elizabeth I, as well as historical figures of the Elizabethan Theatre – for example, playwrights Christopher Marlowe and (as a morbid boy) John Webster, theater manager Philip Henslowe, theater manager and actor Richard Burbage, or Master of the Revels (the government official who oversaw public entertainment) Edmund Tilney (Fakta a fikce). However, the relationship between Shakespeare and them, as portrayed in the film, is a comlete fiction. Marlowe´s influence on Shakespeare is very funny, considering he is one of the men put forth as the “real” Shakespeare. Toward the beginning of the film, before Will meets his love interest, Viola, he runs into Marlowe, and the two have a witty discussion about the state of their current writing projects. In a twist of irony, it is Marlowe who gives Will the background to his character of Romeo, he who decides that the character is Italian and always in and out of love. Marlowe tells Shakespeare that his female protagonist should be the daughter of Romeo´s mortal enemy, and that the hero´s best friend Mercutio should be killed in a duel by the brother of Ethel (who later becomes Juliet). Shakespeare in Love, in my opinion, spells out Marlowe´s influence on Will to acknowledge the fact that Shakespeare often borrowed, re-wrote, and used stories from other writers in his own work. Further, by making Marlowe, and his tragic death, a significant aspect of the plot development, Stoppard and Norman challenge any notion that Marlowe was in fact the “real” Shakespeare.
Nevertheless, the film itself is ceirtanly not a serious scholarly argument supporting the traditional version of Shakespeare´s life; it´s actually a love story inserted into Shakespeare´s biography. The main achievement of Shakespeare in Love is that it portrayed Shakespeare as a human being, a man dealing with problems similar to those of other young men of his proffesion. We finally have a film which, without changing the works themselves, has made the playwright seem human and just as likely to flop as any have since. Stoppard´s Shakespeare is not just a historically accurate-looking man in doublet and hose. He has filthy inky fingers, untidy clothes and an eccentric approach to his work. Before sitting at his desk, he rubs a fresh quill between his fingers, turns on his heel with a flourish and spits in the corner. We see not a man in a reverie of creativity, but a real playwright, jostling with his actors, a real man, passionately bedding his beloved Viola.
Another fascinating thing about Shakespeare in Love is its ability to reconstruct the past and to make it reflection of the present. We are in London in the ´90s -- the 1590s, though the film´s deliberate postmodern anachronisms might make you think otherwise. The world of Elizabethan theatre, with actors and playwrights desperately trying to win favour of mass audience and make ends meet, isn´t that different from the cutthroat world of Hollywood and its philosophy (The leaflet advertising the play is also humorous as it mocks Hollywood film credits, which have long lists of all of the film´s sponsors).
There are other examples:
- The boatman who ferries Shakespeare across the Thames while saying, “I had Christopher Marlowe in my boat once“ (Shakespeare in Love) talks like a modern-day taxi driver.
- At one point we see the theatre owner Philip Henslowe lamenting the closing of his theatre on the very eve of the Shakespearean production of Romeo and Juliet, which he hopes will repair his financial situation. So dismayed is he by this turn of events that he cannot get the words out: “The show,” he stutters, “the show must -- “ and he gags on the words. “Go on,” urges his interlocutor (Shakespeare in Love).
- An example of visual humour is a mug, inscribed “Souvenir of Stratford-Upon-Avon“; a deliberate anachronism as the mug could not have been there in Shakespearean times. This plays upon the audience´s knowledge that Stratford upon Avon is famous for being the birthplace of Shakespeare.
- Another in-joke is about the six known signatures of Shakespeare. It is really funny to see Shakespeare sitting at his desk idly practising signatures.
- The therapist, I will talk about in the next paragraph, the plaques covering the therapist´s wall and his turning the timer are instances that mock the typical Freudian methods of psychology, which would ceirtainly not have been used in the sixteenth century.
When we first meet great Shakespeare, he is desperate, suffering from a serious dearth of inspiration.He meets with a therapist, and reveals to him the current state of his life. From Shakespeare´s all too obvious phallic symbols, the therapist infers that he is blocked not only in his writing, but in his sexual performance as well. Shakespeare agrees that his marriage to Anne Hathaway, an older woman, has grown cold after the birth of their twins, and now, in London, he´s desperately searching for his muse. Will explains that he and Anne were married because she was already pregnant, and he now considers his “banishment” from her bed to be a blessing. At once, the scene sets up a realistic reason why Shakespeare left Stratford, but it also follows the basic chronological aspects of Shakespeare´s early life according to the few biographical facts that are known.
The struggle to write is taken very seriously in the film, much more than the struggle to make money or gain fame. Which is not to say that the economic forces are not important. Note that Wessex needs money for his plantations and is willing to trade his title for capital gotten through marriage; Henslowe needs money to run his theatre and is willing to rip off his own playwright and actors to get it; Shakespeare needs £50 to free himself from Henslowe and join Burbage. But because the main character of the film remains Shakespeare, it all proceeds from the premise that, small considerations like money and power being put aside, the world´s most effective aphrodisiac has really always been creativity. This quest becomes particularly important once it is revealed that Shakespeare´s boss, theatre manager Phillip Henslowe is deep in debt to a local moneylender Mr. Fenneyman who threatened to burn his feet off for non-payment and only a new theatrical hit written by Shakespeare can save him.
But the thought that “inspiration” can be scheduled according to economic need is false. Called on by Henslowe to produce a comedy with at least some pirates and a dog, Shakespeare starts Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate´s Daughter, but does not get very far. Things only start clicking when he meets Viola De Lesseps. Their relationship soon turns amorous, and Will, astonished at the passion this remarkable woman inspires within him, is soon filling sheets of parchment as quickly as his pen can fly over them, channeling all his emotions and desire into his writing. The only thing that does not appear to be working is the play´s title; Romeo and Ethel somehow lacks the passion that the material requires. The comedy Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate´s Daughter, a money-maker with jokes and a dog, is transformed into Romeo and Julie“, the Western world´s classic romantic tragedy.
The comedy in life undergoes a similar transformation into a tragedy. As the romance between Shakespeare and Viola grows, their passion for one another is soon confronted with the truth that they can never be together. Viola’s father has arranged her marriage to Lord Wessex, a poor but soon to be wealthy Virginia landowner, and Shakespeare has already been married. Viola, as well as Juliet, becomes the unattainable.
However, it is not only their love that causes the creative changes from Romeo and Ethel to Romeo and Juliet, but fertile exchanges of everyone involved in the creation of the play, especially actors (It is actually Ned Alleyn´s suggestion to call the play Romeo and Julie“). While the story evolves through Shakespeare’s misplaced longing for the ideal relationship, so too do the hearts, minds and talents of the actors on the stage. The creative genius of Shakespeare´s words inspire them to rise beyond their expectations to produce a great play. When Romeo and Juliet concludes its first performance, the audience stands in stunned silence and then breaks into rapturous applause. Even Queen Elizabeth I proclaims that the theater of England has reached a new plateau through the pen of Shakespeare.
So, it is the performance of Romeo and Juliet that triumphs. Shakespeare in Love does not not aim at solving whether Shakespeare and Viola´s love will triumph over all barriers, because we are sure from the beginning that it will not. The real question of the film becomes whether or not Shakespeare will succeed in turning his personal joy and pain into a play which will live on long after both Viola and Will are dust. And he ceirtanly does in the film. The film finishes just as it should: Will has discovered a muse for life, he will continue to write, and as the sun sets on his romance with Viola, he indeed begins work on a new play, Twelfth Night. On a blank sheet, Shakespeare writes “Twelfth Night, Act I“ (Shakespeare in Love) and, in voiceover, begins to describe the plot of that comedy, or rather a synopsis for a screen play like the one we are seeing.
Through an ill-fated love affair between a young and raw Shakespeare and a gentewoman above his station the film cleverly explores the idea that creativity does not necessarily equal experience and thus explains one of the great mysteries of our culture: how could this presumably uneducated and even boorish young man become the greatest playwright the world has ever seen. The Anti-Stratfordians believe the author of the Shakespearean canon would have an incredibly in-depth knowledge of courtly life. The playwright would have been classically educated and have travelled the world. In short, they argue there is no possible way someone from the merchant classes could have the education and experience necessary to have written any of the plays within the Shakespearean canon. In fact, with the plays touching on a variety of subject matter ranging from law to Italian court life, it is hard to imagine how Shakespeare gained both the insight and knowledge needed to write such convincing characters in foreign settings (Shakespeare Question).
Shakespeare in Love posits the idea that Shakespeare does not have to go to Italy to experience the limitations of Italian court life, tragic love stories and the limitations of feuding families -- he can simply focus on his own love story, and imagine the rest. For example, his professional training gives him the ability to walk into Sir Robert de Lesseps´s house alongside other hired players who are there to provide the music for the nobleman´s party and then simply join in with the men and women who are dancing, at once blending into the very society the Anti-Stratfordians claim was so elusive.
According to the film, Shakespeare´s daily adventures, all within the confines of everyday life in London, inspire the writer in his work. The way he uses these adventures also adds an extra layer of subte humour to the film. In one scene, there is a vendor on the street who says: “The rose smells thusly rank by any name. I say, a plague on both their houses!“ (Shakespeare in Love) and Shakespeare twists these words into two of his most famous quotes. He also transforms the battle between two playhouses, The Rose and The Curtain, into the feud between the two noble houses of Montague and Capulet in imaginary Verona. Will, of course, also seeks inspiration for his other works in every-day life. A good scene is when he is kissing Viola and then has a sudden idea for his famous sonnet Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer´s Day. But my favorite scene is when Wessex is in church after he has learned of Christopher Marlowe´s death. Shakespeare walks toward Wessex pointing his finger at him and Wessex, thinking he is seeing a ghost, screams hysterically and runs out of the church, a scene taken from Mackbeth and used here in different context and with a great comic effect.
Yet, at the same time that it proposes that Shakespeare´s art is the immediate outcome of his life, the film does something more: it reassures the young generation that rigid barriers that keep young Will from marrying his love, Viola De Lesseps, are no more (cross-class romances are no longer forbidden). Actually, many more barriers are broken in the film - Rich and poor, noble and base, male and female, stage and life, actors and audience, past and present penetrate in the film.
Shakespeare in Love is a celebration of Shakespeare in a modern culture, a postmodern society where he is reproduced through various froms of media, like T.V or film , but above all youth culture. In the film, Shakespeare is an actor from Stratford who left his family behind and who eventually bought his way into the Lord Chamberlain´s Men. During the course of Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare completes Romeo and Juliet, and is known for his previous plays, Titus Andronicus and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Regardless of whether or not the screenwriters intended to influence the literary debate, Shakespeare in Love creates a pop culture icon for a postmodern generation of Shakespearean fans, and challenges the scholarly existence of alternative theories by presenting the poet´s life in an entirely plausible (albeit not utterly realistic) fashion.
1) Lukes, Milan. Fakta a Fikce.
2) McFadden, Deanna. The Sakespeare Question. Shakespeare's Theatre. August 2004
3) Norman, Mark, and Stoppard, Tom. Shakespeare in Love. August 2004
4) Wilson, Richard. Shakespeare and the Jesuits. 19 December 1997