THREE STARS – Thought-provoking
Watching the creative process unfold in any of us can be an experience filled with pleasure or pain. When the creative process is in the hands of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) in John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” we are reminded that to even the brilliantly gifted, creativity is borne in struggle.
And while most peoples’ experience with Shakespeare might be as heavy as King Lear, viewers of this film are taken into a fantasy and farce bringing Shakespeare himself to life much in the style of Mozart in the film “Amadeus.”
As a man in his late 20’s, Shakespeare is living from play to play to survive when he finds himself in the employ of the debt-ridden theater owner, Philip Henslow (Geoffrey Rush). Henslow is competing with his more successful rival theater across town which has employed the noted playwright, Christopher Marlow (Rupert Everett). The time is the late Elizabethan Age, in 1593.
Young Shakespeare has come face to face with writers’ block, but his need more money compels him to finish a comedy for Henslow entitled: “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.” The play is pitifully uninspired and the cast is made up of slackers and drunkards from the local pubs. The landlord is demanding his rent, and his rival playwright is in favor with Queen Elizabeth who is the biggest patron of the arts.
And then, into his life comes the beautiful and wealthy Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow). Viola is longing for passion and Shakespeare’s well-known works have filled her with awe. Although women are forbidden to act in theaters, Viola sneaks into the cast disguised as a young boy and captures the part of Romeo.
It is in the zany antics of this loose-knit band of actors that the creative process begins to unfold. Shakespeare finds himself strangely drawn to the young Romeo, only to (surprise) find out that he is really a she. Now she becomes both his muse and his inspiration.
As the plot goes through revision after revision, young Shakespeare finds himself falling hopelessly in love with his lead who must remain disguised as a boy. The more he sees her beauty, the more the play becomes a vision of her.
When the most famous actor of the day, Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) comes to Shakespeare, having realized that his swashbuckling pirate story is becoming more and more a romance, he suggests that maybe the title should be changed to reflect Shakespeare’s new passion. Maybe Romeo should be wooing Ethel. Better ye, he suggests, abandon the comical Ethel and replace her with a romantic, “Juliet.”
Although the image of Shakespeare is fictional, the film is nevertheless a fascinating presentation of genius at work. The thought that “inspiration” can be scheduled according to economic need or ego is shown to be false. The creative changes from “Ethel” to “Juliet” are the result of the fertile exchanges of everyone involved in the creation of the play.
As the romance between Shakespeare and Viola grows, so does the danger of this liaison. Their passion for one another is soon confronted with the truth that they can never be together because Viola’s father has arranged her marriage to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a wealthy Virginia landowner, and Shakespeare has already been married since he was 18 years old. Thus, the comedy in life - and the art on stage- becomes a tragedy, and Viola (Juliet) becomes the unattainable love.
But through this broken liaison comes a story of passion which is still one of the great classics of literature today. And while the story evolves through Shakespeare’s misplaced longing for the ideal relationship, so too do the hearts, minds and talents of the rag-tag actors that grace the stage. The creative genius of Shakespeare's words inspire them to rise beyond their expectations to produce a great play. When “Romeo and Juliet” concludes its first performance, the audience stands in stunned silence and then breaks into rapturous applause.
Even Queen Elizabeth, who now knows that “Romeo” was played by the disguised Viola, proclaims that the theater of England has reached a new plateau through the pen of Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare in Love” is a fascinating exploration of creative genius. What starts out in the trials of poverty and comedy, grows into a masterpiece of poetry.
While most of us may not have the God-given talent of young William, we can take heart from the portrayal of the struggles in his life - even in its comedic form. It is in the midst of our struggles that God gives us the creative drive that ultimately bears great fruit. It is this truth that give us great hope.