Shakespeare in Love isn’t history in the strictest sense. It’s a timeless love story set against a historical backdrop.
Shakespeare in Love remains a strangely controversial film, despite (if not largely because of) its massive success at the 71st Academy Awards. No, its legacy isn’t akin to the likes of The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer or Triumph of the Will; it wasn’t a cinematic classic that advanced the form by way of ugly stereotypes and outright racism. Instead, it inspired dismissiveness, and an increasing wave of scorn, thanks to its proud, middlebrow execution, a breakout performance by GOOP goddess Gwyneth Paltrow and an aggressive Oscar blitz orchestrated by that persona non grata, Harvey Weinstein. That Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan is now remembered as a coup of ruthless marketing rather than an achievement based on pure merit.
Watching Shakespeare in Love with the remove of two decades, such objections seem petty and irrelevant to the actual quality of the film. Say what you will about what it eventually unleashed: a regular spate of movies engineered to win Oscars; the backlash against Paltrow as a public figure; Weinstein’s continued jockeying for Academy gold (which is further stained by the sexual abuses he perpetrated along the way). But when you return to this buoyant romantic comedy set in Elizabethan England, its David-like triumph over Spielberg’s WWII Goliath doesn’t seem so crazy.
Why, for starters, should we take as objective fact that a great rom-com is, by its very nature, artistically inferior to a great battlefield movie? What does that say about our culture—or, to be more precise, our culture’s critics—that romance seems less important than war? This isn’t a new phenomenon. The Iliad is an immortal work of the Western canon. But so is Pride and Prejudice.
So, too, is Romeo and Juliet—whose creation drives the film’s story (much of it historically fudged). Will Shakespeare (a smoldering, sometimes hapless Joseph Fiennes) is on the ropes to deliver a play for Philip Henslowe (a bumbling Geoffrey Rush), proprietor of the Rose Theatre. Will is stricken with writer’s block and distracted by his courtship of Rosaline (Sandra Reinton), the mistress of Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes), the owner of a rival theater. Enter Viola de Lesseps (Paltrow, luminous and hungry), the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who becomes Will’s muse and lover through a series of Shakespearean plot twists that involve drag and hidden identities.
These performances deftly walk the line between stately and screwball. Imelda Staunton shines as Viola’s protective nurse, the inspiration for a similar character in Romeo and Juliet. Judi Dench famously nabbed an Oscar for her severe, eight-minute showstopper as Queen Elizabeth I. Colin Firth, playing hard against type, is deliciously loathsome as Viola’s suitor. But it’s Fiennes and Paltrow who humanize a sparkling screenplay (by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard) and director John Madden’s handsome production. Their chemistry makes this intricate literary homage feel universal and alive.
Maybe that’s why subsequent period pictures feel so obligatory and airless. Shakespeare in Love isn’t history in the strictest sense. It’s a timeless love story set against a historical backdrop. We’ve been raised to associate Shakespeare with eating our vegetables. In this case, the Bard is the frosting on an exquisite dessert.