That's how Shakespeare in Love portrays Will: as a struggling writer trying to find his voice, and in order to find that, he must first find a muse. Displaying some of Shakespeare's classic talent for double entendre, here's how he describes his writer's block:
"It's as if my quill is broken. As if the organ of the imagination has dried up. As if the proud tower of my genius has collapsed. It's like trying to pick a lock with a wet herring."
If you didn't get any of that… we'll explain it when you're older.
If Willy is going to write romance, he needs some romance in his life, so he tries all the women in his life to see who can get his quill feather up. Rosaline. Aphrodite (Baggot, "who does it behind the Dog and Trumpet"). And finally, Viola de Lesseps, a woman with a love for romance and poetry that rivals his own.
The film also portrays Slick Willy as a total dreamboat. Joseph Fiennes with his big brown eyes had women (and men) swooning with just a look from underneath eyelashes that stretch for miles. He spends a lot of time staring off into space with a quill pen clutched in his ink-stained fingertips, and starving artists have never been sexier.
Shakespeare knows he has Big Willy Style, and he's usually looking at himself in the mirror instead of writing. He's as proud of his writing as he is of his looks, crowing, "God, I'm good!" when he gets a sonnet just right. Oh Shakespeare, you're so vain.
But it works. He probably wouldn't attract a gorgeous muse if he wasn't so handsome himself.
Plus, he's sensitive! He's upset when he finds Rosaline with another man, and he's a serial muse-ogamist, never trying to bed more than one muse at the same time, although he does quickly move on from Rosaline to Viola.
And finally, he's passionate. He gets comically jealous when Viola must kiss another man on stage—even though she is pretending to be a man, and her fellow actor is pretending to be a woman. And he makes dramatic boasts like, "For one kiss, I would defy a thousand Wessexes!" Sensitive. Romantic. Dramatic. Would you expect any less from a man who writes soliloquys we're still forced to memorize to this day?
Like the characters in his play, Shakespeare finds love, loses it, finds it again, and then loses it forever when Viola is shipped to the Virginia colony like an exported crate of bangers and mash. The final loss marks a significant transition for old Shakey: he stops writing comedies and starts writing tragedies. His characters are able to reach the highest highs and the lowest lows only after he has.
Shakespeare's romantic tragedy might hurt, but it's good for his art. His loss is our gain.
Viola de Lesseps has the 16th Century equivalent of #firstworldproblems. She can't find love because men only see her money. And she can't be an actor because women aren't allowed on the stage. What's a girl to do? Why, complain to her Nurse who feeds her, dresses her, and practically brushes her teeth for her. That's what.
Things start looking up for Viola when she meets Will Shakespeare. Not only is he a hot guy to love, but he's also a poet and a playwright. For Viola, it's the best of both worlds.
Like many young women raised in restrictive households, Viola wants to rebel. She rebels against her parents—and society at large—by dressing as a man and acting in one of Shakespeare's plays. And she rebels against her arranged engagement to Lord Wessex by having an affair with Shakespeare. She wants "Love like there has never been in a play," and with Shakespeare she gets that and a really great play on top of it. And she gets to be a woman in bed with Will and a man on stage.
It's the best of both worlds.
Viola is a great actor on many levels. She has to pass as a man, which she does—at least in the context of the movie, even if, to us, she looks like Gwyneth with a goatee. And as Thomas Kent, she must perform as Romeo.
The reason Viola's so good at Romeo is because it's her romance with Will being lightly fictionalized for the stage. The balcony scene is a variation on her chat with Will on her own balcony. The tragic ending to Romeo and Juliet's relationship is Will's pain at being separated from Viola translated onto the page.
But what makes Viola-as-Thomas's performance so amazing is the gender reversal. Viola isn't playing Juliet (at least not until the end.) She is playing Romeo. It's all about Romeo's pain, not Juliet's, as it is written by a man. But with the gender reversal, Viola gets to make Romeo's pain her own.
Also, she lets her own emotions loose on stage, wowing the crowd. After all, she's reading words that Will wrote about her. "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun!" No, it's Viola who is the sun.
With the role reversal, it's like Viola is pretending to be Shakespeare in love with herself. And there's another layer of irony in the gender reversal: the more passionate Viola and Will's lovemaking becomes, the more masculine Viola's alter ego, Thomas Kent, becomes on stage. After having sex, Thomas's voice is huskier and his acting more forceful. After being with a man, Viola better knows how to act like one.
Viola describes her forbidden romance with Will as "a stolen season." She's just as poetic as he is. Maybe in the Virginia colony she can write poetry, instead of just being a reluctant wife to greasy Lord Wessex.
Sadly, although Shakespeare transforms tragedy into Tragedy—and begins a legendary career—Viola's shipped off to the New World. with a man she doesn't want to marry. She's the victim of simply being a woman in a male-dominated society. It's almost like she is dying, like Juliet, except that Will, her Romeo, chooses to live instead.
But before she dies, metaphorically, at least she gets to experience two true loves—a love for Will, and a love for acting.
Elizabethan theatre gets its name from (who else?) Queen Elizabeth. If there's one thing Queen Elizabeth I has in common with modern high school students, besides amazing fashion sense, it's that Shakespeare's dramatic monologues put her to sleep.
The Queen ain't got time for that. She wants to laugh and be entertained and just have a good ol' time. Plus, she thinks plays are fakity fake fake.
"Playwrights teach nothing about love, they make it pretty, they make it comical, or they make it lust. They cannot make it true."
That sounds like a challenge to us—and to Will—and he's motivated by her criticism.
Even though Judi Dench is only onscreen as the Queen for approximately seven minutes, she took home an Oscar and a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress. Interestingly, Cate Blanchett was an Oscar nominee the same year for playing Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth (source).
Basically, the Queen makes those seven minutes count—she's a commanding presence and she's even given a few names in the film, like "Gloriana Regina, God's Chosen Vessel, the Radiant One," and "old boot." But if we had to sum up how the Queen is portrayed in this movie… well, we wouldn't do it do her face, that's for sure.
She's intimidating, bossy, and blunt. And, even though we wouldn't say that to her face, she would find out we said it, because she is also exceptionally intelligent and keenly aware of her surroundings. She demonstrates this by telling Will to "Come as yourself," meaning she saw right through his disguise as a woman earlier in the film… but she didn't say anything.
She's quite compassionate toward Viola, so she likely kept her lips zipped for a change because she knew Will makes her happy. The Queen identifies with Viola because both characters are women doing men's roles.
Although some of Shakespeare's earlier dramas bore her, he turns around her opinion with Romeo and Juliet. And what the Queen says goes. If she likes it, so will the public… or else. Her influence makes Will a success.
Lord Wessex is William Shakespeare's opposite in almost every way. He's humorless. He's dumpy (only this film could make Colin Firth look dumpy.) He's a jerk. And Viola simply doesn't love him.
Wessex is insecure because he is a man with a title but no money (okay, that's one way he is similar to Will, who has no title and no money), and to get money, Wessex makes a bargain with Viola's father, trading parts of his tobacco plantations for her hand in marriage. Buying a woman who doesn't want to marry him automatically makes him a cad. In case you weren't certain he's a jerk, he tells her,
"Be submissive, modest, grateful and brief."
Wessex also is clumsy with words. Shakespeare writes sonnets about Viola's beauty, but when Viola asks Wessex why he is attracted to her, he can barely answer: "It was your eyes. No, your lips." He's not a poet and he knows it.
One dramatic moment occurs when Wessex and Shakespeare. Shakespeare would have killed him, but the sword he stabs him with turns out to be a fake prop sword. How do you think Viola would have reacted if Will did kill him? It's unlikely she would have mourned Wessex's death, but would it have changed her opinion about her lover?
In the end, Wessex doesn't have to change his ways because he is an upper-class man and he gets what he wants. Viola must go to America with him, on orders from the Queen. Shakespeare is a low-class playwright, and he stands no chance against Wessex. But the proof that his own wife doesn't love him will likely keep Wessex an insecure little troll for a long, long time.
Hugh Fennyman is "the money"— the man who finances the plays that Mr. Henslowe puts on at the Rose. When he lights a fire under Henslowe's feet (literally) to make him pay back his debts, Henslowe lights a fire under Shakespeare's rear (his Shakesrear if you will) to write a new play.
Without Fennyman igniting the action like this, we wouldn't have a movie… and we wouldn't have Romeo and Juliet. For such a minor character, he has major influence.
Out of all the film's minor characters— and like a Shakespeare play, there are many— Fennyman gets the most dramatic scene when he is given a dramatic scene in Romeo and Juliet. He takes his role as the Apothecary very seriously. His stage fright humanizes him, after he's been a ruthless loan shark for most of the film.
Philip Henslowe is the owner of the Rose, the theatre that puts on Shakespeare's comedies. He's in debt to Fennyman, and constantly riding Will to finish his play so he can make money off it. However, Henslowe wants a comedy.
He's a comic relief character who loves comedy. That's also, in his opinion, what the public wants:
"Love and a bit with a dog, that's what they want."
Henslowe's an idiot with bad teeth who thinks that Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter is a "good title."
If they had hashtags, Shakespeare would be #teamtragedy and Henslowe would be #teamcomedy. Their bickering never amounts to about the same consequence as your average Twitter hashtag (i.e. it's forgotten in 140 minutes) but it does make us smile, especially the running gag about how every comedy should have a swordfight and a dog.
In a meta moment, a swordfight breaks out during rehearsals, and a dog joins the fray. Just as Shakespeare finds romance in real-life, Henslowe finds comedy in real life, too.
Ned Alleyn is played by Ben Affleck. We mention this because whenever he is on screen, you think, "That's Ben Affleck. Why is he in this movie?" Gwyneth gets a pass because she thinks she is British, but Ben Affleck? The Boston boy is far from home in this film.
Critique of the casting aside, Edward Alleyn is a real-life historical figure who looks nothing like Ben Affleck.
In the film, he is the founder of the Admiral's Men, a prestigious acting troupe. He is the big name Shakespeare needs to put on a successful play, and Will gets him to sign on with a little bit of deception. Will tells Alleyn the play is titled Mercutio… which is who Alleyn agrees to play.
Before you feel bad for him being duped, remember: this guy is full of himself. "Pay attention," he says. "You will see how genius creates a legend." Throughout rehearsals, he's kind of a jerk, but because of him, Mercutio gets some of the plays more memorable lines ("A plague on both your houses!") and a juicy dramatic death scene.
Will writes these scenes for Ned to keep him happy, and Ned comes around in the end, approving of the play because it's just so good, even if he is not the star.
Christopher "Kit" Marlowe is based on a real-life historical figure of the same name. The real-life Christopher Marlowe was young and dreamy, with flowing hair and gorgeous eyes, and he was a successful playwright. Sound familiar? He sounds a lot like how Shakespeare is portrayed in this movie…
In the film, Marlowe might as well have written Romeo and Juliet because he gives Shakespeare the whole basic plot:
"Romeo is Italian, always in and out of love."
"The daughter of his enemy."
"Best friend is killed in a duel."
"Mercutio, good name."
But, in a twist, Shakespeare tells Wessex that his name is Marlowe, causing a bit of identity confusion (a common Shakespeare trope) that ends up in Marlowe's death. Or at least that's what Will thinks before learning that Marlowe accidentally stabbed himself in the eye with a knife in a barroom duel. What a way to go.
Will respects Marlowe in death, but to further the conspiracy theory, could it be because Will is Marlowe? Maybe there's a bit of Fight Club-esque dual identity going on here, with two actors playing two parts of the same person's identity?
Okay, it's doubtful. We're just trying to make something more of this character… who only gets two scenes in the film.
This is a meta movie, so it's not just about Shakespeare writing a play full of his usual tropes, it also contains Shakespeare's usual tropes – comedy, tragedy, cross-dressing, and a nurse.
Like a nurse in a Shakespeare play, the nurse in Shakespeare in Love has no name and nothing to do other than support Viola. She helps her cross-dress, covers her tracks, and provides the audience with humorous comments and pratfalls.
(To a modern viewer, the nurse is even funnier, because she is played by Harry Potter actress Imelda Staunton, who played the fierce and evil Dolores Umbridge. The nurse is as far from Umbridge as you can get, but shows Staunton's versatility as an actress.)
Like a Shakespeare play, this film is packed to the gills with supporting characters, many of whom only get one or two major scenes. Richard Burbage is one of a handful of historical figures portrayed in the film. In real life, Burbage was the younger brother of Cuthbert Burbage, which we only mention because "Cuthbert Burbage" is the greatest name ever. In the film, Burbage is a rival actor and theatre owner who ends up forming a truce with Henslowe after the Rose is closed. Burbage takes a stand against censorship.
The censorship is the result of Mr. Tilney, the Master of Revels, who is in charge of decency, which is laughable considering he's one of three men canoodling with Rosaline. His main job seems to be making sure women don't ever act on stage. Not a very noble profession.
At the time, all roles were played by men, and young street urchin John Webster was supposed to play Ethel in Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, until Will revises Ethel out of the play. Webster is a creepy young lad, saying things like,
"I liked it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives. […] Plenty of blood. That's the only writing."
"I liked it when she stabbed herself, Your Majesty."
It's no surprise that he takes revenge on Will by ratting out Viola's true identity to Mr. Tilney. It's also no surprise that this lad grows up to be John Webster, the famous 17th Century playwright who wrote gory tales such as The White Devil and The Dutchess of Malfi.
Rosaline is a character familiar to anyone who has read Romeo and Juliet: she's the young lady who broke Romeo's heart. In Shakespeare in Love, she is Burbage's seamstress and Will's lover. But she isn't a faithful muse. "I would have made you immortal," he says to her after catching her with Mr. Tilney. Ironically, he still does, albeit as an immortal heartbreaker instead of an immortal love interest.
Movies and TV shows in the late 90s always seemed to need a therapy scene. The Sopranos had it. Analyze This had it. And Shakespeare in Love, despite being set in the 16th century, has a therapy scene when Will visits Dr. Moth. Dr. Moth is a quack who prescribes Will a charm bracelet, showing us that therapy still had a long way in the Elizabethan Era.
Finally, we have a few significant actors in the troupe. Sam plays Juliet, and Will's comment on his voice foreshadows Sam's unfortunate voice change before the play, making it deeper and rendering him unable to play a woman. Mr. Wabash is a man who stutters and, because this is a 90's movie, his speech impediment is played for comic effect. However, he performs his opening monologue perfectly, allowing any hypocrites who laughed at his stutter to feel good about themselves for cheering him on when he overcomes it.