Look, it counts, okay?
We end Shakespeare Week (which started on a Tuesday…) with this modern classic about the legend himself. Academy Award-winning Shakespeare in Love is a flawless masterpiece that holds up in every way despite being over twenty years old now and is a testament to how very seriously we should take The Bard.
Let’s have some fun, shall we?
Part One: Shakespeare: The Sexiest Being Previously Alive
You might expect me to dunk on this film right out the gate. It is a romance, it’s not historically accurate, it’s about Romeo and Juliet — but I’ll surprise you right here and say I like this film. Genuinely. It’s enjoyable to watch, and for all of its more ridiculous elements, it’s decently done. In fact, its humor is one of its saving graces, because you know from the start, despite the marketing and hot, steamy sex scenes, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. You can watch it ironically or as a guilty pleasure and you’ll likely have a good time.
That said, I am going to make fun of it, because it tends to be remembered as a serious drama, and I still can’t get over the fact that it won Best Picture. Sure, we need more comedies to be recognized, but there are certainly times in this film when I feel only about half of the people in front of and behind the scenes were aware of the tone the film was aiming for. Also, it serves as a nice compliment to Shakespeare’s actual plays, because despite its best efforts to pay homage, it really doesn’t hold a candle to the best of them.
Shakespeare in Love is about, uh, William Shakespeare falling in love. Seen in his sexy younger years (after the earring but before he started to go bald), Will is working on the play that will eventually become Romeo and Juliet. The theatre he works for is in debt and needs a big hit, but Will has writer’s block and feels inadequate compared to his chief rival and frenemy, Kit Marlowe. Will has a few plays under his belt by this point — comedies and histories mostly — but none of them have gained him much acclaim compared to his competitors. What’s more, his love, Rosaline, is cheating on him with another man. She was already cheating on another man with Will, but now there’s a third and Will is despondent.
He sets up rehearsals, most of whom read from the works of Marlowe, but he’s impressed when a young man in a silly hat reads from his own works. This young man, who goes by Kent, is in fact Viola de Lesseps, a wealthy young woman who adores Shakespeare’s works and wants to be an actor. Women being barred from the profession, she disguises herself as a man and is flustered when Will takes notice of her audition. She flees to her mansion in a row-boat chase sequence followed by Will, who later returns to the mansion during a party for Viola’s betrothal to Lord Wessex. Will runs across Viola, now dressed as a lady, and does not recognize her one bit (which, hey, I’m not one to judge), but she’s pretty so he falls instantly in love. When the guards chase him off the property, he calls to them that his name is Kit Marlowe, either because that’s the only one he can think of or because he really doesn’t like his friend Marlowe.
Will starts up the play with Kent in the lead, and takes a while to realize his luck that the mysterious young man he’s attracted to and the fancy lady he’s attracted to are the same person. The middle third of the play is mostly sexy fun time, punctuated by rehearsals and shenanigans related to Viola and Will’s affair. During this time, Will makes his way into court and wagers Viola’s soon-to-be-husband that he can write a play that shows the true meaning of love. Good Ol’ Lizzie (that’s the proper way to address her, don’t you know?) is eavesdropping and decides, “Yeah, I can make this fun. Who’s going to stop me?” She decides she will judge the play herself.
Kit Marlowe is killed in a bar brawl, and there is much confusion. Will thinks he’s responsible and that Wessex murdered Marlowe thinking he was Will. Wessex did not murder Marlowe, but does think that he was Will, so he tells Viola and she thinks that Will has died because her fiance told her “that playwrite she was enamored with” has died. Once Will and Viola figure out Marlowe is the one who’s dead and by coincidence, Will does what any self-respecting actor would and dicks Wessex around by pretending to be a ghost. Gotta get the ghost in there somewhere.
With opening day soon arriving, someone outs Viola, so Shakespeare has to play Romeo. But, gasp, the boy playing Juliet has had his voice drop overnight! We can’t have a butch Juliet macking on our boy Billy Shakes, can we? Luckily, Viola has abandoned her wedding (which is on the same day) to see the play and the other actors are down with pretending she’s a dude again so she can play Juliet. Just as the play finishes, the man who previously found out about Viola arrives to shut down the production, but who should step in to interfere but the film’s MVP, Lizzie T.? The Queen asserts, “Ya, no boobs here,” and tells Viola to run along back to her husband and get going to America. Inspired by his misadventure, Will decides to write Viola into his next play, Twelfth Night.
Part Two: More Mustache-on-Mustache Action than Almost Any Other Shakespeare Film
Perhaps the unintentionally funniest part of this story is how it takes a historical figure who, short of ever being confirmed as queer, is about as queer as they come, and tries to tell a heterosexual story. Oh how the academics must have laughed.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to give my crash course on queer themes in Shakespeare. Kyle Kallgren and Rantasmo did a joint video a few years back on this very subject that covers most of my points better than I can, so go check that out first.
There are people who have made careers off of analyzing Shakespeare texts from a queer lens, and many performances opt to pay homage to it though gender-bent or gender-blind casting. The definition of what we call queerness today had very different connotations in Elizabethan England, so drawing direct comparisons is difficult. By law and common convention, homosexuality was ostracized in England from the widespread adoption of Christianity to 1967. Prior to this, cultural trends varied depending on who was in charge. The Greeks and Romans widely welcomed homosexuality, though in the last gasps of the Roman Empire, homosexuality was often grouped with sex-related crimes like prostitution and pedophilia. Widespread adoption of similar rulings in the first millennium likely stems from a combination of persecution of homosexuality by the Visigoths and a mistranslation of the Greek Bible (in which the term “pederasty,” which applies to homosexual pedophilia, is mistakenly applied to all male-male copulation). By Shakespeare’s time, laws against sodomy (generally used to assume sex between men) made being openly gay dangerous, as the punishment could be death. Criminalization of homosexuality (at least among men) sowed the seeds for some of our modern stereotypes, as to justify such brutality, the culture of the time tended to illustrate gayness as a betrayal of a man’s sex, adoption of feminine characteristics, a perversion against nature, something no good Christian would ever stand for.
Except in one area. A curious loophole in Elizabethan culture where men were not only allowed to engage in romantic activity with one another but expected to was the theatre. Women weren’t allowed to act, so every role in a play had to be filled by men, usually with a younger man who hadn’t grown a bears yet playing the woman. This allowed the theatre to be something of a safe haven for gay and gender-nonconforming men, and it also likely provided a scene where young men were free to discover their sexuality whether that’s what attracted them to the threatre or not.
It’s also worth noting that throughout Europe, even in strictly homophobic societies, aristocrats and others in positions of power could often get away with being gay, if not openly, more easily than anyone in the lower class. Shakespeare’s status as a favorite of the queen and later the king may have shielded him somewhat from persecution and allowed his plays to get away with more than his contemporaries’ would have. (And coincidentally, although evidence is scant, there’s a reading of Queen Elizabeth I that suggests she could have been asexual or even gay herself, her position as unquestioned ruler allowing her to go unmarried where most women wouldn’t have had the option.)
So how gay is Shakepeare? Actually, we have no idea if he was actually gay at all. The clearest evidence comes from the sonnets he wrote, the first seventeen of which are addressed to a young man — including the famous “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Over the years, people have debated the context of these sonnets, arguing that they may not have been published in the order in which they are written, which makes the saucier sonnets directed toward a person of ambiguous gender. Others have argued that Shakespeare may not have been writing as himself, or that the relationship depicted is not a sexual one, relationships between close friends prior to 1950 often looking far more sexual to a modern audience than they would have been perceived to be at the time.
Of course, discussion of Shakespeare’s sexuality has a historical bias, with advocates of the plays desperate to ensure they not be remembered as gay smut. For a while, this led to the pronouns of the person addressed in the sonnets to be changed to “she” and “her” in later printings.
Whether Shakespeare himself was gay does not matter; what matters is that the plays offer a queer reading, and that reading has only intensified over time. Aside from innuendos and historical context ensuring all of the sexiest of Shakespeare’s ladies were in fact drag queens, the plays often contain themes of disguise and persecution, of women dressing as men, and of this being a reflection of who they really are (until they find their obligate man and get married at the end of the play, of course). Characters are highly sexualized, often falling in love with others of the same sex while one or both parties is in disguise. There are puns and plays on words that reference homosexuality and related acts. Shakespeare’s women are written to have personality traits that even at the time would have been seen as masculine, and while he certainly plays into the trite humor of crossdressing, he also commands respect for crossdressing characters much of the time. All of this is of course subject to the interpretations of the audience, but that’s kind of the point of art, isn’t it?
Shakespeare in Love, bless its heart, tries to tell a Romeo and Juliet-style story while also retaining the theme’s of Shakespeare’s plays and a semblance of historical accuracy, and you really can’t have that without a bit of queer subtext seeping in. The film seems more of less aware of this, providing plenty of instances of unnecessary crossdressing and mustache kissing. The bit where Kent and Will are alone on a gondola for ambiguous reasons and Kent leans in to kiss Will, who is briefly confused but into it, is a delight.
The film certainly runs on the side of “men in dresses and women with beards = funny,” which is a tedious trope for a lot of trans people. It’s in the original plays as well to similar effect, but there’s a difference between something written four hundred years ago with a very different context and men in all the roles anyway, and a comedy that’s barely pushing twenty and goes out of its way to ensure everyone is in gender-conforming roles by the end of the play.
That said, the crossdressing elements and gender confusion jokes are occasionally merged with the steamy romantic elements in a way that manages to address the humor of mistaken identity without disparaging the means itself. And Joseph Fiennes pulls off a dress rather fabulously. Cutting any of these things would certainly make the film more boring.
As with much of the story, though, the elements are there largely because they pay homage to the recurring motifs of Shakespeare’s works. You don’t have a real Shakespeare movie if there’s no indulgent crossdressing.
Part Three: It’s a Reference!
So, did Shakespeare in Love deserve to win Best Picture at the 1998 Oscars?
I mean, I like the film fine, and I wouldn’t consider its competition to be the best the film industry has to offer, but they’re nothing to sniff at either. This film is ridiculous and cheesy to a Wisconsin degree, the sort of thing you take your romantic friend to because you know they’ll love the period clothing and fancy accents. It is about as deep as a crepe.
The entire impetus of the film is pretty basic: what if Shakespeare’s life was the inspiration for his plays? Given that the consistent motifs of Shakespeare’s plays include ghosts, love, masks, crossdressing, death, betrayal, confusion, and people getting married and/or not getting their way, Shakespeare in Love tics the requisite boxes. It tries to follow much of the same style of Shakespeare’s comedies, which is part of the reason for its perplexing plot. Much of the comedies, if simply translated, are about as logical as this film.
Of course, most of them have dirty puns and treatises on existence and floral language that disguises the pell-mell nature of the plot. Plotting was never Shakespeare’s strong suit, followed closely by pacing, so trying to match the structure of his plays in a modern work will raise a few eyebrows. The film is likewise not subtle with its references, creating a lot of characters and scenarios that mirror Romeo and Juliet to a tedious degree — with one rather notable exception. To some extent, the film is bound by history, or binds itself to history, whichever the case may be. Shakespeare did not die immediately after writing Romeo and Juliet, so you can’t have the tragic ending that everyone seems to forget was in the play. And the thing is, that ending is a bit important to Romeo and Juliet, because otherwise it’s largely just Shakespeare’s Twilight.
I understand why a lot of people bemoan this film. It’s ridiculous, and that it stands as a lofty thing in a lot of circles makes its absurdity even more pronounced. Romeo and Juliet is widely regarded as Shakespeare’s most overrated play, having little appeal to the non-romantics and being touted by every lovestruck highschooler as the pinnacle of romance. I think this assessment is a bit unfair, both to the play and to lovestruck highschoolers, but mimicking the stylings of Romeo and Juliet does not a n insightful film make. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be fun, though.