While there are plenty of facts to rough out an historical timeline, Shakespeare’s personal life is a mystery to the most diligent of biographers. On the contrary, While John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love constructs events and meanings which appear to be factual, the lines between Madden’s depiction and Shakespeare’s reality are heavily blurred. Early scenes are representative of the humble beginnings of the notorious Bard, and verisimilitude exists simply from what we know about narrative. We know historically that Shakespeare becomes successful, but to become successful means that he was not always. The audience can thus identify with certain probabilities and forgive those symbolic depictions that do not align with the Shakespearian time period.
Historical Accuracy Vs. Contemporary Culture
One such example is the way the film portrays a lack of inspiration in the process of writing. Will (Joseph Fiennes) sits at a modest desk in a sparsely furnished room. With ink stained fingers, he repeatedly scrawls and crosses out his name with a quill, perhaps focusing on the perfect signature to a masterpiece he has yet to begin. One can imagine him asking himself, “Where to start?” Dissatisfied with even his imperfect signature, he crumples the parchment, tosses it into the trash, and sticks the quill into an apple. The trash lands in a small, open trunk alongside what appears to be well preserved and organized manuscripts. The message reads as if success has turned sour, dried up, run out. Although the imagery is effective, one might ask if Shakespeare, a writer of little wealth at the start of his career, would waste ink and fresh sheets of valuable parchment on a signature only to toss them into the trash? It’s not likely but, because paper is such an inexpensive and widely available commodity in America now, we accept the symbolic portrayal of frustration in balled up sheets of misshapen thoughts without question. Understanding narrative construct and cinematic language, rather than realism, is what convinces the audience.
What Sets Will Apart
I suspect that, to make Will’s writing process appear magically aligned with the largesse of Shakespeare’s posthumous reputation, the mysteries of love are what the film’s writers chose to set him apart. Overall, Will’s life as writer is rife with obstacles. His creativity is inhibited both from within and beyond the boundaries of his own mind. External impositions including writing for commission, writing for whom he is commissioned, writing to satisfy audience expectations or even to satisfy the Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench), result in little to no success. Internal impositions, such as having no inspirational muse, cause Will to seek one in Rosaline (Sandra Reinton), but she does no more than spark a play’s beginning without substance or depth. Will’s eventual success stems only from falling passionately in love with Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) whose character both reciprocates in kind and is the proverbial forbidden fruit. By comparison, Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), a highly respected playwright in Shakespeare’s time as well as within the film, never mentions having his own muse. In fact, he can rattle off a title, plot and character names, all while buying a man a drink. When the two authors talk about Will’s inability to begin, as well as the components of a play, they never once talk about where to find inspiration. True love is what sets Will apart in the film and ultimately makes his play a raging success… well, that and the fact that Marlowe, his competition, is dead by the time Romeo and Juliet hits the stage.
No Cheep Substitutes
This film uses the true passion of love rather than lust to illustratively parallel Will’s writing successes. At the suggestion of his apothecary (depicted as a modern day therapist), Will first chooses Rosaline for his muse. He scrawls his name on a small bit of parchment and inserts it into the mouth of a serpent-shaped bracelet for her to wear. The mystery of this ritual is thus equated to the art of writing, and yet something is still missing. Sure, Will finds himself able to begin. He ritualistically rubs his quill between the palms of his hands as if to warm it up. He writes through the night, and wakes to the cock’s crow in the light of a new day, lifting his morning face from the passionately scrawled pages he has finally composed. This is a start, but the play still has no end in sight. Enter Viola, or, Master Kent. Inspired by Viola/Kent’s genuine passion during an audition, Will is inspired. Kent’s ruse as a male actor is revealed to Will and fate chooses the two star-crossed lovers to act out its own play of sorts. Together, Will and Viola weave Romeo and Juliette from intense emotional snippets of their romantic interlude, a dream of escaping together from life’s predetermined path, and the tragic and inevitable reality of their inability to be together.
The Mirror’s Reflection
Madden has encapsulated a play within a play. The two are intertwined as if to demonstrate Shakespeare’s own lines, “All the world’s a stage.” First, as Will experiences an escalation of passion as the result of private meetings with Viola, that passion becomes transformed into art as Will frantically scribbles at his desk. It’s as if the pen can’t keep pace with the verses flowing from his heart, unlike its response to others’ suggestions. Suddenly, the pen becomes somewhat of a character reacting to the plot. We see Will’s shoulders and head emphatically involved in the writing process but not the hand holding the pen or the words being written on the page. The room is quiet, still and serene but for the sound of the quill’s own voice, the result of the friction as it flies across the page. Another example of this is when, as tension mounts when Viola is promised in marriage to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), Madden uses a montage of scenes to depict the relationship between Will’s life play and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette, alternating from Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) on stage about to embark in a dual to Lord Wessex charging the streets in search of Will. The two scenes conflate when the battle between R&J’s cast meet Wessex and Will. As props and feathers fly, the rise in action for both the artistically constructed cast and “real” combatants become indistinguishable. The plays immediately and successfully mirror each other.
Latent Vs. Kinetic Energy
Anyone who has ever written knows that thoughts are fleeting, but for all the authors in this world, I’ve never seen one flying past me to grab that Starbuck’s napkin in order to preserve an idea. Since writing itself is not an exciting process to watch, Will responds physically to the state of his successes. When he finally finishes the first scene, he hurries across town arriving breathless at Rosaline’s doorstep. Disappointed at her interactions with another man, Will slowly sulks away. When inspired by Viola, he rushes into the study and quickly twirls his quill again, as if he’ll lose the magic by wasting a single minute before scrawling his thoughts on paper. While Will running through the streets is an unlikely event, this action creates interest and a sense of urgency in which the importance of his work is reflected.
As an aside, this reminds me of the series West Wing. So often a conversation would take place between two characters briskly walking down the halls in a hurry to get to address some political situation that couldn’t wait. In an interview with Dee Dee Myers, the former press secretary for the Clinton administration and West Wing consultant, I remember hearing her say that when she worked at the White House, the offices looked similar to the West Wing set but people were far more stationary. Disproportionate to reality, the dramatic impact of the “Walk with me” line that set the characters in motion was far more fun to watch. Breathless and on their way to somewhere important was better sitting at their desks for the whole show. Good thing Aaron Sorkin was on it.
Recognition of the Real
How much “living out loud” could be done while writing such lengthy works (and making them rhyme to boot.) I did a little digging (because I can’t do math myself) and found this bit of info:
In just 23 years, between approximately 1590 and 1613, he is attributed with writing 38 plays, 154 sonnets and 5 other poems.
This intense production of writing brings up an interesting point. Christopher Marlowe died in 1593 while the completion of Romeo and Juliet is placed around 1597. If Shakespeare was pumping out sometimes 2-3 plays a year, it seems unlikely that he was writing Romeo and Juliet back while Marlowe was still alive. Additionally, there was probably little time for dramatically romantic events the likes of Viola de Lessups to consume his life. Bringing the two together for the sake of the story successfully adds drama and tension but?no real?accuracy.
Although the type of narrative embodied within Shakespeare in Love may place significant constraints upon Shakespeare’s actual history, the idea that inspiration produces art is easily recognized. Certainly an author’s personal passions feed the desire to write about and explore a situation. This film effectively inflates that assumption and draws interesting parallels between an actual time-honored play and?the true love which could believably have inspired it. The writers obviously had a good time being clever weaving the facts into fiction. The connections made work well together and, even if they are not true, they read as if they are so.