As 1998's romance Shakespeare In Love opens, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is a man with a problem. Not yet proprietor of The Globe Theater, Shakespeare is a poet and playwright scraping out a meager living in Elizabethan London. He has accepted a modest advance from Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) for his next play, "Romeo and Ethel The Pirate's Daughter". It's to be a comedy, with a shipwreck, mistaken identities, and a bit with a dog. But Will has writer's block and hasn't written a word of the play.
Meanwhile, in a much better part of town, Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) has her own problems. The daughter of a wealthy merchant family, her parents are following the time-honored tradition of buying their way into the nobility by marrying off their daughter to the Earl of Wessex (Colin Firth), but Viola has other aspirations. In an age where women of quality do not even attend the theater, much less act on the stage, Viola is stage-struck. She sees the plays when the players perform at Greenwich for the Queen (Judi Dench), and she has a bad case of hero-worship for Will Shakespeare.
Love Blooms - As Does the Play
The theater is casting Will's (still unwritten) play, and Viola shows up for auditions. This is an era when the women's parts are played by young boys, so she is dressed in men's clothes and calling herself Thomas Kent. Will is impressed with her reading, but when he asks her to remove her hat, "Kent" runs away. She hadn't thought this through, and her long hair is stuffed beneath her hat.
Will follows her to the De Lesseps house, where Viola's nurse (Imelda Stanton) claims that Thomas Kent is her nephew and promises to deliver a message.
Meanwhile, a party is underway and Will sneaks into the house with the musicians. It's there that he spots Viola as herself and is instantly smitten. Escorted from the house by Wessex's burly retainers, Will sees Viola on the balcony and shares a romantic conversation with her.
Sound familiar? It should. Much of Will's experiences with Viola find their way into his newly inspired play as it morphs from the comedy "Romeo and Ethel The Pirate's Daughter" into the romantic tragedy "Romeo and Juliet".
The romance of Will and Viola is the love that can have no happy ending. Even if Viola's match with Wessex were not "a daughter's duty - and the queen's command", let's not forget something else about Shakespeare. Although he acts very much the bachelor, he does have a wife and family back in Stratford.
The next day, "Thomas Kent" is back at the theater, now equipped with a realistic-looking man's wig and mustache, and Viola is cast as Romeo. Will still believes Kent is a retainer of the De Lesseps family, and uses him as his go-between, giving Viola love letters to deliver to herself.
Eventually, he catches on to the disguise, and there is a great deal of frantic kissing backstage and more intimate moments at the De Lesseps home, with the connivance of Viola's nurse.
And Yet, Rollicking
As described so far, this sounds like a sad romance, and yet Shakespeare In Love is as much comedy as it is romance. Remember that about half the time Will is kissing Viola, she's wearing a mustache.
There are also the machinations involved in getting a play staged, and a lot of 'insider' type show business humor. (As the troupe carouses in a tavern, the actor who plays Juliet's nurse responds to a serving wench who asks what the play is about, "It's about this nurse..." Anyone who's ever known an actor laughs.)
There is the rivalry between Shakespeare's troupe and Charles Burbage's troupe, culminating in a fabulous on-stage brawl with swords.
It's just a lot of fun; you can see why Viola yearned for the stage.
Rupert Everett is uncredited as Shakespeare's literary rival Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, and Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for her short but memorable performance as Queen Elizabeth. Ben Affleck also appears in a brief but powerful role.
Lovers Part, Inspiration Remains
Although Will and Viola have to part by the end of the story, Shakespeare In Love is still an uplifting movie. "Better to have loved and lost..." is the message to take away.
Viola departs for the colonies with her new husband, but we know she's going to live forever, as Will begins his next play, Twelfth Night, the one the Queen commanded. "Her name," he writes, "is Viola..."
Shakespeare in Love Credits and Awards
Shakespeare In Love was directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard. It received seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, Best Supporting Actress for Judi Dench, and Best Screenplay.