Shake It Up

A review of Shakespeare In Love

I've stopped reviewing movies, because my reviews were often dashed-off and incomplete. Despite that, I want to say a few words about Shakespeare In Love. It's too good to let pass.

The film is a delight for many reasons. To start with, it's a Shakespearean drama about Shakespeare. It's not Shakespearean as defined by some stodgy schoolmarm; it's not written in verse or classifiable as comedy or tragedy by whether the leads die or marry at the end. It's Shakespearean because it captures the primal elements of life in such an exciting story about engaging characters that you don't notice that it's touched a universal chord.

The script does not ignore Shakespearean convention, in fact just the opposite. There are clowns aplenty who both amuse an enlighten. The owner of the Rose theater is particularly impressive as a wise fool. There are rousing sword fights. Thinly veiled disguises fool the wise only so long as the drama requires. The wise ruler steps in as deus ex machina at the end. As a Star Trek fan, I loved Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country because there was no Star Trek cliche that was not done and done well. As a Shakespeare fan, I say the same about Shakespeare In Love. It follows the rules of the genre with gusto.

I love writing, but the film has more than great writing. When you leave the theater, you'll remember every character who spoke a line of dialogue, and a few who didn't. The acting is superb, and it is the acting that makes the film. There are a few cinematic tricks, but by and large it is the characters that captivate. You believe them as the scheme, strive, and fall passionately in love. The script is brilliant; it is by turns funny, impassioned, reverent, and satirical. But it would just be words without every member of cast, crew and direction bringing it to life.

Like Shakespeare's best work, Shakespeare In Love is more than an entertaining story, it addresses immortality and art. The play, er, film is about putting on a play, so there are many opportunities to compare life to art, show how life and art imitate each other. There are as many keen observations about their interdependence as in any of the Bard's work, with the added fun of a few swipes at Hollywood.

But the fun really starts when you step back and consider that this is a work of fiction written in the style of the subject of that work. Factually, the lead in the film is as much like Shakespeare as Shakespeare's Richard III is like the historical one. This is no accident. Tom Stoppard and Mark Norman are playing meta-fiction games with reckless glee. Stoppard cut his Shakespearean post-modern teeth by showing us what the Bard's characters do when they're off-stage in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here he and Norman up the ante considerably, riffing on the tension between their fictional Shakespeare and the historical one, as well as the internally consistent tension between the roles the characters take on with each other. There's all the cross-dressing and role reversal of Twelfth Night here, with the delightful edge that the scenes that Stoppard and Norman steal from the real Shakespeare's canon and transplant into the daily life of their fictional Shakespeare are implied to inspire the same scenes in that fictional Shakespeare's works. Their production notes must look like an Escher drawing.

All that depth never distracts any of the production team from delivering a fast-moving enjoyable film. I would go so far as to believe that Shakespeare himself would rate it highly. I certainly do. Treat yourself to a performance.

This page written and maintained by Ted Faber (
Please mail me any problems with, or comments about this page.
PGP Public Keys