Shakespeare in Love: Notes

by David Cope



English Departments: Western Michigan University

and Grand Rapids Community College

27 November 1999

Two Plots

(a) the problem of mounting a production: will the company get funding? Will they find the right actors? Will the company "gel," and will those in charge defuse the pro-blems inherent with actors' egos ? Will they run afoul of the Master of Revels? What unforeseen problems could wreck their project? Will they, at last, properly entertain and instruct their audience, and be able to meaningfully say that "it's a mystery"?

(b) the romance plot: will the deserving "poor player" get the love of his life? Will she free herself from a life where her value is chiefly a commodity to be bargained for by fa-ther and future husband? When the lovers come together, will it only be a "stolen sea-son," or what will give their romance a meaning beyond the time they have together?

What, ultimately, will their love mean, and will a play be able to capture the truth of love itself? In connection with this plot, one might ask what each of the lovers ultimately has to give up, what sacrifices they must make, for their love to be true in the highest sense.

In Romeo and Juliet, the price was their lives; here, the price is more elusive, involving not simply their parting and loss of each other.

Two Central Cruces

(a) The bet for 50: Beyond the problem of writer's block, Shakespeare's initial worryis how to get 50–to free himself from Henslowe and buy into Burbage's company. The 50 crops up later, when "Wilhelmina" takes the bet that a play can show "the very truth and nature of love," and again when Wessex needs this amount to pay his dockside debts–and of course, when Queen Elizabeth determines that Will's play has won the bet, Viola must take that purse from Wessex and give it to Will. Finally, the amount becomes one of the signifiers of Will's success.

(b) The question: "can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?" The script is built around the twin problems noted above, and as such presents Romeo and Juliet as the play that answers the question in the affirmative; yet the foregrounded plot of Will and Viola–and by extension, Shakespeare in Love itself–also answer the question affirmatively. Both plays show that true love involves testing and self-sacrifice, though they find quite different resolutions despite the common theme of loss. Perhaps those answers are related to the different genres of each: tragedy and comedy. Note toothat in the sacrifices made by the lovers, the societies of each play get something back:civil peace in the case of Romeo and Juliet, the plays of Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love–and in both plays, the affirmation that love is central to deeper reflections about life's meaning and purpose.


Some Approaches for Study

1. Film's relation to other films: often, film makers will develop allusions to other films as a way of acknowledging a predecessor's efforts or to give the film greater depth. The opening of S in L, for example, ironically rereads the opening of Olivier's 1946 Henry V; similarly, the court dance sequences and the initial bedroom scene present filmic allusions to Zefirelli's 1969 version of Romeo and Juliet, and the drowning / shipwreck scene at the end copies Trevor Nunn's 1996 film version of Twelfth Night.

2. Textual adaptation and rereading: The script takes lines from Love's Labor's Lost, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and to a lesser extent, Hamlet and other plays. One way to study the Norman and Stoppard script is to explore how they utilized Shakespeare's lines in the script they wrote, the greatest example being their use of Romeo and Juliet. The Shakespeare play is presented not only as the center- piece of the "playing" plot, but as a text evolving in direct relation to the evolving relationship of Will and Viola in the romance plot.

3. Characters as a source for study: (a) factual: Burbage, Henslowe, Tilney, Shakespeare (early life in Stratford or first years in London), Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth I (especially her relationship with the theatre). (b) fictional: Rosaline and the Nurse (from R & J), Viola (TwN).

4. The play as a romantic comedy following Northrop Frye's plot pattern: the lovers must find their way around a blocking figure–here, Viola's father and Wessex, the rival lover–to bring their love to triumph, which usually signals a wedding or dance. The blocking character is either reconciled or cast out, and the lovers' triumph signals the maturation and acceptance of the younger generation. This script, however, undercuts the formula: the triumph is located in the perfor- mance of Romeo and Juliet, while the wedding parts the lovers and portends sorrow and loss that necessitate their final gesture: another play, a ironic triumph to come.

5. Money as a theme: what the film says about money and empowerment. Note that Wessex needs money for his plantations and is willing to trade his title for capital gotten through marriage; Henslowe needs money to run his theatre and is willing to rip off his own playwright and actors to get it; Shakespeare needs 50 to free himself from Henslowe and join Burbage. Indeed, one could say that both plots grow out of the need for money: the conflict that separates Viola from Will develops from Wes- sex's need for money, and the "bet" which will lead to Will's success in the theatre grows from Will's need for money. Generally, students should look for ways in which characters are valued and commodified by economic forces beyond their control, but note too a countervailing example in Fennyman: the man who would burn a man's feet off for non-payment is, by the end of the play, transformed into one who realizes there are values beyond wealth: the magic of the theatre transforms him.

6. The problem of mounting a production: This plot is one of the two central plots in the play, and in some ways the struggle mirrors a perennial problem for all casts, while in others it represents some problems particular to the Elizabethans–notably the problem of the Master of Revels and his control over what the players might do, the problem of being a social outcast and yet in demand for court as well as public performances. Study involving this theme should concentrate on one of two areas: the Elizabethan Company or our own contemporary problems in mounting a pro- duction.

7. Disguise (cross dressing) as a plot device: as with Elizabethan and Jacobean come- dies (especially those by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton & Dekker), cross- dressing is utlilized as a gender-bending motif, but also as a practical device so that boy actors could impersonate women disguised as men. In giving cross-dressing roles to both Viola (as Thomas Kent) and Will (as Wilhelmina), Norman and Stoppard have employed this motif in a manner appropriate to both of these purposes. See the notes on Twelfth Night in the Shakespeare Project Website (English 252 Course Notes> file one, page 45; or the professor's essay, "Cross Dressing with a Difference") for further notes on cross-dressing:

8. Queen Elizabeth as goddess. The "deus ex machina" (god from the machine) motif is as old as Greek drama, but the idea of Queen Elizabeth as all-knowing presence and agent of the resolution is similar to her character in Ben Jonson's Cynthia's Revels, where she serves this purpose much as she does here.

Some Other Cues

1. The scene in the boat where Will first reads the letter regarding Viola's impending marriage to Wessex: Thomas Kent/Viola questions Will about his love for Viola in a way that is quite reminiscent of Rosalind / Ganymed's questioning of Orlando (AYLI 3.2, 4.1)

2. Rosaline in S in L is derived from the Rosaline who is Romeo's first love in R & J, but note how she's changed. In Shakespeare's play, Romeo complains that she is too frigid, but here she is presented as sexually promiscuous and therefore unworthy to be Will's muse (she has sex with both Tilney and Burbage, and in the scene with Tilney it appears that she is one of the "perks" Tilney gets for giving Burbage's company official favor).

3. The "woman as muse" theme is by some standards an inherently sexist representation of love: the man cannot "produce" unless he has a woman standing behind him & believing in him, and her task is to move him, sexually, emotionally, and intellectually, to be a success: her success is dependent upon his, and her "pay-off" is to be made "immortal" by his pen. (One could utilize the idea of com-modification as a key to unlock how subtly the pattern of exchange-value returnsShakespeare in Love: Notes Cope 4in the guise of love between Will and Viola, also noting how their exchange-value is complicated by class differences). In this context, Rosaline is contrasted to Viola as potential muse: Rosa-line is unworthy because she spreads her value around; Viola is worthy becauseher love is true and bent only on Will. Yet Norman and Stoppard complicate this formula with declared alliances: she's to be married to a man she doesn'tlove–and can't get out of it; he's been married to a woman from whom he'separated, their love having died.

3. The bedroom scene is an imitation of the bedroom scene in Romeo and Juliet, but note how in S in L the seriousness of their lovemaking is played against the nurse's nervousness beyond the door: the same scene develops an exquisite intimacy and comic relief, as is more appropriate for a comedy. Note too, that Will's departure is unlike Romeo's: the latter must leave under penalty of death, whereas Viola pushes Will out of bed because he hasn't written the scene they are to practice that day. As his muse, she is stern and demanding, will even forego her own pleasure if it hurts the success of the play.

4. Testing as a love motif: One of the marked qualities of love themes is that of testingthe lovers–rites of passage that prove their love true. S in L has four such pas-sages:

(a) When Viola learns that she is to be married to Wessex with the Queen's ap- proval, she writes Will to tell him to break it off. He, however, discovers that Thomas Kent is really Viola, and pursues her in spite of the almost- certain loss that will follow. In taking this chance, he follows his heart despite everything, thus proving his love.

(b) At the pub, when Viola learns that Will has a wife in Stratford, she deserts him, and only when she learns that a playwright was killed in a pub does she fully understand how much he meant to her. When Will appears, seemingly as a ghost (reminiscent, perhaps, of Banquo's visitation to Macbeth), Wessex is frightened off by the "apparition," but Viola realizesthat she has her love restored. Note how, after this scene in the church,their love deepens and grows in the riverbank scene that follows: theyare learning how to talk to each other about their deeper fears and hopes,and to realize that both of them are "caught" in circumstances beyondtheir control. <Note that this motif (the lover's apparent death as means to force the other lover to understand the value of the relation- ship) is central to many of Shakespeare's comedies–e.g. Hero in Much Ado, Helena in All's Well, Thaisa and Marina in Pericles, and Hermione and Perdita in The Winter's Tale. Here, however, the motif is reversed: the male lover seems to die so that the female lover will return to him.

(c) When Viola is unmasked as a woman before the players, the whole question of her value as a woman–whether Will and the players will accept her as she is–comes to the fore. It's one thing for him to love her and know hersecretly, but when she threatens the success of the company, their love istested in a public way.

(d) When they are finally separated, Viola returns to Will and demands that he "write me well": though they have lost each other, the value of their relationship will live on in the play. She forces him to confront his life's journey–and his own genius–even as she must confront the loss of their love: both are tested and prove true, albeit the prices they pay are quite different.