Shakespeare in Love (review)

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Fan Fiction

Devotees of a certain infamous television series write stories about Kirk and Spock getting it on and sell photocopies to their friends, and they’re branded as weird. Tom Stoppard (here with cowriter Marc Norman) does basically the same thing and he’s a genius.

Tom Stoppard, I’ll grant you, is infinitely more clever and more talented than your run-of-the-mill fan-fiction writer. But he’s doing exactly the same thing as those hordes of fan writers who have continued and expanded upon the adventures of the crew of the Enterprise, the owner of the TARDIS, those two FBI agents down in the basement, and the fictional denizens of a zillion other cultish TV shows.

Stoppard started his Shakespearean fanfic with Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead — what fan writers (and I admit I can count myself among them) call a “missing-scene” story. Just what exactly happened between Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher in the turbolift in that one episode? What did Mulder and Scully talk about during that all-night stakeout? And what did Hamlet’s friends do when they weren’t onstage? Okay, yes — Stoppard dealt with existential concerns whereas most fan writers just wanna get their favorite characters nekkid, but we’re talking matters of degree only.

Shakespeare in Love is what fan writers would call a “Mary Sue” story — or at least it would be if it had been written by a woman. All Mary Sues have a basic structure: A beautiful, perfect woman (the embodiment of the author; the vast majority of fan writers are women) joins the crew of the Enterprise (for instance); Spock (or some other usually unattainable character) falls madly in love with her; she saves the ship, the crew, the known universe all by herself; and she dies or is otherwise removed permanently from the life of the man who has fallen under her spell.

That’s the plot of Shakespeare in Love, in a nutshell — and unlike with Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, there are no deep meanings here. That’s not to say that Shakespeare in Love isn’t the most wonderful movie I’ve seen in quite a while. This is a delightful romantic comedy that will be enjoyed even by those who’ve never seen one of the Bard’s plays. But for his fans, Shakespeare in Love is thrilling for the same reason that the best of fan fiction is so wonderful: Here are characters and situations that are so fun and intriguing that we don’t want to let go of them, so we’re inspired to play with them.

And Shakespeare is a fictional character here — historical accuracy concerning his life and work is not an issue. Will (Joseph Fiennes, from Elizabeth) is suffering from writer’s block. His new comedy has a name — Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter — but page one has yet to be written. The impoverished owner of the Rose theater, Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush, from Les Misérables), is counting on Will’s new play to bring in the audiences to cover his debts and literally save his hide from creditor Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson, from The Full Monty). And at every turn, all Will hears is how wonderful is his fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett, from My Best Friend’s Wedding).

And then Will meets the lovely and monied Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow, from A Perfect Murder). She wants to be an actor — she auditions for Will’s new play disguised as a boy (women where not permitted on the stage at the time) and wins the part of Romeo. Their stolen romance — she is betrothed to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a real jerk who’s after her money; Will is too poor and ignoble to marry her, and besides he’s already married to Anne Hathaway — becomes the inspiration for Romeo and Ethel, which gets a new name and turns into a tragedy.

Raunchy and rowdy and hilariously funny (even more so if you get all the Shakespearean references), Shakespeare in Love is a comedy worthy of the Bard himself, full of gender bending, misunderstandings, lust, sex, romance, poetry, and brawls. I wanted to sit and watch it all over again the minute the credits started to roll.

[my second look at Shakespeare in Love, after its Oscar win for Best Picture]

[reader comments on this review]

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