Special Thanks Go To…
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.