Shakespeare in Love

by Cathleen Myers

One of the supreme ironies of this year’s cinema is that John Madden’s feather-light, frivolous and utterly delightful romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love – which makes no pretence whatsoever to historical accuracy or realism – gives us a far more vivid picture of Elizabethan England than Elizabeth. With its bustling street scenes, its topical allusions, and its many in-jokes about Elizabethan life, literature and theater, Shakespeare in Love has the look and feel of its period. While the historical blunders in Elizabeth often seem merely careless, screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman know Elizabethan history and theater so thoroughly that you can be sure that none of their anachronisms are accidental ("Tonight’s special is a calf’s foot marinated in a juniper berry sauce," drones the waiter at local inn. An anachronistic joke – except that the recipe might very well be real!). And who’s to say that Shakespeare didn’t have an apothecary/analyst with a convenient couch?

Of course, the love story is improbable (we already know Shakespeare’s literary sources for Romeo and Juliet) but it is exactly the kind of madcap gender bender romantic comedy that we suspect Shakespeare himself would be writing for the cinema today. Unlike the characters in Elizabeth, who bear little resemblance to what we know of their real characters, the historical characters in Shakespeare in Love seem absolutely true to life: friendly rival playwright Kit Marlowe, star comedian Will Kemp, a very young and very macabre John Webster (the future playwright) and the aging but still formidable Queen Elizabeth herself (played with great command by an admirably corseted Dame Judi Dench). And, judging from Ben Johnson’s own description of his friend Shakespeare, young Will was every bit as attractive and appealing as Joseph Fiennes.

The climactic scenes in which we see Burbage’s Men perform Romeo and Juliet before a noisy, appreciative and totally involved live audience are electric – and look exactly as they should – with both groundlings and wealthy patrons totally involved in the action, laughing uproariously at the dirty jokes, spellbound by the swashbuckling fight scenes, and moved to tears by the death scene. At last we see how much fun it must have been to see a good Elizabethan play!

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