A lot of people who see Shakespeare in Love won’t know why I hate it so much. “What a cute film!” they’ll say. “Nice love story. Gorgeous costumes. That Gwyneth Paltrow, she’s so pretty. And that Joseph Fiennes, what a hunk! Just like his older brother Ralph. Though I thought Shakespeare had less hair than that.”
They don’t realize that this film is part of a vast conspiracy to turn all moviegoing audiences into complete morons. Sure, you have to know a fair amount about the life and work of William Shakespeare to truly appreciate how deeply stupid this script is. But before I unleash my inner academic, let’s just look at what we’ve got here.
Our boy William (Joseph Fiennes) is a dashing young playwright who’s got some writer’s block involving his most recent play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter (yuk, yuk). He needs to find some new inspiration for his writing, and fortunately crosses paths with the fetching Lady Viola (our Gwyn, showing off her English accent and breasts to equal advantage). She’s so in love with his poetry that she dresses up like a boy and auditions for the role of Romeo, though soon enough her doublet’s undone and she and Will are at it hot and heavy. Having discovered a new love, Shakespeare rewrites the play from a broad silly farce into a sophisticated tragicomedy. When he realizes that his love for Viola is doomed, he changes the ending so that both the lovers die. All that remains is for the play to be staged, which means surmounting the censorship of the Master of the Revels (Simon Callow), the cold and scheming Earl of Wessex (Colin Firth), and the displeasure of Queen Elizabeth herself (Judi Dench, who’s made a late-life career out of frowning).
It’s all standard Hollywood biopic, phony as a three-dollar bill and affording about as many laughs. The entire concept for the film is ludicrous: Shakespeare didn’t invent his plots, he stole them from a variety of classical and historical sources. He was also a well- established playwright (with Richard III and a few others to his credit) by the time he wrote R&J. I wouldn’t mind this and all the other historical howlers so much if the comedy was clever or the romance fresh. (I guarantee you that a whole herd of upcoming drama students, when asked who the first woman on the English stage was, will answer Gwyneth Paltrow.) This clich魳trewn concoction wears out its welcome after the first act, and makes me wonder how such British luminaries as Tom Stoppard (who cowrote the script), Dame Dench, and Simon Callow were convinced to do such a bad turn to a playwright who’s served them so well.