Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Directed by John Madden

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Shakespeare in Love plays like a Shakespearean play, namely Romeo & Juliet.  There’s the central love story, the forces that work against them (like a suitor, old English mafia, the playwright’s rival) and then the bitter, tragic end.  Knowing what the film was trying to do makes it, to me, a little more palatable and certainly interesting to think about in retrospect, but I struggled to care for, admire or find any interest in the characters onscreen.  As a work of art and a possible deconstruction of a historical figure this is fascinating, but as a romantic comedy/drama with contemporary mannerisms in the old English setting, it felt a little lackluster.  Maybe it’s hindsight that affords me this opinion, and maybe the movie would stand out were I to see it at the time of its release.

So putting aside what I surely don’t know or missed about this movie, I found Shakespeare in Love to be like listening to two people speak in a language only they know.  It’s a romantic drama about William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) and Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow).  She becomes his muse, something he explicitly seeks out at the start of the film, and inspires him to write Romeo & Juliet.

If you buy into their love story then of course you will enjoy this movie.  It’s a mad type of love, that fiery, physical passion like that of two teenagers who share amongst them at least one driver’s permit and two curfews that extend past 10 pm.

I guess that’s a tricky balance, to demonstrate this all-encompassing sense of love and infatuation, to imply how consuming and almost religious it is.  It drives both of them and takes over their entire worlds, at least for the time being.  Sometimes you buy it, sometimes you don’t.

Shakespeare in Love is a period piece drama that probably reminds you of 1984’s Amadeus, another Best Picture winner based on the life of a famous historical artist.  In both cases the first time we meet the titular, famous character is a bit of a surprise.  They are not the stoic genius we might picture but rather something more raw, almost painfully human as they follow their various sexual whims, having their story turned into something farcical before the second and third acts necessitate the rising dramatic stakes.

To some degree you see it in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, though I think that movie is a much more tragic one.  In any case these movies are steeped in the aesthetic of their historical worlds, so far removed from our own so as to feel fantastical.  At the same time the characters behave like modern characters, driven by the same ego, libido, insecurity and jealousy that we see all around us (to varying degrees) but which it sometimes seems never existed in times such as these.

I guess it’s a divide which is meant to help fully realize this world, to think that yes, William Shakespeare once was a young man and surely while alive wasn’t as legendary as he is now.  It’s like the story of many an artist whose fame seems so familiar to us but who might not have achieved that same status until years after their death.

Up Next: Captain Marvel (2019), For All Mankind (1989), Junebug (2005)

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