William Shakespeare's life and loves in London in the last decade of the sixteenth century are brought to fictional life in the award winning film Shakespeare in Love starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes and a strong supporting cast of actors. The busy street life of London of the period is here; the popularity of theatrical productions among the high and low of the land is evident : the locations show the grandeur of the aristocratic house (Broughton Castle ), of Eton College, and of the church of St. Bartholomew the Great in London. Queen Elizabeth, shown both in court and in the theatre, puts in a strong appearance and allows for a neat touch of allusive humor when the courtiers fail to sweep their cloaks in time over the puddle she does not avoid. Certainly, the Earl of Wessex, Viola's suitor, may represent the historical development of the New World but he is ahead of his times in boasting of his "Virginia plantations" as early as 1593. How much history, then, was invoked to create the success of this film?
In 1593, the year in which the film is said to be set, the plague had closed the theatres in London and William Shakespeare, with several early plays already in the making (for example, "Richard III" and "The Comedy of Errors"), was significantly occupied with poetry. At this point he was perhaps "poet and occasional playwright" as Peter Thomson puts it in his monograph Shakespeare's Professional Career (111). He had been in London for some years, established as an actor and a playwright and known as a poet. He published in 1593 an Ovidian poem "Venus and Adonis" dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and the period 1592-1595 is thought to be the time when his sonnets were circulating, most of them reflecting his deep feelings for and about an aristocratic young man. He became a leading member of the theatrical company known as the Chamberlain's Men and was closely involved in the fiercely competitive and exciting world of Elizabethan theatre, a world wholly male and tending towards a homoeroticism quite unremarked in this film.
However scarce the documentary evidence for Shakespeare's life, it is known from the few records that survive and from his writings that he was a family man and that he was not limited to one dimension of love.
Theatrical life centered on London, so London remained Shakespeare's base probably until about 1613, but he had a family, property, and business interests back in Stratford on Avon. (Little of this side of the playwright emerges in the film.) He had married Anne Hathaway in November 1582. She was eight years older than he; they had a daughter, Susanna in 1583, born six months after the marriage license was issued, and twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585 (mentioned in the film). He purchased a substantial property called New Place in Stratford and he died and was buried there in Holy Trinity Church in 1616. It is often noted that in his will he left his wife his "second best bed with the furniture".
This profoundly fascinating figure about whom rather few facts are known has always invited intense interest, speculation and fantasy. The translations of his works into so many languages and the productions in so many countries have been evidence of the universality of his genius. So Shakespeare in Love is yet another spin-off. It is based on a screenplay by Marc Norman and worked on by Tom Stoppard (of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"). The film presents well the hazards of a playwright's life: the pressure of debt and deadlines; the need to satisfy the Lord Chamberlain and to please the queen; to amuse the groundlings and to anticipate the boy actor's sudden onset of puberty. It offers us a glimpse of feet of clay: the writer's block, and the conceit that the love of a pretty girl is needed to inspire great poetry, an idea that was firmly dismissed by Shakespeare himself in "Hamlet" and elsewhere. The rivalry between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe was worthy of mention but the seeming anachronism of linking Marlowe's death, which occurred in 1593, with the time of the actual production of "Romeo and Juliet" in 1595 is puzzling. So is the use of the well-known sonnet "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" which the poet included in the sonnets mainly addressed to a young man but which is in the film sent to Viola de Lesseps, the blonde heroine. No place here for the more enigmatic "Dark Lady" of the later sonnets; no trace of bisexuality.
This spin-off film, with its uneasy mixture of facts (few) and fiction (charming), may owe its success partly to its theatrical in-jokes and the parallel it suggests--between the heady, dangerous, and productive last decade of the sixteenth century and the frenetic pace of show business in the last decade of the twentieth. From the vast bibliography of Shakespeare studies, a good biographical source would be Samuel Schoenbaum' s A Documentary Life ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); also Peter Thomson's, Shakespeare's Professional Career (Cambridge UP:1992). The films Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love were reviewed by Katherine Duncan Jones in The Times Literary Supplement Feb. 5, 1999.