When positioned side by side, a critical assessment of the film Shakespeare in Love and the play Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, offers insight into the life and mind of the playwright. We are offered a glimpse into the hypothetical history of William Shakespeare and the events that one can imagine may have inspired his great works. Shakespeare in Love is a largely fictional account of the life of William Shakespeare who, although his plays enjoy continued success after hundreds of years, is known very little about. Rather than rely solely on the sparse facts available, Stoppard has interweaved the story of William Shakespeare’s life with that of one of his most read plays: Romeo and Juliet.
In this way, Will—as he is referred to throughout the film—becomes less of a historical figure and more of a literary character in his own right; Stoppard has created a Romeo with wisdom, showing the audience what might have happened to the tragic lovers had they been less rash. Although Will is fresh faced and handsome like his counterpart, Romeo, he also has maturity and the ability to think things through. Essentially, although many parallels exist between the works, each positive and negative turn of events in Shakespeare in Love speaks to responsibility and sacrifice for the greater good rather than the impulsiveness and selfishness of youth.
In the original play, Romeo and Juliet, it is love at first site, with the two falling in love upon first meeting and marrying soon after. Although Romeo woos her with beautiful words, it is clear that attraction is rooted in the chemistry they feel upon meeting more than anything else. Their families are locked in a perpetual feud and Juliet is betrothed to another man, which makes their love forbidden. This of course makes the affair more exciting but more complicated as well.
When Romeo is banished for murder, Juliet concocts a plan to fake her own death but Romeo is never informed of it and kills himself in grief. Waking to find him dead, Juliet kills herself and their families are left to deal the fall out from their deaths. We are left to believe that they agree to restore peace among them.
Shakespeare in Love, on the other hand, related the story of a young noble woman who falls in love first with Will’s poetry, his ability to use words to paint pictures and invoke deep emotions. Many of these words are used within the film, creating a play within a play. Rather than create a direct parallel, wherein all of the elements follow a recognizable predetermined path based upon the play, Stoppard chooses to sprinkle these elements throughout the action.
The feud, for example, is not between the families of the lovers for example, but between two play houses—The Rose and The Curtain—and their playwrights—Marlowe and Shakespeare. However, the death of Marlowe and the shutting down of The Rose sparks a truce between the two houses. “Will Shakespeare has a play. I have a theatre,” (Stoppard) says the owner, Burbage, when he offers his stage to the now defunct players.
Loss brings together these warring groups, just as it did in Romeo and Juliet; however the lesson here is greater. When both children are dead, a truce serves only to prevent further bloodshed. It will not bring these children back nor allow them to enjoy the peace that their deaths have brought. It is a bittersweet victory. However, when the two play houses form a truce, they are both elevated beyond their previous quality, producing a play worthy of the Queen’s approval and praise as one that is able to truly demonstrate love.
This diversion from the play serves to move the action forward by giving the play a stage, it provides everyone involved with some measure of success, and one could learn a lesson in cooperation—if they were so inclined—as neither party could have reaped the rewards on their own, our lovers Will and Viola included.
Another parallel between the plays is the morning after the lovers have first consummated their love affair and are torn from each other by the quickly approaching day. The dialogue of Romeo and Juliet is so reminiscent of the dialogue between Will and Viola that one might venture to guess that Stoppard is trying to suggest that the passage below was inspired by such an event in Shakespeare’s own life.
“It was the lark, the herald of the morn; No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks Do lace the severing clouds in yonder East. Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.” (Shakespeare, Scene III Act V)
Viola and Will argue over whether the birds they hear are the own or the rooster but the idea communicated is the same. The morning is a dreadful thing for two lovers who must meet only under the cover of darkness lest they be discovered. However, Viola eventually banishes Will from her bed because she knows that his work is more important than a few more moments together. He is to create theatre, an art she holds closely to her heart, and she cannot imagine holding him back from that pursuit.
The line “You would leave us players without a scene to read today?!”(Stoppard) from the film during the scene when Viola sends Will away from her bed that first morning is not as straightforward as it may first appear. The word “us” indicates that she counts herself among the players, a vocation forbidden to women in that time period. By sending Will away to complete his work, she is not only allowing more art into the world and furthering Will’s career, but she is providing herself with the vehicle by which she will eventually realize her dream of acting on stage for an audience.
Every moment with Will is fleeting no matter how hard they try to make them last. Rather than sacrifice the moment solely so they may meet up again like Romeo and Juliet, Viola sacrifices time with the love of her life so that they, and others, will benefit in a deeper and more lasting way. The experience of the final performance, in which Viola takes the stage as Juliet, will undoubtedly leave a mark on all the players and certain members of the audience, such as the Queen. Furthermore, the play itself is a testament to the value of Viola’s sacrifice; had she kept Will in her bed all day, we might not have the play to read, perform, and watch today, almost four hundred years later. In this way, the legacy of her sacrifice is immortal.
This world renowned play, as previously discussed, ends in the tragic death of the two young lovers. One can’t help but feel that, aside from the selfishness and impulsiveness of youth, the deaths were partly to blame on poor communication. Had either known what the other had in mind, the tragedy may have been avoided. Romeo would have had the patience to await Juliet’s awakening and the two would have been reunited. It is unknown, of course, whether their problems would have persisted beyond that point, where they would have fled to, and how they would survive on their own. We can never know this because these two young people chose to die rather than to suffer the loss of one another, thereby stepping out on their duties to their families and leaving them in grief. Despite being romantic, this kind of behavior is impulsive and selfish; it is not a long term plan and doesn’t account for the good these people might have gone on to do had they lived.
The ending to Shakespeare in Love follows an entirely different path. Viola and Will say their goodbyes and agree to always love each other but to go on and fulfill their duties far away from each other. To refuse to follow Wessex to America would not only be a disgrace to her family, who has invested a large sum of money into this man but it would be in direct defiance of the Queen who had given her approval to the marriage. Wessex states previously that “once gained, her consent is her command,” (Stoppard) indicating the futility of trying to change the Queen’s mind to allow Viola to remain with William.
The only solution, that would have kept them together, would have been for the two to run away, effectively banished from their friends and family. Will likely would not have flourished as the renowned playwright he is known as today and any children they produced would have been raised in a life of poverty—being cut off from Viola’s previous wealth—and without their countrymen in England. They would be refugees of a sort, hiding out just trying to survive, all because their parents refused to be separated. The whole idea is unjustly cruel to everyone involved through no fault of their own.
Instead, Viola leaves Will behind to venture off to America, and perhaps raise a family. If so, her children will have the family fortune, grandparents, and a respectable life. Will now has more inspiration that he can put into words and will continue to write amazing plays, including Twelfth Night which he is seen writing at the end. Stoppard let’s us believe that the character of Viola in that work is inspired by Shakespeare’s own Viola and her cross-dressing. Nonetheless her bravery and intelligence serve as strong inspiration for Will alongside her beauty which, Will says will endure in his mind. “You will never age for me, nor fade, nor die” (Stoppard). She will remain his muse, always as perfect as when he last saw her.
This most notable departure from the original play is discussed at length because it most adeptly illustrates the differences between the two sets of loves, despite their similarities in circumstance. While both are instantaneously and passionately in love yet are destined to be separated, one pair hurtles down a tragic path to death because they are unable to understand life and rationally make a decision. Perhaps it is to blame on their youth, as Juliet is only fourteen years old while Will and Viola are portrayed as adults. Perhaps, as teenagers in present day, their age prohibited them from understanding the impact their actions would have on others, not to mention the fact they were not gaining anything by taking their own lives.
Adults, such as Will and Viola, may be more able to understand that, while they cannot have what they most deeply desire, each other, they can go on to have many other wonderful things in their lives. The loss of their love for each other is not the end of their stories; they opt to accept their duties and make the best of the circumstances. This is not to say that they don’t mourn the loss or wish deeply that they could stay together, but have the ability, as adults, to cope with the circumstances they are given. Thus the passion and love of Romeo and Juliet are maintained in this film, while lending maturity and rational thought to temper the tragic aspects of the story.
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Shakespeare in Love. Dir. John Madden. Screenplay: Tom Stoppard. Miramax, 1998
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