Yesterday was the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s purported birth (we know the day he was christened, but not the day he was born so, as with Most Things William, we’re really just guessing).
In honor of this anniversary, I neither watched one of his plays nor read any of his poetry.
I watched Shakespeare in Love.
Sure, I might have chosen any of the dozens of Shakespearean performances I have on disk, from the great BBC productions of the ’80s to Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet to the 2010 production of Patrick Stewart in the Scottish play, the performance of which I saw at the Gielgud in London and the DVD of which just arrived at my house on Monday.
I also might have spent some time reading any one of the several versions of Shakespeare’s work I have in print: individual plays, annotated compendiums, and a dozen or so editions of Furness’s variorum (highly recommended for the Shakespeare geek).
So, with all of this at my fingertips, why did I instead opt to watch an inaccurate and sentimental fictionalization of a fortnight in Shakespeare’s life?
With all the reading I’ve done on the subject, my opinion is that William Shakespeare was probably unhappy a lot of his life. I see this reflected in his writing, and we find evidence of it amongst the little evidence we have of his existence. A less-than-loving marriage, the death of his only son, the ardent but (it seems) unfulfilled love he felt for the dedicatees of his poetry: these are not the hallmarks of a happy life. To be sure, he did well in business, but we all know that money does not bring happiness.
Thus, on the 450th anniversary of his birth, I did not want to think of him as troubled and unhappy; I wanted to think him happy and in love. I also wanted to hear Shakespeare’s words celebrated, treated as the jewels they are.
In Shakespeare in Love, screenwriters Norman and Stoppard do just that. The entire movie is densely laced with lines from Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, and every time I watch it, I hear something new. The character of Shakespeare is a linguistic sponge, soaking up the phrases that surround him. Words from the street pop up as lines in the play he writes. The movie also pays due respect to the realities of the Elizabethan theater (then a brand new art form), depicting the fierce competition among companies, closures due to plague, and the sometimes silly concoctions that made up comedic entertainment. Throughout the movie, we hear Shakespeare’s written word (as it has come down to us), in plays and in speech, and are thrilled by their beauty.
But this movie is not just an homage to the man we may honestly place as the greatest writer of the English language. It’s also a great love story and a touching comedy. The structure of the movie weaves together the inspiration and creation of Romeo and Juliet with the doomed love affair between Will and Viola. The contrasting forces of love and duty, reality and fantasy, clash repeatedly in multiple conflicts and via several agents. Every joy is tempered with a greater sadness as the central couple have their “stolen season,” and the ending brings a new and vital poignancy to Twelfth Night, one of my personal favorite plays.
It isn’t all mooning and swooning, though, for there are plenty of comedic moments, “in” jokes, historical elbow-nudges, not to mention a fair bit of action and swordplay. To be sure, at its heart, Shakespeare in Love is a romantic comedy, but it cannot be compared with others of that genre. With its tremendous cast, consummate writing, and top-drawer production values, it surpasses every benchmark and defies definition.
And, of course, there’s a bit with a dog. Gotta love that.