Hollywood addresses the same great question every few years: how to make writers and the act of writing interesting?
It’s a strange impulse, because watching the true writing process is tremendously dull. Hours, sometimes days, of fits and starts; good and god-awful writing; self-hatred and self-tolerance. Who would want to watch that?
While Shakespeare in Love is interested in the writing life, it’s more interested in the act of creation – of what it takes to create great art, and how that art reflects life.
The film takes great liberty with dates and facts, as it is a work of fiction, as it tells the story of William Shakespeare’s efforts to create his masterwork, Romeo & Juliet. And it does so cleverly, by borrowing liberally from the Bard’s own plot, structure, and dialog.
In 1593 London, we’re told, two theaters rival for ticket sales and respectability. One, the home of young and as-yet-unsuccessful William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes); the other, home to Christopher Marlowe. The Montague’s and Capulet’s, if you will.
This Shakespeare has terrific case of writer’s block. And, as a “psychiatrist” tells him, to get his groove back he needs to dip his pen in some ink. He’s missing his muse. As it happens, while his theatre company casts his next production – Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter – Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) auditions as “Thomas Kent,” quoting the Bard’s own work back at him. Women aren’t allowed on the stage at this time.
Her arrival sparks a love triangle that will carry us the rest of the way, ensnaring us in the complexities of family, duty, fate, and Colin Firth wearing an earring. Firth plays Lord Wessex, to whom Viola is betrothed, a high-born yet destitute landowner looking for a nice influx of cash. And where his position in life afford him the ability to marry into a financially strong family with a daughter who looks like Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare – the poor playwright he is – must marry for love. How crude.
He falls for Viola and they hold an illicit love affair, surprisingly sweet and fun for all but Lord Wessex. She continues to rehearse Romeo and Ethel… as a boy, all the while stealing kisses from the Bard. Their love affair, hot as it is, influences the play. We lose the pirate nonsense, the bit with a dog, and, most crucially, the name Ethel. Will and Viola play Romeo and Juliet, and imbue the play with bits of a true love story.
A true love story. Truth-in-art is an idea the film plays with. Wessex, specifically, questions the idea. At one point he calls nature and truth enemies of playwriting.
Of course, as this is a movie, truth and nature are certainly part and parcel of the creative process. To say otherwise would be hypocritical. When Romeo and Juliet opens, the applause is rapturous, and no less than the Queen of England (Judi Dench) decides that, yes, plays can show true love. But love can’t trump the laws of country. Viola must marry Lord Wessex and sail to Virginia (which didn’t exist in 1593…but alas), while Shakespeare must suffer without her.
The good news, art is borne out of suffering too. It’s not in love, but loss, that inspires Shakespeare’s next play: Twelfth Night.
The main character’s name? Viola.