Old School Archive: Shakespeare in Love Review

After watching and reviewing the newest Shakespeare-based film Anonymous, I felt compelled to re-visit the 1998 comedy-drama Shakespeare in Love, a film which, despite Anonymous‘ compelling context, ultimately overshadows in comparison in terms of story as a heart-tugging portrayal of the life of William Shakespeare as he pens the tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

The film starts out similarly to Romeo and Juliet, intentionally mirroring the play as Will (Fiennes) suffers desperately from writer’s block due to his infatuation for Rosaline, which soon abates when he meets the beautiful Viola (Paltrow). Unknowingly to Will, Viola has been masquerading as a Mr Thomas Kent so that she might appear in one of Shakespeare’s play, as she is infatuated with his verse. After the classic balcony scene and promise of Viola to Lord Wessex (aka Paris), Viola and Will fall deeply in love, all whilst preparing for the first performance of Romeo and Juliet with some brilliant comic performances from Geoffrey Rush and also Ben Affleck, who proves how good an actor he can be by playing the commanding and dramatic Ned Alleyn (Mercutio in the play).

However, after discovering that William has a wife, Viola leaves him broken hearted, then discovers a day later that a playwright was murdered in a tavern. Believing it to be Will, Viola is in a state of disarray before Will appears to her, alive and well, revealing it was actually Christopher Marlowe who had been killed. This clearly points towards the terrible misunderstanding in Romeo and Juliet, though this was probably the low point of the film as Viola believed Will to be dead for around three minutes before he appears at her church.

After reaffirming their love, and also the impossibility of it, the film truly comes into it’s dramatic element as Viola marries the gold digger Wessex (Firth), before running to see her last ever Shakespeare play. In a great turn of events, Viola ends up playing the title role of Juliet against Will’s Romeo, leading to a beautiful scene where Viola and William state everything they wanted to say to each other in the sight of a captivated audience, which is all the more satisfying as their relationship has been kept a secret throughout the film. This scene was perfectly done, gave goosebumps and made me genuinely wistful to have been an extra stood in the audience.

Although the film will conclude in the tragedy of Viola leaving Will forever, the film is fabulous in its subversion of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet by, instead of creating an ending, actually creating a hopeful beginning as William writes his next play A Twelfth Night, a play which shares as many elements which the story of Viola and William as does Romeo and Juliet, and yet is a comedy, leaving the audience with a feeling of hopefulness instead of despair, despite the parting of the lovers, beautifully written by John Madden.

Winning no less than seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Shakespeare in Love truly encapsulates the fascination we now have for the Elizabethan age; the drama and the spectacle of the theatres, the brutality and finality of marriage and the resplendence of Elizabethan dress. Performed by a strong cast with the ever fantastic Dame Judi Dench’s appearance confirming that this is indeed a good historical film, Shakespeare in Love’s premise and execution are flawless, making it a true contemporary classic.

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