Shakespeare in Love came out in 1998, two years after Baz Luhrmann’s game-changing Romeo + Juliet. Both films brought a startling new freshness to Shakespearean adaptations. Unlike the steamy “Verona Beach” of Luhrmann’s film, Shakespeare in Love is set in Renaissance London with lots of nods to theater history. Yet it is no period piece. Instead, screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard cooked up a funny, sexy, endlessly surprising script (later adapted for the stage by Lee Hall). The result is a delightful romantic comedy with young Will as the lead in his own story of wacky cross-dressing, erotic bedazzlement and the discovery of a theatrical form worthy of a brave new world.
You will get some literary history here. Both the play and the film feature another Renaissance playwright, Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, as a character. (The play actually expands his role.) This titan of the early Elizabethan theater penned iconoclastic portraits of amoral heroes propelled towards disaster by their desire for greatness. In Shakespeare in Love, young Will takes both inspiration and caution from the grandiloquent poetry and short, violent life of his crazy friend and rival. Learning of Kit’s death in a tavern brawl, Will confesses, “I would exchange all my plays to come for all his that will never be written.” Although we are grateful for the many plays that Shakespeare did go on to write, the statement acknowledges the enormous debt that the real Will Shakespeare owed to Marlowe as a dramatic poet.
Shakespeare in Love also introduces a third player on the literary scene, the very young John Webster, who confesses to having played a severed head in Titus Andronicus. Since the plays that Webster will later write are distinguished by gobs of gore, this early cameo is a fitting start for his bloody career.
It’s no accident that Shakespeare in Love features the composition and staging of Romeo and Juliet. After all, Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy remains one of the most beloved plays in the classical repertoire, and it is also a work that repeatedly invites its own renewal. Why not imagine Romeo as a portrait of the artist as a young man?
But Shakespeare in Love also, and more profoundly, rewrites Twelfth Night. Viola de Lesseps, the stage-struck aristocrat who takes up service as a boy page for young Will, emerges as the prototype for the cross-dressing Viola of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, written around 1600, four years later than Romeo and Juliet. Like the romantic leads in Twelfth Night, Viola de Lessep and Will Shakespeare learn to express their longings through the medium of poetic language and under the cover of disguise. When the story ends, young Will has established himself as the author of a runaway hit, but his love affair and re-education at the hands of Viola have also given him the scenario for another, perhaps even greater, play.
Little in Shakespeare in Love is true. Yet through its very liberties with history, this work is remarkably faithful to Shakespeare’s own creative approach to the past. Like Will’s plays, Shakespeare in Love indulges in allusion, double-plotting and the occasional really bad pun. What’s not to love?
Julia Reinhard Lupton is professor of English at UC Irvine, where she co-directs the UCI Shakespeare Center with Eli Simon, Chancellor’s Professor of Drama. You can follow the Shakespeare Center on Facebook and Instagram.
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