John Madden’s 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love” presents a fictional love affair between young William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps. The story is located in London at the end of the 16th century, and although it is based on real characters, this is not a historical film, because the events portrayed are entirely fictional. A relationship between the two is impossible because of forces beyond their control and their relationship inspires the young playwright to create “Romeo and Juliet”. The present paper will review and analyze the film, and the live production that it contains in an attempt to show how the fictive world presented therein illustrates all the three definitions of theatre.
I. The Fictive World
Theatrical productions create fictive worlds by means of a performance text. In the case of “Shakespeare in Love”, the image it presents does not resemble the world we live, because this fictional world follows different rules, and is based upon a different ideology. The characters have a worldview which does not resemble our own and there is no similarity between the way we live, and the way the characters live. However, the world portrayed in the live performance mirrors the world in the film having been inspired by it. The world portrayed in the film is familiar in the way characters behave with each other. Character dynamics and the relations they form are similar to the ones we encounter every day. Relationship such as friendship, animosity, affection and devotion, the quiet approval of the superior individual for the younger and less powerful, and yes admirable individual can be encounter in our society as well. However, the world is unique because the norms of behavior are different, and the respect for duty and honor are unique to the world portrayed in the film. Moreover, even for the time and period portrayed in the film, the bravery of the main characters to defy norms and expectations is unique and represents a break from conventions that may not reflect the historical truth, but is plausible in the fictional world of the film.
In the film, the forces that operate are the traditional and social norms of the English society of the 16th century. These norms govern the way people live and behave. Thus, they commend young Viola to marry whomever her parents and the Quinn orders and they stop her from pursuing her vocation, because women were not allowed to play in theatric productions. The Quinn is the highest authority in the film. However, she cannot break a marriage, because above her own will, religion is even a more powerful force which operates in the film. The same forces operate in the live performance, although the characters in the theatrical production presented in the film manage to defeat them by choosing to die rather than submitting to them. In the film however, the characters choose to live, and young Shakespeare uses the force of his own words to defeat those forces by transforming Viola into an immortal character.
Therefore, although the characters behave as they are expected to, each of them breaks conventions in their own way, and by their own means. Viola has an affair with married playwright, her nurse allows the affair to continue and protects Viola, Shakespeare lets her go at the end but transforms her into his muse and the Quinn allows a woman on stage, because she recognizes in Viola her own strength. The fictional world described in the film is precise, with details being very well contoured to make it seem realistic. However, the fictional world is stylized because it does not resemble the real world. The constructed reality is recognizable as the 16th century England. The fictional world is forbidding because the restrictions that made it impossible for the characters to follow their dreams.
II. Theatrical Means
The director interpretation was free, as the film presented a fictional relationship between Shakespeare and a young woman named Viola, who disguised as a man to play in his theatrical productions. However, the lines and plotline of “Romeo and Juliet” was accurate and remained faithful to the original. Although the story is fictional, it is viable, and it makes sense: a love story as the one presented in the film could easily take place. The concept is successfully realized and the film manages to surprise the spirit of the era and to create a plausible and beautiful love story that parallels, and mirrors, the creation of the play “Romeo and Juliet”.
The casting choice is perfect. The female lead, Gwyneth Paltrow, is perfect as Viola and British actor Joseph Fiennes successfully portrays William Shakespeare. In the play, the initial cast is not as successful. Hoever, by the end of the film, the initial actors change places ad Shakespeare himself becomes Romeo. The new casting from the play is much better particularly since a woman now plays Juliet’s role, and because of their feelings for each other, the actors move the audience with their interpretation. The pace of the film is fast in action scenes, and slow in love scenes, allowing the audience to become involved in the story. The staging is very convincing: the actors managed to enter the skin of the characters and they portrayed successfully the 16th century characters. The costumes and props were also appropriate for the location and time depicted in the film, but also in the play.
The interpretation of the play by the Elizabethan characters was dramatic and passionate, although the décor was rather scarce. Light in the play was equally distributed, unlike the modern representations in which light focuses on particular parts of the stage, leaving others in the shadow. The lack of technical devices is however compensated by the vivid and emotional interpretation. Music is used in the film to increase the drama of particular scenes, but also, it is used to increase the emotional appeal of the passages recited from the play “Romeo and Juliet”. Non-diegetic music also accompanies scenes which depict the growing love between Shakespeare and Viola. For example, the music that can be heard while Shakespeare pursues Viola dressed as Thomas Kent has the role of emphasizing the youthful play between the two characters, and of anticipating the meeting of the two lead characters. Diegetic sounds, such as the music which plays when the two meet for the first time at the ball, also matches the feelings of the two characters and is in perfect agreement with non-diegetic music.
The actors’ interpretation was believable because the actors showed great skill in conveying such emotions as love, hate or passion. Both in the film, and in the live performance portrayed in the film, emotion was the engine which made the story move. None of the actors sing, and the lead actress changes her voice into that of a man whereas the lead actor once changes his voice to that of a woman. This mirrors the necessity for travesty in the live production, in which men have to portray women on stage. The movements were ample and dynamic, the energy of the characters suggesting the youth and passion of everyone involved in the story. The main character is portrayed as a good, brave man, who is capable of any sacrifice for his loved one. The female lead is portrayed as very brave and her action of defying the society by playing on stage and having an affair with a married man makes her less viable as a character. However, by portraying Viola as a strong character, the director helps modern female audiences to identify with her.
The director respected historical accuracy, in what costumes and sets are concerned. The presented world is a grey one for the commoners. However, the courtly life is colorful and glamorous. The stage costumes used by the characters are also colorful and burlesque. The make-up is discreet mirroring the make-up habits of the age, whereas wigs are constantly used for travesty, in the play The floor plan dictates the movements of the characters, whereas in the live performance, it limits them. Levels are used to suggest social ranks and superiority. For example, the Quinn is always placed on higher surfaces to appear as a giant as compared to the other characters. Both in the film, and in the paly within the film, the director makes extensive use of areas to express energy and dynamism. When alone in the frame, the characters occupy the center position. The areas often seem crowded with people, because the characters are surprised in social environments: at the court, at the theater or in taverns.
The Qualities of a Fine Play
The film displays the qualities of a fine play, and so does the play within the film. The acting of the characters, but also the story, are credibly for the audience. The emotional and poetic nature of the discours between the two make the story stagable and the dialogue increase the steagability of the film but also, of the play. The film suffers when it comes to speakability, because sometimes, the dialogue between the two characters is conceived so as to appear that it inspired the play “Romeo and Juliet”. Although the dialogue is credible most of the times, sometimes, as in the balcony scene from the film, it seems a little forced and does not seem to emanate from the character. The two stories, of Shakespeare and Viola, and of Romeo and Juliet, are properly condensed, whereas the intensity of each scene has the role of depicting the passionate love between characters. Ultimately, the film celebrates truthful, youthful love, and its high dynamism and passion suggests that the characters live with intensity. The live performance fails to be a celebratory act until the very end when the lead characters play Romeo and Juliet. Their mutual feelings transform the play into a celebration of love and sacrifice in its name.
- Parfitt, D, Gligliotti D., Weinstein, H., Zwick, E., and Norman, M. (Producers) & Madden, J. (Director). (1998). Shakespeare in love (motion picture). USA: Miramax Studios.