Study Guide

Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love Introduction


Release Year: 1998

Genre: Drama, Romance

Director: John Madden

Writer: Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard

Stars: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush


William Shakespeare needs no introduction. 

He's one of those people we seem to be born knowing, like Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, or Taylor Swift. 

Today he exists more as an idea than as a person, but what was life like in Shakespeare's day? Where did he get the inspiration for his greatest plays, like Romeo and Juliet, Bad Blood, and Twelfth Night. (We think one of those is actually Taylor Swift's creation… she wrote Twelfth Night, right?)

Miramax and Universal released Shakespeare in Love at the end of 1998. The film was directed by John Madden (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and stars Joseph Fiennes (Ralph's brother, who puts the "fine" in Fiennes), Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ben Affleck as stage actor Ned Alleyn. Shakespeare established Paltrow's power as a lead actress. 

That's right, you can thank the Bard for Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, and Goop.

The film imagines Shakespeare's creative process as he struggles to bring Romeo and Juliet to life on stage. Let's just say it involves him using his, um, quill pen in a variety of different ways. 

Shakespeare wrote comedies and tragedies, and this film is a little bit of both. The romantic comedy entertained millions, even stodgy old English majors who complained about the film's historical inaccuracy… but still had to admit that Judi Dench was amazing as Queen Elizabeth I. (Let's face it, Dame Judi makes pretty much every film she's in better.)

The film earned the most Oscar nominations that year—thirteen, count 'em—making it as popular in 1999 as Shakespeare was in 1599. Oh, and it won seven of 'em, stealing the Best Picture trophy from Saving Private Ryan.

Shakespeare probably never imagined his plays would be performed four hundred years later. We're not sure if Shakespeare in Love has the same longevity, but decades later, people still love it. Only four centuries to go years to go. 

If Gwyneth keeps up her organic, vegan, soy-free diet, maybe she'll be around to do commentary on the film then.

If you haven't yet fallen in love—or at least fallen in like—with Shakespeare, now's the time to give it a try.

What is Shakespeare in Love About and Why Should I Care?

Shakespeare and his influences are everywhere. We quote him all the time; his plays have been copycatted a zillion times; dude even invented words. 

Shakespeare can be zany (he invented that word), a little obscene (that word, too), and on occasion craptacular (okay, that was one was coined by our modern-day bard, Bart Simpson).

But if you're not learning about Shakespeare with say, someone awesome like Shmoop, he can be—sorry, Will—kinda boring. How can someone so influential be a snorefest? Well, Shakespeare lived over four hundred years ago, and if you have trouble relating to your parents' generation, Shakespeare is, oh, about sixteen generations removed from them.

Luckily, Shakespeare in Love is here to humanize the guy. It shows us his thoughts and emotions, without a single dramatic monologue in sight. By seeing how one of his greatest plays, Romeo and Juliet, was inspired, we can better relate to it and many of his other works.

Now this doesn't mean Shakespeare in Love is a biography. It's much more HBO than it is Masterpiece Theatre, putting entertainment value ahead of historical accuracy. But although Shakespeare in Love might be a little light on history, it's a fun look at the creative process. No one actually knows how Shakespeare got his inspiration, and this film is a fun way to imagine it.

Plus, who would have thought Billy Shakespeare was a total dreamboat?

Trivia

What do Gwyneth Paltrow and Darth Vader have in common? (Other than their skills with a lightsaber.) Shakespeare in Love actually has quite a bit in common with Star Wars. In 2004, a fan film was made called George Lucas in Love about the inspiration for the galactic bard's story of a galaxy far, far away. Also, director John Madden adapted Star Wars radio plays for NPR a long time ago.
(Source)

What light through yonder window breaks? It is the teeth, and Julia's mouth as wide as the sun. (We kid, Julia, we love you.) Julia Roberts was originally set to star in Shakespeare in Love, but dropped out in the few years it took to bring the film to life.
(Source)

"Seven minutes in heaven" took on a new meaning in 1999 when Judi Dench won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I. In case you weren't running a stopwatch when she was on screen, her screen time was less than eight minutes, and she still took home the coveted Best Supporting Actress award.
(Source)

Shakespeare in Love Resources

Websites

Shakespeare Online
Miramaximize your Shakespeare in Love experience with choice film clips here.

Shakespeare on Facebook
In love with Shakespeare in Love? Like it on Facebook.

Book of TV Adaptations

Romeo Refresher
A little rusty on Romeo? We can remind you.

Articles and Interviews

Shakespeare on Blu-Ray
Director John Madden looks back on Love fourteen years after its release.

Ebert in Love
If Ebert had four thumbs, he'd point them all up.

Liked by Rolling Stone
William Shakespeare, making "literacy seem sexy" since 1999. (Or 1599.)

We Feel Fiennes
Snippets from interviews with and about Joseph Fiennes aren't quite the same as saving snippets of his hair, but these are less likely to get you a restraining order.

Behind the Bard
Shakespeare Uncovered is a TV show that takes you behind the scenes of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Of course they had to bring Joseph Fiennes along for one episode.

Video

The Leydon Lowdown
Gwyneth chats with movie critic—and bearded beauty—Joe Leydon.

And the Award Goes To…
What's it like to win an Oscar? John Madden will tell you. (You'll have to ask the other John Madden what it's like to be on the cover of a video game.)

Audio

From All the World's a Stage to All Things Considered
NPR's movie reviewer, along with every other film critic on the planet, loved the movie.

Stoppard, Norman, and Marlowe(?)
Just as Shakespeare's plays may not have actually been written by William Shakespeare (conspiracy theory alert!) Shakespeare in Love wasn't written by Shakespeare either. The real writers talk about the play with KCRW.

Images

Elegant Ink
This fan made poster looks like it were sketched in quill pen. The Bard would approve.

Will + Viola
This poster looks inspired by Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

Fit for a Queen
Dench's dresses alone are worth the price of admission.