Shakespeare in Love: 1998

Directed by John Madden
Written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman


  • Joseph Fiennes: William Shakespeare
  • Gwyneth Paltrow: Viola de Lesseps
  • Geoffrey Rush: Philip Henslowe
  • Judi Dench: Queen Elizabeth I
  • Colin Firth: Lord Wessex
  • Ben Affleck: Ned Alleyn
  • Rupert Everett: Christopher Marlowe (uncredited)

    Oscar Awards:

  • Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow)
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Music
  • Best Picture
  • Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench)
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard)

    Maligned by some, celebrated by others, this pseudo-history of Shakespeare's early years gives to the Bard exactly what he gave to others--a brilliantly creative rewrite with lots of poetic license. Will, a struggling playwrite in Elizabethan London, falls in love with a young noblewoman named Viola. From there, it retells Romeo and Juliet, with a bit of mistaken identity, intrigue, and cross-dressing humor, all of which are directly lifted from Shakespeare's plays. The language sticks to the Elizabethan era, without feeling overwritten or fake.

    For any fan of Stoppard, this is a must-see. There are plenty of in-jokes for lovers of Shakespeare, and gives an interesting twist on the murder of Christopher Marlowe.

    "The consumptives plot against me--'Will Shakespeare has a new play; let's go cough through it!'"

  • A Critical Deconstruction of Shakespeare in Love

    Movies are entertainment that make a lot of people a lot of money, but they are also arguably the most engaging and subtly manipulative art form that has ever existed. A thorough understanding of how to break down films is therefore interesting and useful. While I believe that movies are primarily for fun (and the movie industry is primarily for profit), I also believe that the inner workings of anything that is fun should be examined. Whether or not Shakespeare in Love is fun certainly varies with the reader, but these several angles of attack apply, with varied relative importance, to every film ever made.

    Yes, there are spoilers. Like, duh.


    The main attributes of the film, Shakespeare In Love, correspond directly with the photographic style of the movie. It is a sweet movie set in a romanticized period in history. To accentuate this, many of the scenes are filmed in a painterly style, with warm high-key lighting and an emphasis on color. Lines are blended. This conformity to a certain style is sometimes contradicted to enhance an important change in the film’s story or feeling.

    An interesting sequence of the movie involves the juxtaposition of a formal and informal rehearsal of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene. The camera cuts after each line between the theater where the actors are practicing the scene, and Viola’s bedroom, where she is making love to Will Shakespeare. Both sets are lit in a common level of dim warmth; reds and browns are emphasized, and both events happen at night when candlelight and torches are clearly seen.

    The bedroom sections of this scene are lit with a higher contrast than usual in the film, and are even softer. Gwyneth Paltrow’s blond hair is backlit to halo her head and enhance the romantic feel of the shot. It seems even that the key lighting rotates the actors opposite the camera in order to maintain this effect. The rest of the bedroom cannot be seen because so much is it blurred away. This also intensifies the romantic feeling and focuses us more intensely on the actors.

    The theater scene, while in the same color tone, is a little higher key. The camera is placed further away from the characters, and the focus of background events, while not sharp, is more defined. This keeps the audience thinking about the work that must be done on the play, despite the "play" that is shown concurrently.

    Mise en Scène

    Mise en scène is the artistic composition of a shot. How are elements placed in the frame? People who care about mise en scène are the same people who must watch every movie they see in a letterbox format. Virtually every object that arrives in virtually every frame of a movie is placed there for a reason. Therefore, a frame of a film can be deconstructed as though it were a painting or photograph, by taking a shot through a series of questions involving every element.

    The particular shot that I have chosen to analyze is the shot from Will Shakespeare’s backstage point of view of Viola on stage in front of an audience for the first time.

    • The dominant here is clearly Viola’s golden gown, as the brightest and sharpest object. It accents her femininity and seems to convey just how much she would have stood out as a woman on stage.
    • High key lighting is chosen, mostly because that is the only light for a play in that period, but it adds to the feeling of reality exposed.
    • It is a medium shot, very much as Will is seeing Viola.
    • Eye level angle is used. A hidden reality is exposed here, so for this shot the director chooses conventional photography, at a medium distance, to emphasize the "reality unmasked" motif.
    • The colors are layered. Viola is completely golden, from her hair to her gown. The audience and the Nurse are in gray, which seems to blend with the dusky red of the columns to the right and center of the shot. The red here, because it is not in focus, is calming -- nervousness isn't the focus here. Viola’s gold almost looks angelic.
    • The midground, or actors, are in sharp focus, while the fore- and backgrounds are slightly fuzzed, but discernable. The colors appear natural, and there seem to be no stock effects. As far as the technical aspects of filming, everything seems standard -- standard lens, standard slow stock, and no filter.
    • After Viola’s gown, the eye next sees her face (a softer yellow) and then moves to the central column.
    • This shot has a medium level of density, due to the lens used and the presence of the audience. The audience in the background would make the scene quite busy if it wasn’t for their slight blurriness. The shot quite strongly emphasizes the dominant, but it still includes those other elements because their reaction to her is the key event.
    • This shot is asymmetrical. The dominant is off center, and while the Nurse balances Viola’s weight, he is presented with much lower emphasis. The asymmetry draws out the waiting feeling, as we wonder what will be the outcome of actually putting a woman on stage.
    • The form is closed. The subject is not a random life scene, but a staged production. To accent this, the shot is framed on the right by the post. The feeling of being trapped by the background of an audience adds to that feeling.
    • The shot is framed loosely. It would seem that it is tightly wrapped around the Nurse, but Viola seems quite separate from him, in her own space and depth plane. She is feeling singled out right now, by exposing her secret to London, and this is emphasized.
    • All of the elements of the shot are in their own depth plane. First and closest is the foreground post that marks the right side of the stage. Next is the Nurse, who shares the midground with Viola. The stone post dividing the shot is between the midground and Viola, and splits the depth as well as the width of the frame.
    • The key aspect of character placement is the seeming loneliness of Viola onstage. Visually, she does not seem to be close to the Nurse, though she shares the midground with him.
    • The Nurse has his back towards us, and therefore is facing the audience. However Viola is in profile to both the audience and to us. The profile position acts doubly, as we imagine the audience examining her as we are invited to in this position. She is in her own world of emotion at this point.
    • The audience in the background is at a quite public distance from the onstage actors, maintaining the isolation that would exist in that relationship. The social distance between Viola and the Nurse is consistent with the blocking a play would have, as well as underscoring the isolation of Viola at this moment.


    In general, the movie is cut classically, as in, the opposite of MTV. Using a slower-moving cutting frequency helps to allow appreciation of the richly textured costumes and sets which can cause a busy mise en scène. It also gives the director the freedom to emphasize emotional events and increase tension when more frequent cuts are used.

    The balcony scene early in the movie is a good example of classical cutting. The first three shots take up a full thirty seconds, and are beautiful night shots on location behind a certain castle. They set the mood and the scene. The first is an extreme long shot, the second two are long shots of the two characters so that we see them in context and can place them for the remainder of the scene.

    During the main dialogue of the scene Viola is shot in a studio, and the camera is angled upward to underscore her altitude. Will is shot from above. They do not appear together onscreen for the entire scene. Cuts occur between medium to close shots of each actor, just after that actor starts to speak. By cutting after a line starts, and not between lines, the editor helps us to anticipate that a cut is coming. At certain times a close up is used of Viola, to emphasize her emotion of that moment.

    To close the scene, Will climbs the balcony, just as Romeo does in the play, but instead of Viola he finds her nurse, in a humorous twist. It was the editing that helped make this twist funny. Besides Will climbing, we see a one second shot of the nurse approaching, creating the dramatic irony. Because of the inclusion of that simple shot, our dread and enjoyment of the joke is increased. The humor of the joke is heightened with six quick shots of the nurse and Will showing their surprise.


    Shakespeare in Love is a love story, set in a romanticized Elizabethan sort of world. The director uses slow movement to heighten the romanticism, because it feels languid and sensual, and reflects the emotions of the main characters. A good scene for movement both in-frame and by the camera is the dance scene, in which Shakespeare meets Viola.

    The slow and graceful rhythmic movement of the dancing is romantic from the start. The camera is not moving when Shakespeare notices Viola. After cutting to her, it constantly pans, keeping her in frame as she dances. This gives her a floating feeling -- the way Shakespeare would see her. As Will approaches Viola, he is photographed the same way. When the two meet, and before she notices him, the camera continues this motion in a slow pan to keep them in frame as they move, then a tilt as they bow, all slowly to match the slow movements.

    When Viola notices him all motion stops: the camera is still for the first time in many seconds, and the shot is placed against a wall where extras are talking, but not dancing. It is an ironic effect, because after the steady movement we feel dizzy at the stillness. Looking at Viola, the sudden freeze of motion makes us almost feel the rush that she experiences, face to face with Will.

    Later, Will pulls her into the center of the ring of dancers, and as they talk, the frame is often completely obscured by people’s heads moving across the screen. Will and Viola are completely oblivious to the world, it seems, and have even stopped dancing or moving, as has the camera. We still see gentle motion from the blurred background and foreground images of dancers, commenting on the feelings of the midground lovers.


    As a microstudy of sound in Shakespeare in Love, I have chosen to look at the scene where Viola auditions for Romeo and Juliet dressed as a boy, and the following chase scene. To begin, we hear many different people reciting the same line. The lines run into one another non-synchronously, reducing the importance of each auditioner. There is no musical background, and the voices are given reverb to give the sense of space in the theater.

    Viola is actually given a chance to be shown walking onto the stage. We do not know who she is, but she seems more important because we hear only her footsteps on the stage. Throughout the movie it seems that only the major characters make noise when they walk, strengthening their reality. She introduces herself, something we do not hear for each preceding actor.

    Viola pauses after the first word in her audition. "What-- ..." There is silence. The second or so of silence emphasizes the anticipation for the next words of who we have been set up to expect will play Romeo. We also know she will not quote Faustus and enjoy the reversal of what Will is expecting. At this point the musical score enters again, with a slow crescendo of strings and piano. This symbolizes the feelings that Will has at hearing a great performance of his work. It also shows us that this new "Thomas Kent" character, who we recognize to be Viola, will be important.


    The main stars, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, are somewhat well known before they were cast in this production, but neither were cast only for a tremendously specific type. However, they approach the acting of their parts in quite different manners and styles. For instance, Fiennes is extremely precise with his movements and words. Perhaps because of this, we are able to envision him as the genius playwright that he portrays, and in fact, that is precisely why John Madden, the film’s director, cast him. However, Paltrow’s acting seems to be more emotional and spontaneous. She truly feels what her character is feeling, and her vulnerability is conveyed quite well. She likes to use the method form of acting to emotionalize her performance.

    The director was very simple in his treatment of the acting. After an establishing shot, almost every dialogue was filmed over-the-shoulder of the listener, and it is rare to hear a line without seeing who speaks it. This gave the actors a chance to use their faces and gestures to supplement their lines.

    The supporting cast of this film is also important to its effect, however, because of the ensemble requirements of the script. I felt the director’s use of cuts between speakers, though, fragmented the ensemble, and destroyed its effect. The characters are separated by the camera, instead of brought together. The director focused more on the individual actors than the way they interact.

    The fact that this is a period film, and that it follows much Shakespearian dialogue, means that the acting must be stylized to match. The main actors make this style seem realistic, and it is especially so when compared with their portrayal of stage actors and actresses.

    Costume and Set

    I first looked at the costume Will wears during the course of the movie. It is composed of a dirty white shirt with very loose sleeves, buttoned only on formal occasions; a dull jacket; filthy, brown, loose-fitting pants; and large boots. It clearly belongs in the 16th century. The dullness and dirtiness of the costume suggest poverty, which is most definitely true about Shakespeare at that time.

    The carelessly unbuttoned shirt is decidedly masculine; no woman would get away with that costume. It seems to be consistent with Will’s age, simply by suggesting that he doesn’t have time to deal with irrelevancies such as dress. The material has to be sturdy, because we see Will wear it for a few weeks. The darkness of the costume reinforces the poorness of the wearer, and even the white shirt is a dull tan from dirt. While the chest is exposed throughout most of the movie, it is from carelessness, and doesn’t seem to be an erotic measure. Shakespeare seems to be perfectly self-confident at all times, even in uneasy situations, such as the dance he attends uninvited. The only function this costume seems unfit for is performance and making love to Viola, which are the only times we see him not wearing it. At the beginning of the film, it is suggested that dressing up for Will means putting on his boots. We know that Will cannot afford new clothes, but even if he had money, we almost feel that he wouldn’t care enough to buy anything new. This seems to be the exact character that we expect Will to have.

    The set of the Rose Theater, where the rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet takes place, was constructed completely by hand on a backlot in England. Kurosawa would have approved. It is open to the sky at the top, constantly reminding us that what goes on here cannot remain hidden, and will be revealed to the world in the form of a performance. The realistic presentation of the old theatre, similar to Shakespeare’s trademark theater of that period, the Globe, helps contribute to the feeling of fantasy and our immersion in Shakespeare’s world. Throughout the scenes performed here, we are reminded of class differences, because of the separate areas for the lower and upper classes.

    Part of our enjoyment of the film is in seeing the contrast between the play that we are familiar with and the situations that inspire the writer to think of them. Technically, because the movie is very modular, it could be performed as a play onstage. However, I think all of the freshness and novelty of the juxtaposition of Romeo and Juliet with its inspiration would be lost, along with the clever intercutting of scenes with the same dialogue, which was an effective device, as well as the directorial highlight of the film.


    The ideology in Shakespeare in Love is implicit, but a strong message is embedded in the plot, though the actors don’t talk about it. The fact that it is a period film makes it subtler. But it is impossible to mask the ideology here. It is a leftist story that shows women in leadership roles despite terrible adversity, the shortcomings of a class system, and paints a negative portrait of the institution of marriage.

    The more power any certain character has, the less we like them. The exceptions to this rule happen to be the women in the film: Viola, and of course, Queen Elizabeth. Not surprisingly, we are forced to identify with these characters even more because of the casting. Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench are two of the most well known members of the cast.

    Right from the start of the film, we are conditioned to root for the little guy, when we see a likable character, played by Geoffrey Rush, threatened to have his ears cut off for mentioning Shakespeare, the clear hero of the film. In this scene, the camera is frequently placed low, and one particular shot was a skew, to put us on level with the Rush character and angry at the power the moneylender and his men seem to have over us.

    One contribution to the subtlety of the film is the fact that characters simply do not make speeches about their status. While Viola and Will discuss the fact that they have no life together, there are no "hill of beans" speeches as from Casablanca. Will expresses his displeasure at being considered inferior to Christopher Marlowe by a roll of the eyes or a movement, not by speech.

    The lighthearted tone of the movie tells us not to take it seriously, but that is only a mask for the leftist ideals below the surface. The movie is strikingly effective in conveying its message, because it does so without fanfare, and it doesn’t seem to relate to our world, because it is a fantasy world. However, it has a strong message underneath the glitter.


    The story of Shakespeare in Love is basically classical, but tends toward a formalist style. It is a revisionist romantic comedy, because it rejects many of the genre’s conventions. It is complicated by the number of minor plot lines and further modified by the tragic ending.

    The basic story behind a romantic comedy is always focused on the couple -- the protagonists. In this case, Will Shakespeare and Lady Viola de Lesseps are in love, but they do not discover this until they first meet a third into the film. Therefore, the movie does not seem to "start," in terms of the main plot line, until that point. The preceding parts of the movie are spent setting up the events of that not-yet-realized story.

    The ending, too, diverges from traditional romantic comedy, and from classical cinema. Really, it is a "romantic tragedy" that happens to be funny. After a classical-seeming climax, where various conflicts are favorably resolved, the two lovers are separated. I apply the formalistic label to this because it is heavily anticipated throughout the film, and in the context of the movie, it seems to be fate. The writers' and director’s hands in the story are quite clear.

    The film is revisionist in its genre because of the romantic comedy conventions that it rejects. But an interesting aspect of the film is the fact that much of the story is stolen from Shakespeare’s plays. Some of it directly mirrors Romeo and Juliet, while some plot ideas -- mistaken identity, crossdressing, a ghost, swordfights, class distinctions, and bitter dramatic irony -- are distinctive devices of his. By mirroring another artist rather than reality, the story is pushed even more towards the formalistic.


    The writing in Shakespeare in Love is highly literary and complex, while being witty and very funny, and even won an Academy Award. The dialogue is highly stylized, as would be expected. We are asked to believe that these are the words that Shakespeare and Marlowe would say, so the language is beautiful and formal. However, the incredible cast makes it understandable and believable. Another trait that reminds us of Shakespeare’s plays is the use of double meanings, subtle wit, and symbols. It takes watching this movie a few times to find all of the hidden jokes and references.

    The inclusion of Christopher Marlowe and John Webster into the story is interesting. However, the screenplay is written in such a way that knowledge of events and people of that period is not necessary to the understanding of the movie.

    The characters all seem to be highly educated, judging by their speech. They always have someone to tell their problems to, and they are quite articulate in describing those problems. The story converges several points of view in an objective sort of way, but it clearly favors Viola and Will; we follow them through much of the movie.

    This movie can’t be said to be a literary adaptation, but it has certain special features that deserve discussion. The movie includes the writing, rehearsing, and performance of Romeo and Juliet. Lines from this play show up constantly outside of the play, to suggest the origin of some of Shakespeare’s most famous quotations. Many of the scenes between Will and Viola involve the reading and recitation of the play. This literary device of ripping scenes completely out of context is compelling, especially from an acting point of view: in that situation, the scene is driven by the subtext. In particular, the sweet morning scene between Romeo and Juliet, when recited brilliantly by Paltrow and Fiennes, focuses on the fact that those two cannot experience morning scenes similar to that one much longer, without saying it in the dialogue.

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