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Shakespeare in Love

“Comedy, love, and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want.”

This is one of my favorite movies of all time, and probably my favorite movie that’s been made since I’ve been alive. It’s as close to perfect as I can imagine. I love everything about it. I think it’s rarest quality is that it’s equally enjoyable whether you’re a Shakespeare expert or if you don’t know “King Lear” from the broad side of a barn.

William Shakespeare, struggling playwright is working on a new play: “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” But he’s facing a bit of writer’s block. He needs a new muse. Aphrodite Baggett just isn’t doing it for him anymore. Enter Viola de Lesseps, a noblewoman with a love of the theater and of the works of Shakespeare in particular. It sounds sappy, but the story is told with such a sense of humor that it is impossible not to love. It is at once hilarious, beautiful, intelligent, and incredibly romantic.

Will writes “Romeo and Juliet” while living out a blessedly less depressing version of it. He breaks up with a girl named Rosaline and writes a scene where Romeo pines over a girl of the same name. He speaks with his love on a balcony and then writes the famous balcony scene. Again, it could be sappy, but it is done with a light enough touch that you end up laughing through those scenes instead of cringing. Shakespeare in Love doesn’t for a second take itself seriously, one of its greatest strengths.

Unlike more recent Shakespeare-centric movies, this one does not claim to be non-fictional or really, at all accurate. An early shot in the movie shows a mug that appears to have been purchased in an old-time tourist shop. “A Present from Stratford-upon-Avon,” Shakespeare’s birthplace. I’m not a historian, but I’m 99% sure novelty mugs were not around in the sixteenth century. If you had any doubts of the seriousness of the movie, the appearance of Will’s Freudian analyst less than ten minutes in should put that to rest. That bit always struck me as very Mel Brooks. It’s also a great way to get Will’s backstory out quickly.

Shakespeare in Love utilizes a lot of dialogue straight from “Romeo and Juliet.” One of my favorite parts of the movie is the rehearsal montage, which shows the cast rehearsing the movie and then cuts back to Viola and Will running lines in bed, with Will playing Juliet. Honestly, most of the large chunks of Shakespeare I have committed to memory come from watching this movie again and again and again. It also makes several references to “Twelfth Night,” most notably the end sequence, the cross dressing, and the name Viola.

The film also has some fun with a few well known facts about Shakespeare. For instance, it can be seen as explaining the “Fair Youth” sonnets, which are addressed to a young man. Historians and literary critics have debated whether these sonnets were meant platonically, written in character, or if Shakespeare may have been bisexual. Shakespeare in Love offers a far simpler explanation: the poems were inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow in drag (so obvious). Also commented on is Shakespeare’s tendency to borrow from other writers. Here, he gets a quite a lot of help from Christopher Marlowe in addition to stealing random lines from people he meets.

My one minor issue with the movie is Colin Firth. He plays the bad guy. And he has weird, villainous facial hair. Why is Mr. Darcy being so violent? And why does he want to marry Emma Woodhouse anyway? What happened to Elizabeth Bennet?! Okay, so my issues with Colin Firth may be a little weird and unreasonable. He does a fine job. It’s just...he’s evil and I have a difficult time dealing with it.

Bits and Pieces:

How hot is Voldemort’s little brother as Will? Super hot.

I really want a leather jacket like Will’s.

“Romeo and Juliet” isn’t the only Shakespearean play to have undergone a name change. “One Gentleman of Verona” is also mentioned.

One of many nods to modern actors and writers: a lot of the actors Henslowe hires moonlight as waiters.

The bartender in the scene between Will and Marlowe deserves an award for most distracting extra ever.

John Webster, the boy fired from his role as Ethel grew up to be a playwright known for his exceptionally violent works.

Judi Dench is my favorite screen Elizabeth I (Apologies to Cate Blanchett, whose love interest in Elizabeth is played by Joseph Fiennes. The film also features Geoffrey Rush.).

Henslowe’s obsession with the pirate king is strangely poetic as Geoffrey Rush would go on to play Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

The nurse’s eyeroll when she sees Will in his disguise as Miss Wilhelmina reaches Liz Lemon levels of epicness.

I love Henslowe and Mr. Fennyman checking the script for the writer’s quarrel.


Do you have any idea how hard it was for me not to transcribe the entire movie?

Shakespeare: “As soon as I find my muse.”
Henslowe: “Who is she this time?”
Shakespeare: “She is always Aphrodite.”
Henslowe: “Aphrodite Baggett who does it behind The Dog and Trumpet?”

Henslowe: “Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”
Mr. Fennyman: “So what do we do?”
Henslowe: “Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.”
Mr. Fennyman: “How?”
Henslowe: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

Will: “Romeo and Rosaline,” scene one. God, I’m good!”
Henslowe: “Rosaline? You mean Ethel.”

Mr. Fennyman: “Who’s that?”
Henslowe: “Nobody. He’s the author.”

Will: “We are in desperate want of a Mercutio, Ned, a young nobleman of Verona.”
Ned: “And the title of this piece?”
Will: “Mercutio.”
Actor: “Is it?”
Will: (glares)

Henslowe: “Juliet? You mean Ethel.”

Will: “I have a sonnet to write.”
Henslowe: “A sonnet? You mean a play.”

Will: “He dies with such passion and poetry as you ever heard...A plague on both your houses!”
Ned: “He dies?”

Viola: “I do not know how to undress a man.”
Will: “It is strange to me too.”

Henslowe: “You mean no dog of any kind?”

Wessex: “Nature and truth are the very enemies of playacting, I’ll wager my fortune.”
Queen Elizabeth: “I thought you were here because you had none.”
Royal burn.

Viola: “It is a house of ill repute!”
Will: “It is, Thomas, but of good reputation.”

Ned: “Marlowe attacked and got his own knife in the eye. A quarrel about the bill.”
Henslowe: “The bill? Oh, vanity, vanity!”
Ned: “Not the billing! The bill!”
One of my favorite jokes ever.

Henslowe: “The show must...you know...”
Will: “Go on!”

Mr. Tilney: “In the name of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth!”
Queen Elizabeth: “Mr. Tilney! Have a care with my name, you’ll wear it out.”

Queen Elizabeth: “But I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.”

four out of four sonnets

sunbunny, who is still a little in love with Joseph Fiennes because of this movie


  1. It is absolutely a special movie, which means I actually bought a copy of it and have watched it several times. (It has to be special for me to shell out money.) :) Loved your review, sunbunny.

  2. I loved (and continue to love) this movie too. I remember there was a lot of grumbling when it won Best Picture (Oscar). But I believe this is a movie that is firing on every cylinder. It seems to get everything right. And I particularly love the "It's a mystery" quote.

  3. When I saw your review this morning, I put aside everything else I should have done and watched this movie for about the hundredth time. One of my all time favorites.

    Although I am not a huge fan, Ben Affleck is simply marvelous in a throw away part. His line, "Romeo and Juliet. Just a suggestion," always makes me laugh out loud. Closely followed by "And, you are a Warwickshire shit house."

    I agree with everything you said about Judi Dench, about the writing, and especially about Joseph Finnes. I fell in love with him the first time I saw this movie and I still am a bit. Today's viewing reminded me why.

  4. I have tried to watch this movie several times but each time I have fallen asleep. Despite the joy of Joseph Fiennes, it just never grabs my attention. Say what you will--I'm not completely uncouth! I enjoy classical music and opera, just not this movie.

  5. I'm going to be the dissenter here--I'm not in love with this movie. It's OK, but I will always say that Saving Private Ryan is a better, much more lasting movie, than this one and should have won Best Picture. (And I love Judi Dench for winning an Oscar for being on screen for a total of 12 minutes. And I'm actually OK with Gwyneth Paltrow winning an Oscar.)

    But I still don't think this movie is the best of 1998.

    (And I'm used to being in the minority. I will always hate Titanic and say that L.A. Confidential should have won Best Picture for 1997.)

    I do agree about Joseph Fiennes (hot, hot, hot!) But--and this is just my opinion--but I always find the movie pretty formulaic.

    But, then again, I'm not the biggest fan of Romeo and Juliet. I love Shakespeare. I'm in a Shakespeare group where we are reading all the plays. Hamlet, which I first read in high school, is the greatest play ever written, and King Lear and Othello are close behind. But, I've never been a huge fan of R&J. Like the movie, I find the play just OK.

    Although the best adaptation, movie-wise, of a Shakespeare play is the 1967 version of Romeo and Juliet. I highly recommend it.)

  6. I love this movie. Whenever things get stressful I can hear in my head "Everything will turn out well" "How will it?" "I don't know, it's a mystery"

  7. Love the movie, love the review and definitely love Joseph Fiennes.

    Chris - the "Romeo and Juliet. Just a suggestion," bit is also one of my favourite scenes.

    As for the Oscar, I was quite surprised that it won. At the time, I was sure Saving Private Ryan would get it, but in hindsight, this is the movie that I keep coming back to, while I've never had the guts to watch Ryan again.


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