Shakespeare in Love (1998)

An audience watches Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) stage Romeo and Juliet in "Shakespeare in Love."

Directed by John Madden. Written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. Produced by Donna Gigliotti, Marc Norman, David Parfitt, Harvey Weinstein, Edward Zwick. Music by Stephen Warbeck, Photographed by Richard Greatrex, Edited by David Gamble. Production designed by Martin Childs. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Imelda Staunton, Rupert Everett.

One upon a time, Nathan Rabin of the Onion AV Club coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe a certain type of female movie character. And when I say “character,” I am actually being imprecise, because Rabin’s whole point is that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not a character at all, but is instead an instrument. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is frequently found in dramas about soulful heroes sorting out their complicated life debris. In comes the MPDG, dispensing sage advice and forced whimsy as if that is her job, because it is. She is typically wild and colorful and free-spirited in ways that are meant to be charming, but can also be grating because she is a freeform bundle of phony joy without context or restraint. She’s a benevolent spirit evoked by the screenplay gods, one who has no other purpose in life but to seek out a protagonist, adopt him like a puppy, have sex with him, and provide a sounding board for him to work out his issues. Simply put, Manic Pixie Dream Girls are put on Earth to worship our hero, and, by extension, the author of his exploits.

The character of Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Shakespeare in Love is not quite a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She possesses more dimension and manners, and is centuries behind the pseudo-feminism that allow modern Manic Pixie Dream Girls to get away with murder. But she is at least a distant relation, because she shares one important trait: she’s not a character, she’s a device. One for a writer to reinforce their own self-imposed notions that they are wonderful. Viola is a woman who falls in love with the work of a famous wordsmith, so much so that she impersonates a man in order to perform in one his plays. Brave! And she uses the beautiful words of said writer as her only outlet to escape from her dreary home life, where she is engaged to nobleman prig who sniffs at her modern thinking. Aww! Then, when the writer, the glorious wonderful writer, appears in her bedchamber, she never for a moment considers not allowing him to make passionate love to her. Plausible! Man, does she love this guy. During one torrid scene of sexual congress, said writer even whispers poetry to her that bring her to such ecstasy that the intercourse they have almost seems redundant. What a dream! Writers love to write stuff like this, for reasons I do not think I need to explain.

Now then. The name of the writer in the story is William Shakespeare. Yes. So. Does that change the fact that Shakespeare in Love is an act of pure ego-stroking on the part of screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman? No, not in the least. William Shakespeare is the finest writer who ever lived, but the screenplay uses that as a convenient shield to protect its selfish indulgences. Here is a movie that worships writers, that celebrates their excesses and absolves their numerous sins, unquestioningly, unwaveringly, in a manner that is no less than aggressively self-serving. Of course Shakespeare is a God among men in the scribbler’s pantheon, but Shakespeare in Love is not about him at all, it’s about using him as a proxy for Stoppard, Norman, and his audience to satsify their narcissistic fantasies. It’s a bodice-ripper where the two screenwriters appropriate another man’s brilliant material and claim it as their own aphrodisiac, explaining it all the way with a forgiving, convenient literary conceit. That doesn’t make it bad, but it certainly makes it trite.

Oh, yes. Make no mistake. Shakespeare in Love is very trite. It simply utilizes every trick of the trade to convince you it isn’t. With its whimsical tone and witty verbiage, it’s pleasant score and fine production values, it’s elements of slapstick and farce, it’s meta sensibilities, and it’s plethora of in-jokes that reward you for being knowledgeable of the time period…God, it’s exhausting just taking inventory of everything that the damned thing throws at its audience. Yes, Shakespeare in Love does a good job of making you feel like you’re watching a good story. But you’re not, you’re watching an entertaining one. There’s a difference, and it’s the same difference that stands between a house and a mere house of cards. There’s a great deal of fun flotsam and jetsam that surrounds the main narrative threads, but the bottom line is that Shakespeare in Love only works if its main thrust–it’s love story—works as well. And it does not.

The fault is not Gwyneth Paltrow’s, who does her best in a role that is a vast miscalculation. The fault does lie, however, with Joseph Fiennes, who is both mannered and uninteresting as William Shakespeare, and shares no chemistry at all with Paltrow, not a drop. The script peppers its story with misplaced Shakespearean tropes that are meant to be stylish but I fear are actually intended to sweep away the heavy lifting the story requires. When Will Shakespeare meets the lovely Viola, for example, it is when he crashes a party of nobles that mirrors the opening of Romeo & Juliet, right down to the moment where the two soon-to-be-lovers lock eyes from across the room and melt. Clever? Yeah, fine. Effective? No, because a drama should, in its key plot point, submit its own rather than hide behind someone else’s. What is the point of a story that is too timid to do its own work?

We see here an application of Shakespeare’s notion of love at first sight, which is untenable outside of farce or tragedy—it turns these characters into pawns for no good reason, and cheapens the relationship that follows. It makes Shakespeare only marginally better than Viola’s suitor, the evil Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). Her protests that she does not love him ring hollow, since the film never convinces us she loves Shakespeare, either; in fact, if you don’t count the passages stolen from the Shakespearean canon, Stoppard and Norman never bother to explain their relationship at all in their own words. Because why should they? Viola isn’t actually a person—she’s a gorgeous muse that exists only so that they, er, I mean Shakespeare, can revitalize his/their creativity in the most prurient ways possible. This explains both the way she swoons over Will and then later her tendency to change motivations at the drop of a corset, and then back again, for no reason other than that the script requires it. Because she has not been bestowed with an actual character to play, she’s simply an on-again/off-again sex partner for the great William Shakespeare. There is no romance here, only lots of fornicating, because the script is too glib and lazy to suggest a deeper connection between these two.

I realize that Shakespeare in Love has an honorable goal in its head, to humanize the great writer for a contemporary audience. But by giving Will so much power over Viola, and reducing her to such a quivering simpleton, it does just the opposite. In agenda, it reminds us of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, with its irreverent take on a revered artist, but that play/film had layers, and could never be mistaken for a schoolboy daydream that accidentally got sent through a typewriter. Why did no one suggest to Stoppard and Norman what they were really doing during production? Why, because such criticisms are built into the very script (ho ho, how droll), which highlights the notion that boorish behavior can genuflect towards art, as if that excuses it. If there’s anything worse than an author blatantly indulging his libidio, it is one who sees no obligation to hide that fact with enough skill.

If the film is not shy about cribbing from Shakespeare verbatim, it also enjoys mimicking the structure and beats of Elizabethean plays that Shakespeare perfected: high and low comedy, interlocking misunderstandings, comments about itself, etc. All of this is clever, but the script as a whole is not nearly clever as it thinks it is — Shakespeare in Love is the kind of movie that wants to do roughly 3,000 things at once, but leaves the most important thing (the key romance) undone. Stoppard, who also wrote the clever play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, clearly has a fondness for Shakespearean archetypes and tropes, but also presumes that by borrowing them he can inflate flimsy melodrama into something more significant. No. No, no, no.

The story follows Shakespeare’s efforts to write and stage Romeo & Juliet, punctuated by his noble desire to get into Viola’s pants as often as possible, a task that becomes less confusing when he finally sees through her male disguise. At times, the film even plays like a prequel, as it shows young Will grappling with issues that the audience will recognize as foregone conclusions (What should we title it? Does Mercurtio have to die? Etc). We learn a lot about Shakespearean stagecraft and business practices, which is nice. But it is all broth for a thin soup.

The brightest spot is provided by Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I, who is present for a mere eight minutes of screen time, but nevertheless makes such an impression that Dench received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work. She is wise and irreverent, and Dench is a good enough actress to shine through her more obvious function as a deus ex machina, facilitating plot points that would otherwise be untenable. But there’s also funny work from Geoffrey Rush as the theater manager Henslowe, and a nicely-tuned turnn by Rupert Everett as Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe. Sadly, the same strengths can’t be found in Ben Affleck, who plays Ned Alleyn, captain of the Globe’s stock acting troupe. Affleck, not a bad actor, nevertheless looks like someone who wandered onto the wrong soundstage and accidentally got fitted for a costume.

Tonally, Shakespeare in Love is all over the map, fluctuating between overwritten comedy and undercooked drama, with labored vaudeville-style humor that deflates any sense of authenticity. The climax, involving the first public performance of Romeo & Juliet, is just as reductive and farcical as anything that has come before, yet still wishes to communicate empowerment. That’s impossible, because empowerment must come from a sense of conviction, and Shakespeare in Love is never, not in a million years, remotely convincing–it presumes to marry artifice with realism in order to unfairly cherry-pick the rewards from both. Shakespeare could have gotten away with that on the stage, perhaps. But this is not a play, and Stoppard and Norman are not Shakespeare, despite how badly and obviously they wish they were.

That is the key issue that plagues Shakespeare in Love: it is so very very written. The whole concept is arch and built out of sheer contrivance—both on the macro level and from scene to scene. That sensibility undermines its artistic aspirations by brushing aside any hope it can have to be touching, or sweet, or beautiful. It moves with such obnoxious precision, with such confidence that what it is currently doing is hilarious and smart, that it reminds you of someone who can’t stop laughing enough to actually tell you a joke. Why are we supposed to care about people who are such obvious constructions? What is the bottom line in a drama that employs so much smoke and mirrors? True, Shakespeare’s plays were no less “written,” but they used elevated language to transform his clockwork plots into lyrical meditations on universal themes. Here, the lack of wit simply illustrates how dumb this idea is, no more so than when it is masquerading as intelligent.

All of these criticisms were moot to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1998, when they awarded Shakespeare in Love seven Oscars, including, yes, Best Picture and Best Screenplay, beating out more deserving nominees in a host of categories. Obviously, Academy members were touched by Shakespeare in Love‘s dramaturgy, or perhaps they were more affected by Miramax Pictures’ mastery of both belligerent lobbying and slash-and-burn hit tactics. The answer will always elude us, although I personally believe Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar win for Best Actress is downright inexplicable. Nevertheless, it barely matters; the Oscars sometimes get things wrong. It happens, and history has vindicated taste by promoting its peers Saving Private Ryan, Elizabeth and The Thin Red Line to masterpiece status, while Shakespeare in Love has been consigned to the amusing trashbin that holds such counterfeit classics as The Greatest Show On Earth and Oliver!

Am I being mean to Shakespeare in Love? Sure, and I admit it…if it is at all possible to be mean to a piece of product so deluded, so shrewdly calculated it can scarcely be thought of as real. Despite my numerous misgivings, I honestly must say that I don’t hate it—it’s too funny and cute (and yes, clever) to be truly worthy of such scorn. But it is also hard to fully enjoy, because Shakespeare in Love is, essentially, a con: one that sells us a cheap present by dressing it in a glitzy box. You can’t love it, because it comes pre-packaged as a love letter to itself, the kind of irresponsible love that months later produces Manic Pixie Dream Girls, ready to grow up and infest other movies with their insufferable false-profundity, ready to lend an air of vacuous navel-gazing to artists that we sometimes foolishly pay to see. Since Stoppard and Norman got an Oscar for essentially doing nothing but quoting William Shakespeare, perhaps you will allow me to close by doing so myself, just this once: “There are grades of vanity; there are only grades of ability in concealing it.”


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3 thoughts on “Shakespeare in Love (1998)

  1. CMrok93 April 25, 2011 / 1:15 am

    Everybody here is just having a total ball with this material, and it then gets pushed onto us as well. Great directing job, great screenplay, and even better acting. Good review, check out mine when you can!

  2. Robert Gregory Lathram February 26, 2012 / 1:20 am

    What an elitist film review! While I believe Shakespeare in Love clearly it isn’t as powerful a film as Saving Private Ryan of the same year, this review misses the most important, and indeed, the single most compelling reason for its creation. It introduced yet another generation to the magic and power of Shakespeare’s words in a particularly clever and inventive way. By the way, what precisely is wrong with having Alleck’s character seem like he walked off a Boston street and into an Elizabethean theatre? The film’s magic has much to do with its decidedly contemporary point of view. In contrast, this review is brilliant at creating alleged intellectual issues, the dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but absolutely is clueless about what makes it a very, very good film. This attitude reeks of elitism! Of course, this reviewer likely also would have sniffed, and then, turned his nose up at Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew on the grounds that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton played the lead roles. LOL

  3. Biffo Bear April 20, 2015 / 1:40 pm

    My word, what a bad day this reviewer must have been having!

    To say that there was no chemistry between Paltrow and Fiennes is his opinion of course but it is very much a minority one. Without that opinion of course, the rest of his critique falls away as he himself admits would be the case.

    He also seems to assume that most of the audience will grasp all the ‘clever’ Shakespeare moments, as he did, when obviously the film is intended for a wide commercial audience, the vast majority of whom know nothing about Shakespeare beyond the titles of a few of his plays. That this highly enjoyable film might persuade some of them to actually try Shakespeare’s work itself is a point that seems lost on him.

    (Saving Private Ryan’s narrative falls apart so massively in it’s last hour that it cannot blame this film for unfairly poaching its’ Oscar. This is one the Academy got right.)

    The only sad note for Shakespeare in Love is that the script was apparently mercilessly ripped off from an earlier work that it steals from so extensively you would think the victimized author in question would at least have been given a credit as settlement. Nope. They begrudged the poor guy even that and then they go up there and accept their Oscars for writing it. Only in Hollywood.

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