Shakespeare in Love: A Musical Comedy

“Shakespeare in Love” (1998) is that one musical comedy which is a must watch for those viewers who are ardent devourers of romantic stories. Directed by John Madden, it stars Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola de Lesseps in its lead cast.

It’s a period film that has fictionalized the life of the famous Elizabethan poet and playwright- William Shakespeare. The story of the film revolves around a poor playwright Will or William Shakespeare and his ladylove, Viola de Lesseps. As the movie begins, theatre manager Philip Henslowe finds himself in debt to loan shark Hugh Fennyman, so he offers Fennyman a partnership in the upcoming production of Shakespeare’s newest comedy— Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, assuring him that it’d be a huge success. But on learning that his love was cheating on him with his patron, Shakespeare burns the original play and tries to start anew. This very play, in the later part of the film, is renamed as Romeo and Juliet after reworked into a tragedy with some comical undertones.

Suffering from writer’s block, Shakespeare is unable to complete the play but still, he deicides to begin auditions for “Romeo”. He selects a boy named Thomas Kent for the role after getting impressed with his performance and his love of Shakespeare’s previous works. Kent, actually, is young Viola de Lesseps, who desires to act, but since women are barred from the stage, she chooses to disguise herself like a young man to act. After Shakespeare discovers Kent’s true identity, he begins a passionate secret affair with Viola. There are strong parallels between the pair’s romance and the love portrayed in his play- Romeo and Juliet, like the ballroom scene from Act 2, the balcony scene immediately following it, the element of forbidden love forms the basis of Shakespeare’s inspiration and many of their (Shakespeare’s and Viola’s) conversations which later show up as some of the most famous quotes in his play.

Inspired by his ladylove, he begins writing feverishly. His work in progress also benefits from the off-hand advice of playwright and friendly rival- ‘Kit’ or Christopher Marlowe. Yet Shakespeare and de Lesseps know that their love is fated to be doomed. Shakespeare already is married, albeit long separated from his wife and Viola’s parents would never permit her to marry a poor playwright like Shakespeare. In fact, Viola’s father has privately arranged her betrothal to Lord Wessex who is a foolish poor aristocrat.

When Viola is summoned to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare disguised as a woman accompanies her. At court, he goads Lord Wessex into betting a sum of fifty pounds that a play cannot capture the nature of true love. If Romeo and Juliet proves out to be a huge success, then Shakespeare as a playwright would win the money. The Queen, who enjoys watching Shakespeare’s plays, agrees to witness the wager. This meeting’s true purpose is revealed later when Wessex announces his intent to marry Viola de Lesseps. But Queen’s official in charge of the theatres learns that there is a woman in the theatre company at the Rose playhouse. He orders to close the theatre for violating morality and the law. Left without a stage as well as a lead actor, it seems that Romeo and Juliet must close before it even opens, until the owner of a competing theatre- the Curtain, offers him a stage. Shakespeare assumes the lead role of Romeo, with a boy actor acting as Juliet.
Viola learns that the play would be performed on the day of her marriage. After the ceremony, her loyal nurse helps her in slipping away to the theatre. But shortly before the play begins, the actor playing Juliet experiences the voice change of puberty. So Viola takes the stage to replace him and acts as Juliet to Shakespeare’s Romeo. Their passionate portrayal of true lovers inspires the entire audience.

Mr. Tilney, the Master of the Revels, arrives at the theatre with Wessex, who deduces his new bride’s whereabouts. He invokes the Queen’s name to arrest all the people of theatre there for showing lewdness. Suddenly, Elizabeth I’s voice rings out from the back of the audiences blaming Mr. Tilney for wearing out her name. She attends the play in disguise and orders to handle the matter herself. Despite of recognizing Viola disguised as Thomas Kent, she does not unmask her, instead declares that the role of Juliet is being performed by a boy.

What happens at the end of the story is still suspense. Do Shakespeare and Viola spend the rest of their lives together? Is Viola’s marriage to Wessex broken? Does Shakespeare win the amount for which he had betted?

This two hour three-minute-movie story has strictly followed the linearity of time, place and action. Just like the works of Shakespeare, it also has the Shakespearean elements of play like ‘a story within the story’, romantic poetic dialogues, portrayal of royal and luxurious places and aristocratic people, etc. The movie showcases the city of London as it was in the Elizabethan age. The music of the film does a wonderful job in giving it a classical touch. This movie won seventeen awards in all including seven academy awards too.

Aditi Swami

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