Study Guide

Shakespeare in Love Themes

  • Love

    "Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs." () "Why are you grown so rude? What change is this,
    Sweet love?
    ." " Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

    We could fill a whole book with love quotes by Shakespeare alone. One of the reasons Shakespeare is still loved today is because he tapped directly into the heart—pun intended—of the matter.

    The movie is called Shakespeare in Love, so of course the film explores the theme of love. Most importantly, it shows us his creative process. (It involves him being naked a lot.) He has to feel the kind of love he writes about first, before he can put it on the page.

    Questions About Love

    1. Why do Will and Viola love each other? Why is their love so passionate?
    2. Why is love important to Viola? Could she ever grow to love her husband, Lord Wessex?
    3. The Queen speaks of "courtly love."  Is Shakespeare in Love about courtly love or another kind of love?
    4. How does Will translate his love for Viola into sonnets and into the play Romeo and Juliet?

    Chew on This

    Shakespeare is inspired to write because he loves Viola, and he loves Viola because she inspires him to write. Each passion feeds and drives the other.

    Viola reads a lot of poetry, so she wants love that is like poetry. She would never be satisfied with anything mundane.

  • Art and Culture

    Who among the cast and crew of a play has the hardest job? Is it the writer, creating the plot and characters? The actors, who must bring flat text on a page to life? Or the director, who must wrangle everything into a coherent whole by the time the curtain rises?

    There's a case to be made for every role, but in Shakespeare in Love, Will Shakespeare isn't just the fellow in the byline—he writes, he acts, and he gives direction. (No wonder he's so good at writing plays. He knows first-hand everything that goes into them.)

    The film doesn't just show Shakespeare at his writing desk or in the bedroom, it shows him on the stage, backstage, under the stage, (and making out with Viola on stage, backstage, under the stage, etc.) Will is engaged in every part of the creative process necessary to build a play.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. How would you describe Will's writing process?
    2. Why is poetry so important to Viola? How does she show her appreciation for the art of poetry?
    3. Can a play show true love? Which plays come closest? Does Romeo and Juliet convey true love? What is the heck is "true love," anyway?
    4. How is the production of a play in the 1500's different from the production of a play in the 2000's? How is it similar?

    Chew on This

    Romeo and Juliet is successful as a play for many reasons, but mainly because it taps into authentic emotions, which impresses both the public and the Queen.

    At this time, theatre is a business first, and an expression of art second. Shakespeare must deal with demands from the playhouse owner, the financier, and others in order to get butts in seats and make money.

  • Gender

    In the 1980's and 90's, two major acting nominations at the Academy Awards went to gender-bending performers. Linda Hunt (the awesome woman from NCIS: Los Angeles) won a Best Support Actress for playing a man in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). And Jaye Davidson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing a woman (who was really a man) in The Crying Game (1992). These roles seemed like novelties.

    But they weren't. Only a few (hundred) years before, men played all the roles on stage, including the female ones. Juliet: a man. Her nurse: a man. Her mom: a man. Romeo: a woman.

    Wait, what? That was definitely unusual for that time, and that's why Shakespeare in Love does it. It combines 16th Century gender-bending performances with a more modern sensibility, and shows us that a woman is the only one who has what it takes to play one of the most famous male roles in theatre.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Is Viola convincing as a man?
    2. Why does society at the time forbid women from acting? Do you think Viola would change public perception? What can Viola do as a woman that a male actor cannot?
    3. What are the advantages to having a man play a female role? What are the drawbacks?
    4. Both Will and Viola dress as the opposite gender during the film. How does each actor play the part? Which role is for dramatic reasons, and which is comical, and why?

    Chew on This

    Viola won't let a silly thing like her gender get in the way of her becoming an actor. And since plays often employ feminine-looking men to play women, she is able to blend in, pretending to be a feminine-looking man to play a man.

    The play is a success because a woman is able to take the stage as a woman. No more deception. Viola lets her authentic emotions flow as Juliet, and she brings the house down in a way no man could. (Sorry, Sam.)

  • Society and Class

    In modern day, playwrights are practically celebrities. You know the names of American masters like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. And modern-day playwrights like Tom Stoppard (who worked on the screenplay to Shakespeare in Love) and Tony Kushner are getting there, with plays like Arcadia and Angels in America.

    But even though we know Shakespeare today, it wasn't like he was riding around in a gilded carriage and having money thrown at him on the dirt roads of 16th Century London. He was a struggling member of the lower class, no better than a laborer, with the ink-stained fingertips to show it.

    The upper class belonged only to the lords and ladies of the court. And Will and Viola, like Romeo and Juliet, are on different sides of the tracks—or they would have been, if trains had been invented.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does the Queen have influence over the style of play that is popular at the time?
    2. What roadblocks exist in Will and Viola's relationship because of their class differences? Would it work out if they were from the same class? Or would they even have fallen for each other if they were more equal?
    3. Why do the Puritans object to the theatre?

    Chew on This

    The aristocracy has ultimate authority. They can choose what plays are produced, who to marry, basically anything they want. And they don't need money to do it. Status is the ultimate currency.

    Viola likes to rebel, so part of the reason she is attracted to Shakespeare is because the love between them—upper-class woman and lower-class man—is forbidden.