Some observations about ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1998)


It is not often that you go to the movies and immediately the film begins you know you are in for a good time. That was how I felt about Shakespeare in Love the moment the camera panned around the replica of the Rose Theatre and I heard the beautiful theme music of Stephen Warbeck. Of course, connoisseurs of the Bard will most likely hate the thing but, since I find Shakespeare boring beyond belief, I will not be counted among their numbers. Above all, this is a ‘fun’ film; a romantic comedy built around the words of Bill the Bard with some brief (and dubious) references to the man’s life. It is not real Shakespeare and it is not a historical document. It is purely and simply entertainment; nothing more.    

Gwyneth with long lair/ Gwyneth with short hair

Having said that, the picture has flaws throughout that simply take the breath away. Whoever thought that audiences would accept that Gwyneth Paltrow’s beautiful long golden tresses could be hidden under her incredibly short brunette wig must surely have been smoking something stronger than tobacco. And as for that final scene at the Rose in which Queen Elizabeth I suddenly pops up in the audience…well. Are we truthfully expected to believe that she sneaked into the cheap seats totally un-noticed, wearing her queenly gown that took up four or five seats itself, after unobtrusively parking the Royal carriage outside in the street? Historically, of course, Elizabeth never once entered a public theatre in her life anyway. Another blatant anomaly concerns the part of Lord Wessex (played by Colin Firth). The last Earl of Wessex became King Harold II in 1066. There would not be another until recently when Prince Edward asked his mum for the title after seeing Firth’s portrayal of the man in this movie. The Virginia tobacco plants Wessex speaks of, incidentally, would not be commercially produced until the 17th century.

QE1, gown and all, emerges from her hiding

spot in the audience.

Colin Firth as Lord Wessex

Did this movie warrant 13 Oscar nominations? Probably not. Did it deserve the Best Picture Academy Award? In my opinion, definitely not. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was an infinitely better (and more important) movie. It should have won. Even so, I find I have watched ‘Shakespeare’ a lot more times than I have struggled through ‘Ryan’. Why? Because I enjoy being entertained, not drawn through an emotional wringer and spat out the other side. Saving Private Ryan is too harrowing an experience for me to watch more than once or twice. As brilliant as it undoubtedly is, it is a raw depiction of war at its worst – educational and thought-provoking – but not what I prefer to call entertainment. For me a movie is something I can use to escape into a magical world for a couple of hours, somewhere where I do not have to think too much or worry about how badly my fellow beings are prepared to treat one another. If I want a dose of the latter I read a book or watch a documentary. And, being a historian, I do that quite regularly – but not in my movie time. That is reserved for Cary, Marilyn, Grace, Audie, Ava, the Duke, Alan Ladd and Bob Mitchum – and a few dozen others.

Saving Private Ryan – a truly great movie

For me, an enjoyable, no thinking required, western is Shane or Rio Bravo or any one of a half dozen Audie Murphy B-flicks – not The Wild Bunch or The Missing or some other brutally violent, probably accurate depiction of the west as it really was. For similar reasons I refuse to watch ‘kitchen sink’ dramas. I much prefer How to Marry a Millionaire or To Catch a Thief or any romantic comedy starring Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn – or both. Even those schmaltzy fifties abominations starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day are preferable to a modern so-called romance involving a couple of drug-taking, foul-mouthed teenagers displaying acres of skin. Or, worse still, a pair of vampires having sex in between slurping down their daily quotas of blood. Yuk!


Judi Dench as QE1                               Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth

Judi Dench positively stole a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her six minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love. I mean, she was good – but not that good. Only Beatrice Straight in Network in 1976 got hers for less screen time – five minutes only. In one of those not uncommon Oscar anomalies, Cate Blanchett was unsuccessfully nominated in the Best Actress category in that same year playing the same character- Queen Elizabeth I. Judi was impressed by the full-scale replica of the Rose Theatre used in Shakespeare in Love, so much so that Miramax gave it to her at the completion of the shoot. Her intention, providing she could obtain financial backing, was to turn it into a working theatre.

The Rose Theatre replica built for the film

Gwyneth Paltrow’s nurse is played by veteran actress Imelda Staunton. Jim Carter played the nurse in the play within the play. He later achieved everlasting TV fame portraying Carson the butler in Downton Abbey. Most fans are probably unaware that they are real-life husband and wife. The movie was first thought of back in 1988 when Julia Roberts agreed to play Viola, provided she retain all casting rights. She was a big enough star then to make such demands. She wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play Shakespeare, but when he opted to do In the Name of the Father instead the project lay dormant for nearly a decade.


Imelda Staunton                                         Jim Carter

Speaking of Gwyneth Paltrow, it is generally believed that she first saw the script on her friend Winona Ryder’s office desk in 1997 and asked her if she could read it. Evidently, she neglected to tell Winona that she intended going after the role herself. As we now know it resulted in her winning an Oscar for Best Actress. Her deception destroyed their friendship. Kate Winslet was originally offered the role after she completed Titanic, but she declined it. Ben Affleck and Gwyneth were an ‘item’ in 1998, hence his decision to accept a smallish part in the picture. He wanted to be near his new girlfriend. Surprisingly, he turned down an offer to play the lead which ultimately went to Joseph Fiennes.


Ben Affleck as Ned Alleyn                     Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare

The gay factor prevalent in Shakespeare’s life is altogether ignored in this film. For instance the bisexual Bard penned all his sonnets for a male lover, either the Earl of Southampton or the Earl of Pembroke, not for Viola de Lesseps. Lord Wessex’s belief that Christopher Marlowe was Viola’s lover was all the more strange, given that it was common knowledge Marlowe was homosexual. I suppose, signing bisexual actor Rupert Everett to play him might have been a back-handed acknowledgement of this.

Rupert Everett as Christopher Marlowe

There are a number of versions of Bill Shakespeare’s signature floating about, all of them quite different. Which one (if any) is his legitimate autograph is anyone’s guess. Indeed, they are even spelt differently. It has even been suggested that history’s most famous playwright may have been illiterate! One thing I do know is that his brilliance was not always immediately apparent, if I can believe my daughter anyway. She was about 12 years old when I took her to see another of my daughters appear in Macbeth at a theatre nearby. While driving home I asked her how she liked her first Shakespearian experience. ‘It was pretty good’, she replied. Then, after giving it more thought, she added in all seriousness, ‘but I think it would have been better if it had been in English!’ My sentiments exactly.


  1. You are correct! When I’ve heard someone say, “I go to the movies
    to be entertained,” I’ve immediately thought they don’t want to think.
    I realized that this began to seem superficial to me, while making
    my comment. Lancaster is SO entertaining, so bad; clipped speech, etc.

    • It’s funny, but I never liked Lancaster when he was young and dashing. All teeth. But I loved him, first in ‘From Here to Eternity’ (except for his woeful drunk scene), in ‘Sweet Smell of Success’, and in a superb western called ‘Ulzana’s Raid’. Changed my opinion completely.

  2. On your comment about wanting to be entertained when you go to movies:
    Where does “Sweet Smell of Success” fit into this for you?
    Having now thought about “entertainment,” perhaps it is both thought
    provoking and entertaining to me.

    • Complete, top shelf entertainment actually, Sheila. Lancaster entertains, Curtis entertains, even Marty Milner whom I never thought much of before that. Above all else, however, the script is entertainment plus.Not all entertainment means smiles and happy endings, of course. Snappy dialogue, fascinating characters, first class acting, great cinematography and a score to suit the surroundings are more than enough. ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ delivers the lot. So does ‘Double Indemnity’, come to think of it, yet neither picture has a cheerful outcome.

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