Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

John Madden (director), Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (writers), Shakespeare in Love (1992)

The film Shakespeare in Love (1998) is a comedy-drama, directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, which playfully demythologises and de-sanctifies the literary genius William Shakespeare, repackaging him in a manner to make him more appealing to contemporary, particularly young audiences.  Shakespeare is taken out of the stuffy realm of academic analysis and presented as fun, sexy, cool, passionate and vital.  It should be noted that this playful demythologising of Shakespeare is achieved while maintaining respect for his genius as a writer.  While pursuing these ends, the film comments on the trials and tribulations of theatre as a business, and the nature of the artistic process, especially regarding how art imitates life.  The film also offers a feminist critique of oppressive patriarchy in the job market, advocating that careers that are male preserves should be opened to females and applicants should be judged on their merit.   

Shakespeare in Love presents Shakespeare as a cool, sexy passionate young man who could be the object of female romantic fantasy.  With so little known about the life of this great writer, the film implies that to write such insightful and passionate love stories he must have had profound romantic experiences to draw on for his writings. 

In this regard, the film has much to say about how art imitates life.  The film depicts Shakespeare living the kind of life that fed into the writing of his most famous love story, Romeo and Juliet.  The writer’s romantic and other dramatic experiences become the inspiration for many of the themes and incidents in this well-known play, ranging from passionate love affairs to fighting duels.    In the film, Shakespeare’s love affair with the aspiring actress Viola becomes the primary inspiration for the romance between the fictional characters of Romeo and Juliet.

In regards to the film’s depiction of the artistic process, the film also shows Shakespeare brimming with ideas or lacking inspiration. It also shows him hearing catchy lines in the street that work their way into his script.  At times, the rehearsals for the drama of Romeo and Juliet and the drama of Shakespeare’s hypothetical real life are juxtaposed so viewers see the resemblances between the two in order to appreciate how they can inspire and reflect each other. 

Just as Shakespeare’s plays were crafted to have much to offer to the more educated and culturally sophisticated members of the theatre audience while also having something to entertain the ordinary folk in the cheaper standing-room-only areas, so does the film.  In his plays, Shakespeare’s finely crafted verse was intended to appeal to the more educated, culturally sophisticated members of the audience while his inclusion of bawdy remarks and gags expressed in prose were intended to appeal to the less-refined, working-class theatre goers.  In Shakespeare in Love there are a range of literary and historical allusions, or in-jokes, to be appreciated by those who are reasonably well-schooled in Elizabethan theatre, Shakespeare’s plays and Romeo and Juliet in particular.  For example, the rivalry between the two theatrical production companies in the film is meant to resemble the rivalry between the feuding aristocratic families in Romeo and Juliet.  Many of these references are unlikely to be noticed by most of the viewers who are expected to be entertained by the film’s depictions of romance, drama and comical situations, along with some visual gags that would be accessible to most people, such as when a human skull is used as a prop, a comical reference to the most famous of theatrical props, the skull of Yorrick from the gravedigger scene in Hamlet.  

The film also seeks to educate its audience about the way that a playwright fits into the theatre industry by inviting the cinema audience to see the production of a play (Romeo and Juliet) from its conception to its first performance.  The cinema audience is invited to observe the rough-and-tumble of the theatre business from the perspective of the writer, producers and the actors, rather than from the perspective of the theatre audience.  Consequently, the cinema audience is presented with the realities of deadlines, budgets, commercial rivalry, and the kind of ruthless entrepreneurship that usually leaves the businessmen (producers) financially ahead of the creative people (the writer and the actors) who are left insufficiently rewarded and financially insecure. 

In addition, the film looks at the tension between theatre as mass entertainment and theatre as art.  Producers are more likely to be commercially minded rather than artistically minded.  This is satirised though the film’s treatment of the theatrical producer Philip Henslowe who advised:  Love and a bit with a dog, that’s what they want’.  Henslowe is presented as understanding what is profitable in the entertainment industry.  It is it is what provides for mass appeal rather than what would be acclaimed as high culture.     

The film also raises feminist issues about unfair restrictions placed on women seeking careers.  Viola aspires to be an actress, hoping to enter a profession barred to women.  Consequently, she must disguise herself as a man to win a role in the play.  In addition, the film also used this disguise to promote gay rights.  While there are no openly gay characters presented in the film, the filmmakers seemed to take delight in depicting Shakespeare kissing Viola while she was still disguised as a man.  In this way the film serves to promote a greater acceptance of homosexuality by depicting what seem to be public displays of gay affection. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Shakespeare in Love meaning, Shakespeare in Love themes, Shakespeare in Love analysis, Shakespeare in Love notes