Shakespeare in Love is a movie that, as a great man once said, don’t get no respect. Mention it in some circles and people will still spit at you—not because it was a lousy movie, but because it stole the Oscar(tm) that had Steven Spielberg’s name engraved on it. Some of these people aren’t even related to Tom Hanks. They just think that tragedy is better than comedy and that not laughing is better than laughing. No matter what.
I’m going to return to this topic again and again in this blog, because among many other things Shakespeare is the grandest refutation of anybody who would try to place tragedy over comedy, or even to separate them. The funny thing about Shakespeare in Love, though, is that you would expect Shakespeare scholars to be at the head of the haters. Does it make their bread and butter, the iconic figure of highbrow literature, the bumbling hero of a romantic comedy? Check. Does it flaunt its historical inaccuracy? Check. (No way, ever, would the Queen show up in person at the Globe. The players came to her. Frequently enough, by the way, that she knew the difference between William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere perfectly well, but that’s a story for later.) Does it depend on a false and even dangerous view of artistic creation? Check. (Two false and dangerous views. It supposes that the cure for writer’s block is finding your sexual Muse, and that art is a reasonably direct transcription of experience.) And yet, actual Shakespeare scholars tend to like it. Harold Bloom likes it, for heaven’s sake.
Of course Shakespeare teachers would like Shakespeare in Love: it’s surely the most powerful engine for popularizing Shakespeare to come along in the last two decades. But there are all sorts of other reasons for civilians to like it. For one, it’s the best romantic comedy of the last decade or so. Admittedly the competition isn’t fierce (Sex and the City 2, anybody?), but how many other romantic comedies have dialogue half as good? That’s to say, for another thing, that Shakespeare in Love cleverly exploits its relationship to Romeo and Juliet by stealing as much actual Shakespeare as it can manage. It was a masterstroke to bring Tom Stoppard in for rewrites, since he first made his name playing this kind of game.
Since we don’t really know anything about Shakespeare’s sexual life other than that he was married and fathered three children, the whole subject is fair game. Anthony Burgess did a far less entertaining job in his novel Nothing Like the Sun, to my mind, and I’ll talk about that later too. Shakespeare’s love life is a different matter, though. We know quite a bit about what he loved. He loved laughter—most of all, a good dirty joke. He loved the infinite variety of noble, foolish, beautiful, terrible creatures called human beings and their limitless foibles and quirks. But above all he loved language. Shakespeare in Love energizes because it captures that love. It’s much better than a mere war movie because it makes us want to read Shakespeare.
So let’s begin.