Shakespeare in Love

USA 1998

Reviewed by Philip Kemp


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

London, 1593. Will Shakespeare, an ambitious young playwright, has promised his new play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, to Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre on the South Bank. But Will is blocked and the play unstarted. Henslowe is desperate: deep in debt to brutal loan shark Fennyman, he fears Will may be lured away by Richard Burbage at the Curtain Theatre across the river, favoured by Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Queen's Revels.

Viola De Lesseps, a rich merchant's daughter betrothed to Lord Wessex, is enchanted by Will's verse. She joins Henslowe's company disguised as a man calling herself Thomas Kent. At the same time, as herself, she embarks on a passionate affair with Will. Inspired by his love, and following hints from fellow-playwright Christopher Marlowe, Will transforms Henslowe's commission into a love story, Romeo and Juliet. The company is boosted by the arrival of star actor Ned Alleyn. 'Kent' is cast as Romeo.

Tilney, tipped off that a woman has joined Henslowe's troupe, exposes Viola and closes the theatre on grounds of immorality, but Burbage magnanimously offers the Curtain to his rival. Will takes over as Romeo, while Viola resignedly goes through with the marriage to Wessex. But after the ceremony she escapes to the theatre for the premiere, and when the lad playing Juliet gets stage fright she takes over the role. The play is rapturously received but Tilney arrives to close it down again. He is forestalled by the Queen herself, who feigns to believe Viola is a man, while making it clear she must renounce Will and sail to Virginia with Wessex. Will starts writing Twelfth Night. Viola's ship is wrecked and, sole survivor, she wanders on a strange shore.


Shakespeare in Love is a hodgepodge - or, as the Elizabethans might more pungently put it, a gallimaufry and an olla podrida (rotten pot). The main plotline - well-born young woman named Viola dresses up as a boy, joins Shakespeare's troupe and has an affair with the playwright - is pinched straight from Simon and Brahms' classic comic novel No Bed for Bacon, as are some of the gags, such as Will practising multiple variants of his signature at moments of stress. ("Shakspaw, he scribbled viciously.") The stagestruck heavy is a blatant lift from Woody Allen's Bullets over Broadway, and the scene-setting pays homage to the Monty Python school of scatological reconstruction: Henslowe, striding through the London streets, treads in a heap of dung and is narrowly missed by the contents of a pisspot. We get romance, slapstick, bedroom farce, satire, jocular anachronisms ("I 'ad that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once," observes a chatty ferryman), starcrossed tragedy, a shipwreck, a full-on swashbuckled swordfight and enough sly literary allusions to sink a concordance.

Which is perfectly fine since the heterogeneous mixture, a rich but satisfying plum-pudding, works splendidly, absorbing its borrowings and negotiating its switches of mood with little sense of strain. (There's only one serious lapse, a jarring descent into Carry-On inanity when Will puts on a squeaky voice and pretends to be Viola's female cousin.) Besides, style and subject are ideally matched, since we're dealing with the greatest magpie genius of all time. Shakespeare was notoriously disinclined to devise his own plots, preferring to snaffle them from Plutarch, Holinshed or whatever dog-eared chapbook came to hand; he cared nothing for unity of mood, tossing dirty jokes into high tragedy in a way that gave the Augustans the vapours; and several of his plays (Richard II, for example) contain great chunks written by someone else. Shakespeare in Love may fall short of his exalted standard, but it's a film after his own heart.

Tom Stoppard, co-scripting, can likely be credited with some literary gags that may bypass the groundlings (a bloodthirsty small boy, given to tormenting mice, gives his name as John Webster, who later wrote the bloody play The White Devil) and some of the cod-fustian dialogue: "If you be man to ride her, there are rubies in the saddlebag." But the chief delight of Shakespeare in Love, along with its gamy exuberance, is the acting. The chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow (after Sliding Doors, delivering yet another faultless Brit accent) and Joseph Fiennes inspires relief that the original casting (Julia Roberts and Daniel Day-Lewis) fell through. Around them cavort star turns from Imelda Staunton (born to play the nurse), Colin Firth sending up his arrogant Darcyesque image, Ben Affleck (a nostril-flaring Ned Alleyn), Judi Dench having a ball as Queen Bess, the increasingly superb Geoffrey Rush as the harassed Henslowe, and others too numerous to list. And the final triumphant premiere of Shakespeare's first true masterpiece, while edging dangerously near luvvie-ish self-regard, conveys something of what Nabokov called shamanstvo - the 'enchanter-quality' of great theatre. As Rush's Henslowe remarks, smiling beatifically as the whole shambles comes magically together, "It's a mystery."


David Parfitt
Donna Gigliotti
Harvey Weinstein
Edward Zwick
Marc Norman
Marc Norman
Tom Stoppard
Director of Photography
Richard Greatrex
David Gamble
Production Designer
Martin Childs
Stephen Warbeck
©Miramax Films/Universal Pictures
Production Companies
Universal Pictures presents a Bedford Falls production
Executive Producers
Bob Weinstein
Julie Goldstein
Line Producer
Mark Cooper
Associate Producer
Linda Bruce
Miramax UK Co-ordinators
Zelda Perkins
Iain York
Production Co-ordinator
Fiona Weir
Unit Manager
Samantha Thomas
Location Manager
Rachel Neale
Post-production Co-ordinator
Cleone Clarke
2nd Unit Director
Arthur Wooster
Assistant Directors
Deborah Saban
Olivia Lloyd
Tom Gabbutt
Toby Hefferman
Script Supervisors
Kim Armitage
2nd Unit:
Caroline Sax
Michelle Guish
Billy Hopkins
Suzanne Smith
Kerry Barden
Script Editor
Irena Brignull
Underwater Unit Co-ordinator/Cameraman
Mike Valentine
Camera Operators
Philip Sindall
2nd Unit:
Tim Wooster
Steadicam Operator
2nd Unit:
Vince McGahon
Visual Effects Supervisor
Antony Hunt
Digital Supervisor
Angus Cameron
Domino Artist
Dan Pettipher
Digital Matte Artist
Max Dennison
2D Digital Artist
Robin Huffer
Digital/Optical Co-ordinator
Andrew Jeffrey
Digital Film Scanning
John Grant
Camera Operator
Rick Mietkowski
Special Effects Supervisor
Stuart Brisdon
Special Effects
United Special Effects
Supervising Art Director
Mark Raggett
Art Director
Steve Lawrence
Set Decorator
Jill Quertier
Matt Gray
Keith Pain
Scenic Artist
Steve Sallybanks
Storyboard Artist
Jane Clark
Fred Evans
Costume Designer
Sandy Powell
Costume Supervisor
Clare Spragge
Make-up/Hair Design
Lisa Westcott
Senior Hair/Make-up Artist
Veronica Brebner
Titles Design
Shaun Webb Design
Film Opticals
Cine Image
Soprano Soloist
Catherine Bott
Nick Ingman
Orchestra Leader
Gavyn Wright
Stephen Warbeck
Nick Ingman
James Shearman
Music Supervisors
Maggie Rodford
Becky Bentham
Music Editor
Roy Prendergast
Music Recordist/Mixer
Chris Dibble
Quinny Sacks
Production Sound Mixer
Peter Glossop
Sound Recordist
2nd Unit:
Clive Copland
Re-recording Mixers
Robin O'Donoghue
Dominic Lester
Ian Tapp
Supervising Sound Editor
John Downer
Additional Sound Editor
Colin Chapman
Dialogue Editor
Sarah Morton
Brigitte Arnold
Pauline Griffiths
Paula Boram
Jenny Lee Wright
Ken Somerville
Howard Eaves
Russell Jackson
Philip Wilson
Andrew Wade
Fight Arranger
William Hobbs
Horse Co-ordinator
Debbie Kaye
Animals OK
Joseph Fiennes
Will Shakespeare
Gwyneth Paltrow
Viola De Lesseps
Judi Dench
Queen Elizabeth
Ben Affleck
Ned Alleyn
Colin Firth
Lord Wessex
Simon Callow
Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels
Geoffrey Rush
Philip Henslowe
Tom Wilkinson
Hugh Fennyman
Steven O'Donnell
Tim McMullen
Steven Beard
Makepeace, the preacher
Antony Sher
Doctor Moth
Patrick Barlow
Will Kempe
Martin Clunes
Richard Burbage
Sandra Reinton
Bridget McConnel
Georgie Glen
ladies in waiting
Nicholas Boulton
Henry Condell
Imelda Staunton
Desmond McNamara
Barnaby Kay
Jim Carter
Ralph Bashford
Paul Bigley
Peter, the stage manager
Jason Round
actor in tavern
Rupert Farley
Adam Barker
1st auditionee
Joe Roberts
John Webster
Harry Gostelow
2nd auditionee
Alan Cody
3rd auditionee
Mark Williams
David Curtiz
John Hemmings

Gregor Truter
James Hemmings
Simon Day
1st boatman
Jill Baker
Lady De Lesseps
Amber Glossop
scullery maid
Robin Davies
Master Plum
Hywel Simons
Nicholas Le Prevost
Sir Robert De Lesseps
Timothy Kightley
Edward Pope
Mark Saban
Augustine Philips
Bob Barrett
George Bryan
Roger Morlidge
James Armitage
Daniel Brocklebank
Sam Gosse
Roger Frost
2nd boatman
Rebecca Charles
Richard Gold
lord in waiting
Rachel Clarke
Lucy Speed
Patricia Potter
John Ramm
Makepeace's neighbour
Martin Neeley
Paris/Lady Montague
The Choir of St George's School, Windsor
Rupert Everett
Christopher Marlowe
United International Pictures (UK) Ltd
tbc feet
tbc minutes
Dolby digital
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011