Shakespeare in Love doesn't load up on the symbolism… maybe because it's too busy throwing Shakespeare-related puns at you.
The only recurring object in the movie is a minor one: the snake bracelet prescribed to Will by his doctor:
"The woman who wears the snake will dream of you, and your gift will return."
It's a mystic charm intended to provide Will with a muse. He gives it to Rosaline, who betrays him. "I would have made you immortal," he said, which is significant because the snake bangle is almost an Ouroboros—the snake devouring its own tail, and a symbol of infinity.
However, the bangle is broken by Burbage (say that five times fast) sealing Rosaline's fate as Will's anti-muse. She is immortalized… but just not as the heroine.
Shakespeare's plays are known for their swordfighting, or, as it's known in theatre lingo, "stage fencing." It seems like you can't swing a rapier in a Shakespeare play without, well, running someone through with it.
And Shakespeare in Love shows us that the sword fights didn't just happen on stage. They happen off-stage, too. And sometimes they happen on a stage but there isn't a play happening. But this isn't just happening because Tom Stoppard decided that swordplay was funplay. He also wanted to make a commentary on the nature of the theater.
Shakespeare in Love is a meta movie, and it wouldn't be Shakespeare without a duel or two, However, because this is a comedy, no one has to die and yell "I am slain!" In this film, the swordfights are mostly used for a bit of action and occasional comic effect. This is, essentially, Tom Stoppard winking at the audience and letting them know that Shakespeare was full of it—he didn't have any personal interaction with tragic heroes and dramatic deaths. He just made that stuff up.
At the beginning of Shakespeare in Love, William Shakespeare doesn't exist.
Well, he exists, but he isn't yet the famous William Shakespeare, a man whose plays are taught in every English class. Here, he is still a hard-working playwright struggling to make a name for himself. And what a name it will be!
Frankly, Shakespeare doesn't have much of an adventure. He simply needs to pay the bills. However, he lacks inspiration. What he lacks in inspiration he makes up for with romance. He gives Rosaline a charmed bangle and asks her to be his muse. She accepts, and new ideas begin to flow.
It isn't that Shakespeare refuses the call. It's more like he answers the wrong phone. Have you ever heard of Romeo and Rosaline? No, we haven't either. This spark of inspiration feels good to Shakespeare at the time, but he'll soon realize that there are bigger ideas to be had.
Shakespeare's mentor is Kit Marlowe, a man rumored in real life to be the real Shakespeare. (Will the real Will Shakespeare please stand up?) In a pub, Marlowe gives Shakespeare a few plot pointers, sketching out what will eventually become Shakespeare's all-time classic Romeo and Juliet. Will, who fancies himself a Romeo, still needs a Juliet.
For Will, this phase should be renamed "Crossing the Balcony." Will and Viola do their best Romeo and Juliet impressions and have a romantic conversation at her balcony. This encounter inspires Will to write the iconic balcony scene and transform the dull Romeo and Rosaline into the timeless Romeo and Juliet. Now we're gettin' somewhere.
Putting together a play is hard. Shakespeare writes and rewrites every day. He must find the right cast. He makes enemies with the Master of Revels, who polices indecency in the theatre, and with Viola's fiancé, Lord Wessex. And gotta leave time for those daily duels and steamy encounters with Viola.
Like Romeo and Juliet, Will and Viola are star-crossed lovers from different lives. If there were trains at this time, Will would be on the wrong side of the tracks. Both he and Viola need to come to terms with the fact that their romance has an expiration date and it's rapidly approaching.
After Viola is revealed to be a woman, she is banished from the theatre. Will must put on his play without her. That means he has lost his best actor, and his favorite lover. As a writer, Shakespeare is able to channel this angst and emotional torture into his writing. Viola has the much harder ordeal here. She has to marry a man she does not love, and she is forbidden from following her dream. But her name isn't in the title, so her ordeal is minimized. (Sorry, Vi.)
Shakespeare never imagined he would be a success, but Romeo and Juliet is a hit. The public loves it. The Queen loves it. And Viola gets the greatest reward—she gets to perform in the play in the role of a woman. But their happiness is short-lived. After taking their bows, Viola must leave for America with Wessex. Being his wife will be the hardest role she has to play.
Shakespeare returns to being a playwright. Without his muse now, he considers putting his quill away for good. Even though he knew he and Viola wouldn't be together in the end, their separation is a difficult reality to face.
A muse doesn't have to be present in order to inspire. Sure, Viola can't Skype with Will from across the pond, but she does give him enough inspiration for another play or two before she departs. The Queen gives them time to say goodbye to one another. Shakespeare's career is revived. And Viola…well, her prospects are still pretty grim, but she's not the hero of the story.
Viola gives Shakespeare the idea for his next play Twelfth Night. He has become a little more independent, not needing his muse to be present in the same room—or even the same continent—for him to be driven to write. Shakespeare is back in his little room, but we know what lies ahead for the man and his legacy.
We begin "in the glory days of the Elizabethan theatre, two playhouses were fighting it out for writers and audiences" and that fight will be settled by the performance of a little play called Romeo and Juliet. Hmm…. That sounds familiar.
Recordkeeping being a little spotty back in the 16th century, not many exact details are known about William Shakespeare, which is one way the movie can get away with its artistic license. Some scholars believe Romeo and Juliet was written between 1591 and 1596, so that is accurate. However, the first documented performance of the play wasn't until 1662.
But if the film isn't concerned with facts, we're not either. The film is concerned with mood and evoking the time period, which it does well. Not that we lived in 1593, but it looks convincing to us. The London of 1593 looks more like a large hamlet— as in a village, not a prince of Denmark—than bustling city it is today. The people milling around are in period costume and most of the garments are a little grubby. No running water back then, you know?
The film also shows us interesting little details, like how Will uses a tomato to hold his quill pen. (Maybe that explains why people who sew use little fabric tomatoes to store their pins?) Even without the film explicitly telling you the year it's set in, you'd be able to guess within the ballpark based on the costumes, scenery, and that rotten old tomato.
One of the more striking sets in the film is the Rose playhouse. You may be familiar with the Globe, but that theatre, which Shakespeare was closely associated with, wasn't constructed until 1599.
Based on a real theatre constructed by Philip Henslowe in 1587, the Rose looks exactly like you'd expect a theatre of that age to look: standing room only near the front of the auditorium, uncomfortable wooden benches in the balcony, and trap doors for hiding beneath the stage. The thing is also made of so much wood, it's amazing it doesn't burn down any second (like the Globe did in 1613).
When Romeo and Juliet is performed, the camera moves around from the perspective of the actors and audience, so you get a wonderful idea of what it would like to be there, whether you're a performer or a spectator.
Just as Romeo and Juliet follows the stories of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in Love also has two plots for its two leads: William and Viola. No confusing flashbacks here. The film is chronological and easy to follow as it flip-flops between both protagonists. Most of the time they're onscreen together anyway. Unlike a Shakespeare play, this one needs no narrator to tell us what's going on. It has plenty of montages to do that for us.
Maybe screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman made a typo in the script, and instead of writing "Montagues" they wrote "Montages" … and the director took it literally.
This movie often uses the montage for a variety of purposes—to show the passage of time (most of the movie takes place over about two weeks), to show hot hot lovemaking, or to show actors rehearsing for a play. There's nothing more boring than watching people say the same lines over and over again, so we're glad those montages speed things up a bit.
And who could forget the prayer montage, as Will prays and almost flagellates himself feeling guilty over the death of Marlowe. Because this is a romantic comedy, and not a tragedy like the play within the film, the filmmakers use montages to speed up anything unsettling or traumatic. It keeps the mood of the film light… but it also makes Will look disingenuous.
William Shakespeare penned tragedies and comedies, and although this film is centered around one of his greatest tragedies—Romeo and Juliet—it isn't a tragedy itself. At it's heart it's a romantic comedy, more concerned with jokes, humorous nods to Shakespearean trivia, and the romance between its two leads.
The film changes its tragedy into a comedy, and makes comedy a tragedy. Trying to write Romeo and Ethel as a comedy is a total failure, which prompts Shakespeare to change it to the tragedy we know and love today.
But romantic comedies don't normally win Academy Awards. This is why the film masquerades as historical fiction similar to how Viola masquerades as a man. However, the movie is so historically inaccurate we're surprised they didn't give Shakespeare a flip phone. However, it does fill in gaps in history quite astutely at times. One notable example is when Shakespeare briefly mentions wife Anne Hathaway. According to him, their marriage is les miserable, and that could be the truth. Not much is known about their marriage.
Every good romantic comedy has an element of fantasy. In this film, not only is Willy Shakespeare a dreamboat, but merely getting a glimpse into his little-known life—even one that fudges details a bit—is a fantasy for many.
William Shakespeare. He's not in love at the beginning of the movie. Then he falls in love with Viola de Lesseps. It's a simple equation: William Shakespeare + Love = Shakespeare in Love. And that love inspires one of the most famous plays of all time: Romeo and Juliet. Love begets love.
For a romantic comedy, the ending to Shakespeare in Love is pretty tragic. But before we get to the tragic denouement, first the dramatic climax.
Throughout the film, Viola has masqueraded as a man to play Romeo. But she's been exposed and expelled from the stage. However, just as the curtain is rising, the man playing Juliet can no longer play her. His voice as changed. So Viola returns taking on the very role she inspired. She is reversing the gender-reversal by playing her own gender. It's so simple, it's complicated.
The audience gasps, either because a woman is one stage, or they can't possibly believe a man could be that beautiful. And because Viola is a woman, she can play Juliet in a way that no man can. She plays opposite Shakespeare, as Romeo, and their love is so true, it burns up the stage. (Not literally. Put away the extinguisher.)
Shockingly, the Queen is there, and she settles a wager earlier "as to whether a play can show the very truth and nature of love." Her verdict: It can. We think the reason it does is because the two actors are in love. No other performance of this play, no matter how good it is, could ever be as passionate, unless the two leads were in a tragic romance of their own.
Which brings us to the tragedy. As the Queen says, this is how it ends: "As stories must when love is denied: with tears, and a journey."
We get tears and a journey when Viola must leave with Lord Wessex, her husband, to America. Before she leaves, she inspires Will to write Twelfth Night in which he imagines her ship wrecks, killing everyone (especially Wessex who he probably fantasizes being eaten by sharks as well), but Viola survives. A comedy about a cross-dressing shipwreck survivor? (That sounds like a good sequel… or an episode of Gilligan's Island.)
Will almost quits writing, he's so depressed, but Viola tells him, "If my hurt is to be that you will write no more, then I shall be the sorrier." This puts her firmly in place not as a great actress or a passionate lover, but as Shakespeare's muse. It isn't the loss of her acting career or her freedom that she laments, but the possibly that this man might never write again.
Will finds hope in tragedy, which is easy enough for him considering he isn't being shipped across the Atlantic with a man he doesn't love. He immortalizes Viola as the heroine of Twelfth Night, saying "she will be my heroine for all time." Or at least until he needs to write another play.
After watching Shakespeare in Love, you may be imitating the grubby little street urchin and saying, "I saw her boobies!" There's a lot of Gwyneth on display during the film's romantic sequences… maybe to prove that she is a woman playing a woman's role, and not a man in a dress like in Shakespeare's day?
Shakespeare's plays can be violent, in addition to romantic, with all the swordfighting, poisoning, and stabbing, but violence in the film is kept to a minimum. It's the boobies that get this film its R rating.