Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Shakespeare in Love


I have seen all of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays at least once, on stage or screen. Some of them I have seen multiple times. Example: I have seen the 1968 Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, Baz Luhrmann’s modern updating Romeo + Juliet, a BBC production when they were doing all the plays, and the ridiculous 1936 version. (Juliet was 13 in the play. Norma Shearer was 32. We don’t know how old Romeo was, but Leslie Howard was a bit long in the tooth, at 43!)

I’m not bragging, and I don’t claim to be any sort of Shakespearean expert. But I was wondering how much one would enjoy this if he or she knew nothing of the Bard’s works. I think it could still be one hell of a tragi-comic romance, but there’s no doubt it would be better if you knew something of his works, and of Romeo and Juliet in particular. Because the subject matter is a riff on how old Will (Joseph Fiennes) might have come to write one of his best tragedies. The set-up is hilarious. The working title of the play he is writing is Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate’s Daughter. Shades of Gilbert and Sullivan!

Actually, he is not writing it. He is blocked. He is also beset by all manner of problems in his life. For instance, he has already sold the play he’s not writing to the frightening owner of the theater. But enter one Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), what we might call a theater groupie today. She is stage-struck, and longs to tread the boards as an actor, but in 1593 women were not permitted to act. Grotesquely, men played all the parts. A young man was already cast as Juliet. So Viola dresses up as a man and wins the part of Romeo.

There are dozens of delicious references to other plays, and dialogue that Will overhears that makes it into the play. One of the silly conventions of Elizabethan theater was that all it took for a beautiful woman to pass as a boy was to wear a pair of baggy pants and put her hair up under a cap, like Portia in The Merchant of Venice. It’s a device still being used in the 20th century, such as Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels.

It’s a shame that Gwyneth Paltrow has turned out to be such a shallow, flaky person. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s the part, not the person, but sometimes that is harder than others, as with Mel Gibson. Anyway, she deserved her Oscar, though it wasn’t a particularly great year for actresses. But though I dearly love this movie, it was a travesty for it to win Best Picture in a year that included not only Saving Private Ryan but The Thin Red Line as well.