Analysis of the Accuracy of John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love
Film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and life have become very popular in the last few decades. There are some that depict Bard’s plays and society in a very precise way, though there are others that take some liberties. Because of this reason, I would like to focus this essay on Shakespeare in love, a film from 1998 directed by John Madden and whose soundtrack comes by the hand of Stephen Warbeck, and how it presents the society surrounding Shakespeare.
But first things first: Shakespeare in love was not intended to be a factual portrayal. This film shows us a young William Shakespeare, who struggles to satisfy the demand for plays from two playhouses. In the meantime, William falls in love with Viola, a courtly lady fascinated by the theatre. They both live a passionate romance that looks a lot like the one depicted in Romeo and Juliet. Most people would think that over centuries of research there must be enough information about Shakespeare to fill a complete library. Unfortunately, the things we know for sure about him would only fit a half sheet of paper.
So, I would like to talk especially about the things we know for sure about his life: aspects regarding society, history, and culture.SocietyRegarding society, we must consider that the film revolves around the world of theatre, that is, the plays, how does it work, actors (not actresses).
The latter point is quite interesting because women were not allowed to play on stage as actresses. It was forbidden by law, so men (usually young boys) would dress up in costumes to portray the role of a lady. The actors were normally aged between 13 and 19 years of age when their voices had a high pitch. It is believed that the voices from Elizabethan boys would break much more lately than nowadays, because of the difference in the lifestyle and diets. So, an actor could play the role of women in his late teens. As regards to this situation, Viola, one of the main characters of the film, complains about it:“His fingers were red from fighting (talking about the man who played Silvia from Two Gentlemen of Verona) and he spoke like a schoolboy at lessons. Stage love will never be true love while the law of the land has our heroines being played by pipsqueak boys in petticoats”.Apart from that, high-class people would not go to watch a play in a theatre.
That is to say, they did not want to mix themselves with the rest, so they had actors to play for them 1 in private, as Elizabeth I does in the film. In fact, Viola’s nurse says that “playhouses are not for wellborn ladies” since the high society should not go to the public plays. Besides, very important people would act as patrons to pay for a play because plays were good ways to convey political messages and propaganda. Here we have the example of Henslowe, an entrepreneur of the Elizabethan era who could afford the costs of the plays shown in the film. Regarding playhouses, we can see how they are constantly open and closed to the public throughout the film.
That is mainly because of two reasons:- The rising cases of the plague, which spreads at theatres.- The Puritans, who considered it sacrilegious and disgraceful as the male actors used to dress as females.HistoryIn this section I want to focus on the historic aspects shown in the film. Although the story on Shakespeare in love may be fictional, in addition to William Shakespeare, many of the characters that appear in the film they really existed. In fact, the actors Richard Burbage and Ned Alleyn, played by Martin Clunes and Ben Affleck respectively, would be considered part of Hollywood nowadays. One of the historical figures that appear in the film is Christopher Marlowe.
We can see that Shakespeare and Marlowe chat in the bar about the latter’s plays. Shakespeare praises Doctor Faustus and Marlowe tells him that he is currently writing another of his major works: The massacre at Paris. Later in the film, it is known that Christopher Marlowe has died with a dagger stabbed in the eye. He died in the summer of 1593, the same year as the film is set. Therefore, that is historically accurate. Another character I would like to make a point on is John Webster. He was an English dramatist, whose most famous work is The Duchess of Malfi, which is a macabre work that seems to prefigure the Gothic genre. He is portrayed as a boy who is obsessed with blood and death, and he even confesses that his favorite scene in Romeo and Juliet is when they both die. Later in the film, he is the one who discovers Viola’s role in disguise. Here it is the dialogue between William Shakespeare and John Webster, where we can see the role of the obscure author in a near future: 2 – JW: I was in a play. They cut my head off in Titus Andronicus.
When I write plays they’ll be like Titus.- WS: You admire it.- JW: I like it when they cut heads off, and the daughter mutilated with knives.- JW: […] (he offers alive mice to a cat) Plenty of blood. That’s the only writing. Apart from the two characters above, I wanted to make a point which I consider to be quite interesting. In the film, Lord Wessex (Viola’s fianc?) talks about his tobacco plantations in Virginia and that he will later move there (and in fact they do). Well having said that and knowing that the film is set in 1593, we should consider that this information is not historically accurate.
First of all, there were no tobacco plantations of any kind in Virginia and, secondly, Virginia didn’t exist by itself at that time. The colony would not develop until fourteen years later, in 1607 and tobacco plantations would begin to appear later on.CultureIn the final section of the essay, I wanted to talk about the elements of culture throughout the film. For example, let’s have a look at this excerpt from the dialogue between Fennyman and Henslowe at the very beginning of the film:“A play takes time. Find the actors, rehearsals. Let’s say we open in two weeks. That’s, what, 500 groundlings at tuppence ahead. In addition, 400 backsides at threepence, a penny extra for cushions. Call it, uh, 200 cushions. Say two performances for safety. How much is that Mr. Frees?”.As we can see, theatre in the Elizabethan era was considered to be a public show, where a person paid from two to three pennies depending on where they wanted to be or afford. If they were on the stalls, standing on their feet, they would pay a penny or two.
But if they preferred to sit on the dress circle, they would have to pay three pennies; not to talk 3 about comfort (it will cost you an extra penny if you want to rest your buttocks on a soft surface). As it was said, going to watch a play was a public way of entertaining and most people would go. They normally bought food (plays took several hours to be put on) and people would act as judges themselves, feeling free to throw some food to the stage in case they were not pleased with what they were watching. In the film, we should also mention that Elizabeth I was an enthusiastic woman as regards to the Arts, especially theatre. Let’s see the following lines:- V: I love poetry above all. […]- E: Playwrights teach us nothing about love. They make it pretty; they make it comical, or they make it lust. They cannot make it true.- V: Oh, but they can. I mean, I do not… but I believe there’s one who can. As we see, Queen Elizabeth I is pretty sure about how playwrights present the nature of love by giving a list of performances of it. That means that she must have watched a lot of plays and that she had them played for her (and sure she did because she even patronized them). She was a very intelligent woman, being able to speak several languages. She was also very keen on writing poetry and music; as a result, almost every poet or dramatist paid their respects to her.
Maybe the clearest example above all is Faerie Queenie, written by Edmund Spenser. After the death of Queen Elizabeth, I theatre began to decrease as the privilege of licensing and protecting them was gradually withdrawn from the nobles and taken over by the king and hence, a lot of political issues also popped up which in general affected the theatre in a very serious way. Regarding Shakespeare’s works, we can see many references appearing in the film. For example, when Viola (disguised as Sir Thomas Kent) auditions for the role of Romeo, she chose to declaim some verses from The Two Gentlemen of Verona (What love is love? If Silvia be not seen; What love is love? If Silvia be not by), rather than those from Doctor Faustus (Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers 4 of Ilium?) as the previous candidates had done.
This action caught William Shakespeare’s attention so he tried to follow and ran after him/her. Another reference to Shakespeare works is one of the masquerades and the balcony scene, both extracted from Romeo and Juliet. In the first, William meets Viola for the first time (in the same way as Romeo did with Juliet) and then he declares his love for her by climbing upon Viola’s balcony. Later on, Shakespeare sends Viola a love letter where we can see written on top “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”. Without any doubt, this is the beginning of Sonnet XVIII. In the film, William honors Viola by writing this sonnet, but we do not know for sure to whom it was dedicated. There are some theories that link this sonnet to the apparent Shakespeare’s homosexuality, conveying that there is a metaphor for homosexual procreation in it.
What is true is that the character of the poem remains unclear, being interpreted as pure platonic love or the description of a woman. Another of the numerous references to Shakespeare’s works is the one said by the Puritan preacher against the reopening of the theatres: “The Rose smells thusly rank, by any name! I say, a plague on both their houses!”. Both are quotations that refer to Romeo and Juliet; here the “both houses” refer to the two principal playhouses in the film, The Rose, and The Curtain. At the end of the film, Viola makes up the beginning of another play from the Bard, Twelfth Night (also Viola is the name of the main character in this play):- V: It’s a beginning. Let him be a duke and your heroine…- W: Sold in marriage and halfway to America.- V: At sea then. A voyage to a new world.- W: A storm. All are lost.- V: She lands… on a… vast and empty shore. She’s brought to the duke Orsino.- W: Orsino? Good name.- V: But fearful of her virtue, she comes to him dressed as aboy.- W: And thus, is unable to declare her love.- V: But all ends well.- W: How does it? 5 – V: I don’t know. It’s a mystery (the same words used by Henslowe at the beginning of the film).In conclusion, I would like to say that I consider this film a masterpiece because I have always loved the work of Shakespeare. It is true that the story we face is fictional, but it is also true that we do not know many facts for sure about Shakespeare. With this kind of films, you never know whether their scripts will be horribly anachronistic or not; whether they will be plain annoying or not. But all in all, I adore the visuals and soundtrack of the film.
So, in my opinion, whenever I hear “That’s not Shakespeare, that’s fictional”, I answer “Who cares if it is Shakespeare or not? Does it matter if it is accurate?”. I take the view that it is an outstanding film with a majestic soundtrack, but it is only the opinion and belief of a film-making fan. It is up to the interested one to watch it and like it or not.
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