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History at the Movies: Shakespeare in Love

I have a love-hate relationship with movies set in my favourite historical periods. On the one hand, I adore the visuals, but the scripts in particular can be horribly anachronistic or just plain annoying! Just for fun, I thought I’d pick apart a few films set in the Elizabethan period, starting with a well-known example: Shakespeare in Love. I chose this film because, although one obviously can’t hold a frothy romantic comedy up to the same standards as a historical epic, it’s surprisingly faithful to the period.

*** SPOILER WARNING *** In order to discuss historical accuracy, I have to give away the plot. However this movie is over a decade old, so…

The Story

Enthusiastic young playwright Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling with ideas for his latest play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter, until he encounters the lovely Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), far above him on the social scale. Viola, meanwhile, is no shrinking violet; betrothed to a pompous nobleman (Colin Firth), she tries to escape the strictures of her life by disguising herself as a young man and auditioning for a part in the new play.

Hilarity ensues (as they say), as Viola struggles to keep the two sides of her life separate and secret. She falls madly in love with Will, only to discover he has been keeping a secret of his own: he’s married. Realising that they can never be together, she gives him up, but they never forget one another, and Shakespeare eventually immortalises her as one of his pluckiest cross-dressing heroines, Viola in Twelfth Night.

Historical basis

Obviously there’s not going to be a lot of this in a romantic comedy, but just for the record, the real events included in the film are:

  • Shakespeare’s writing of Romeo and Juliet, probably in the early 1590s (it was first published in 1597, and this usually only happened after a play had been performed many times)
  • the murder of Christopher Marlowe in the early summer of 1593 (supposedly in a quarrel over a dinner bill, but since Marlowe was a spy, the motive behind it was probably political)

Also, Shakespeare was 29 in 1593 (and actor Joseph Fiennes was 28 when the film was made), hence the romance plot fits into Shakespeare’s life very plausibly.

Many of the background details are pretty accurate. Shakespeare is shown stripping the barbs from his quills when preparing to write, and Bankside is portrayed as suitably muddy and semi-rural. There are little touches of social history, too, like Shakespeare walking in on Burbage and his whore and not being the slightest bit embarrassed, or the nurse rocking noisily in her chair to drown out the sounds of Will and Viola’s lovemaking, which give a real feel for how little privacy Elizabethan people had.

Deliberate fictions

Pretty obviously, Shakespeare’s working title for Romeo and Juliet never involved a pirate’s daughter; that’s just a bit of fun, to prepare the ground for the change that his love for Viola brings to his writing. And Viola herself is a fictional character, though judging by Shakespeare’s sonnets he was by no means celibate when he lived in London, hundreds of miles from his wife! Viola’s fiancé, the Duke of Wessex, is equally fictional, though he is a typical Elizabethan nobleman, hot-tempered and proud.

Being a comedy, the film has a lot of fun with anachronisms, from the “priest of Psyche” on whose couch Will confesses his performance anxiety, to the wherryman who talks exactly like a London cabbie: “I had that Christopher Marlowe in the back of my boat, once…”. However these little touches help to connect a modern audience with the past, and they are in the spirit of the era, if not the letter.

Historical “errors”

  • It’s fairly certain that Shakespeare never wrote a play for Philip Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush in the movie). No payments to Shakespeare are listed in Henslowe’s surviving account books – a fact which some have used as “proof” that Shakespeare wrote none of the plays attributed to him. However Shakespeare was a member of a theatre company based on the other side of London, and from 1599 he was a sharer in that company, so the absence of payments to him isn’t that surprising.
  • The story about Queen Elizabeth and the cloak over the puddle is almost certainly fiction; it probably originated with 17th-century historian Thomas Fuller, who was inclined to embroider the facts with fanciful incidents, and was perpetuated by Sir Walter Scott in his Elizabethan romance Kenilworth.

Conclusion

Overall I give this movie 6/10 for historical accuracy – the plot may be pure fiction, but it’s played out against a background that puts many a more serious film to shame.

Comments

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Kelly Szpara

Is it terrible that I love this movie? Granted, this time period is not my specialty. But, I love watching how Romeo and Juliet evolves from Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, haha, and I love Ben Affleck’s character’s attitude. Also Geoffrey Rush. Now I want to watch it again. Though, I do feel your pain when watching similar movies set during antiquity in Greece, Rome, etc.

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Brian Turner

Personally found this film to be twee and hideously sickening, while devoid of any meaningful merit.

Perhaps I’m just a cynic. Please don’t ask me to watch it again, though. 🙂

Now, Elizabeth – that’s an entirely different animal of a film entirely. It’s damned good, for starters!

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Anne

I agree that it has its annoying moments (most of Gwyneth Paltrow’s screen time, tbh), but I wanted to focus on the historical aspects of the film – whether you enjoy the romance and comedy or not is purely a matter of taste.

I intend to turn my attention to Elizabeth another time…

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Richard Lyle

Aha! You’ve given me another reason to loathe Walter Scott. Excellent.

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Prudence

What I liked about this film was spotting all the bits which ended up in later Shakespeare plays – well, it was the other way round but you know what I mean? 😀

And I’m a sucker for any film that makes me laugh which this one did.

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Juliet E McKenna

Personally, my teens would have benefited notably from the title of that blasted play actually being ‘Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter’.

At college with a Rosalind and a Portia, we seriously considered setting up The League of Those Afflicted with Shakespearean Heroines’ Names!

🙂