How I Found Theater at the Movies

The theater I’ve found most fun recently is in a film. So here are two or three things I particularly love about that terrific Stoppardian backstage story, Shakespeare in Love .

I’m astonished that Shakespeare could turn out to be Joseph Fiennes. Handsome Mr. Fiennes–brother of refined Ralph–has such a dopey face, if I may say so. He’s utterly and dynamically convincing as the young Shakespeare, but is this the fellow who could write:

Love goes toward love as school boys from their books;

But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.

Not to mention:

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.

No, methinks the fault is mine for failing to imagine that Shakespeare was ever young –like Romeo, like Joseph Fiennes. Is this a young Will I see before me on a Stratford-Upon-Avon souvenir coffee mug? The iconic image of Shakespeare we’ve grown accustomed to is of old Will–as God, or Prospero, is a wise old man with a long white beard.

Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman wrote the witty, nicely anachronistic screenplay of Shakespeare in Love . The happy outcome is both Shakespearean and Stoppardian. The story–or romantic romp–is delightfully Shakespearean: Young Will, a dashing dramatist on the make, is unable to finish a new play entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter . Everything changes when he falls for Viola (played by the lovely Gwyneth Paltrow), a wealthy lady in love with Will’s poetry, who joins his theater company disguised as a man.

There are always erotic possibilities in Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies ( Twelfth Night , As You Like It ). The fair Viola, who makes a pretty boy, puts ink in young Will’s quill. “I wouldn’t have thought it,” she sighs after the two star-crossed lovers have at last made love. “There’s something better than a play. Even your play!”

She’s stagestruck (and loves him to death). The entire film is stage-struck! Shakespeare in Love is a surprising love story and a celebration not just of theater, but of Elizabethan theater and (of all things!) the creative process. It’s sweet that way. It romantically assumes Shakespeare needed to fall head over heals in love in order to write Romeo and Juliet . We assume, on the other hand, that he didn’t need to kill his mother in order to write Hamlet . But he was a maturer playwright when he wrote Hamlet .

So little is known about Shakespeare that we’re entitled to assume almost anything about him. He was certainly married, possibly bisexual. His bisexuality is a 50-50 bet. More than 100 of the sonnets are about a beautiful, aristocratic youth most often identified as the dreamy Earl of Southampton, a worthy rival to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Our Will might have seen an early example of a shrink. Amusingly, he visits a psychiatrist in the film, confessing on the couch to writer’s block and sexual problems since he ditched his poor miserable wife in Stratford. “It’s like trying to pick a lock with a wet herring,” says the depressed Will, clearly not at his best. But it’s known there was a popular, trendy clairvoyant in Shakespeare’s day who worked the theater district on the south bank of the Thames. Everyone asked his advice.

In any case, with Mrs. Shakespeare keeping the home fires burning in Stratford, there was lots of opportunity for various flings in London. You know what theater people are like. Shakespeare might have had a love-child. A playwright, William D’Avenant, claimed to be his illegitimate son. The mother of D’Avenant ran a most hospitable inn at Oxford.

Be that as it may, the key to Shakespeare in Love is that it joyfully assumes that the writing game was no different in Elizabethan times than it is today. “I finally realized in trying to write about Shakespeare that he was in the same business I am,” Marc Norman, the Hollywood screenwriter who originated the idea of Shakespeare in Love , has said. Mr. Norman has a good sense of humor. He penned the pirate epic Cutthroat Island , said to be the first movie to lose $100 million.

Even Shakespeare’s Henry VI didn’t lose that much. I part scholarly company with Mr. Norman only in his projecting writer’s block onto Shakespeare. If any of us could write like Shakespeare, I can’t help feeling there wouldn’t be a problem. But Mr. Norman and Mr. Stoppard, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of movies, prefer to have fun with Shakespeare, and so do we. Besides, they’re right to see Shakespeare’s world as essentially unchanged today, like an acting troupe taking its touching, timeless bow.

We have the same backstage dramas and rivalries and camp. Young Will on his great rival, Christopher Marlowe: “Lovely waistcoat. Shame about the poetry!” We have the panicky money men, the thieving producers, the feuding theater owners, the actors’ egos, the bottom-line popular taste (sword fights and dog acts). What’s changed?

We still have Shakespeare, too, come to think of it. We also have Mr. Stoppard at his Stoppardian best. “Too late!” snaps Judi Dench’s Queen Elizabeth when the cloaks of her obsequious courtiers hit the puddle she’s just splashed through.

Mr. Stoppard has also written the best line he ever wrote or never wrote. (Mr. Norman may have written it.) Young Will is paying genuine tribute to Marlowe, who has just died.

“You never spoke so well of him,” says Viola.

To which he replies: “He was not dead before.”

And most happily, we also have, for posterity, the loving reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Rose Theater, which is one of the undoubted stars of the film. Judi Dench bought the life-size re-creation of the Rose from the film company, rather than see it sold for firewood. Perhaps she’ll put it up again in her back garden. Dame Judi plans to use it as a teaching guide for young actors.

The remains of the real Rose Theater exist, incidentally. Ten years ago, the first of the Elizabethan playhouses to be built on Bankside, south of the Thames, was discovered buried in a new building development. Built in 1587, the Rose was where Shakespeare learned his trade, first as an actor, then a dramatist.

Dame Peggy Ashcroft led the glorious, ultimately victorious battle to preserve the site. Actors and archeologists surrounded the charred, half-buried timbers in all-night vigils, as if protecting a unique shrine from infidels.

How pleasant, then, that Shakespeare in Love has proved so popular it’s said it will be giving Steven Spielberg’s deadly Saving Private Ryan serious competition at the Academy Awards. That would be wonderful, and no small miracle. Shakespeare in Love confirms for all the magical romance of theater, nothing less.