Shakespeare in Love (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

"This is not life, Will. It is a stolen season."

If we had the choice to relive one part of our lives, how many of us would choose to bring back first love, the special love of our youth, the love that took us away from the world and transported us to the ethereal plane? Unless it is happening to you right now, you realize that it can't last forever, no matter how favorable the circumstances, no matter the effort expended. It is something unique, to be savored as long and as well as possible, for it will never return. Looking back on it from old age, it seems not part of the ordinary march of the calendar, but a stolen season. I suppose everyone stole a season, even Shakespeare. Especially Shakespeare.

Of course, this isn't actually a play about the real William Shakespeare. It can't be. Frankly, we don't know jack shit about the guy, just a few broad strokes in his bio. The film is really an attempt to allow contemporary audiences the privilege of enjoying Romeo and Juliet with the same reaction that might have been provoked in Shakespeare's own audience. It's a "best of" Shakespeare, taking only the best parts of Romeo and Juliet, and combining them with hypothetical events in Shakespeare's life during the period when he composed the play, thus ostensibly showing how the play might have been inspired, but also allowing modern ears a better chance to hear people comment on it in prose. It has a sensibility in equal parts 16th and 20th century.

The authors had fun with speculation. Think about this. Shakespeare is probably the greatest writer who ever wrote in any language.  Romeo and Juliet is probably the most widely known and widely read non-religious work in history. It is translated and studied in virtually every language, and has been the direct or indirect source for dozens of movies. So how did the audience react on opening night? The audience saw what would become the most famous play of the greatest writer who ever lived. Did they know how privileged they were that night, living in a moment that many of us dream about traveling back to? Did they even like the play? Or did Romeo and Juliet get a reception like Battlefield Earth? If the latter, could that mean a time will come, several centuries hence, when people will be watching Travolta in Love?

Most movies about Shakespeare or adaptations of his plays seem to treat him as if he were some stuffed-shirt like the people who typically attend his plays. Based upon his work, he wasn't anything like that. He was earthy, romantic, profane, horny, poetic, thoughtful, funny, sometimes anachronistic, and sometimes a bit tipsy, as well as the greatest (and maybe also the fastest) wordsmith who ever picked up a quill. Unfortunately, it is no longer easy for us to appreciate those things because to most of us his plays seem to be in a foreign language. The author and director of this film, Tom Stoppard and John Madden, have essentially translated the men and his work into modern terms for us. They tried to do what Shakespeare would have done if he had written in our century about theirs. As Shakespeare himself would have done, Stoppard wrote a script that everyone can enjoy, but hid inside of it many treasures and inside jokes for scholars and aficionados. I believe that Shakespeare himself would be proud to claim this work, and the script devices are typical of and equal to his own inventions - mistaken identities, low humor, coincidences, and entrances timed to match up with dialogue. The additional words are not as great as Shakespeare's words, for that is not possible, yet they blend smoothly with the Bard's phrases. I say it is the mark of a great writer when his words are juxtaposed to Shakespeare's own, and do not appear inadequate. 

Is there anyone who saw this movie and came away not completely in love with Gwyneth Paltrow? She had exactly the right quality, and very few actresses could have done this. She has a sweetness, a toughness, an idealism, a special look in her eyes, and a special fragile lilt to her voice that made her the essence of romantic femininity. She got a dream assignment - the chance to play four roles, two of them male, one of the others probably the greatest role ever written for a woman. And it was in the fourth role that her star shone most brightly. As Viola, Shakespeare's mistress, she was finally as good as her potential, presenting a wonderful combination of ardent lust and spirituality.

Oh, damn them for making this movie so good.  I had seen it twice before, so I was hoping to watch a couple of scenes, review all the special features on the new Collector's Series DVD, then write it up. Maybe an hour of my time.  I ended up watching the whole damned film and every minute of the extra features. It's funny, sad, ennobling, then funny again. It's about the joy of performing and creating art, the idealism of youthful love, and the sadness of parting. It is an excellent movie on its own, which also includes an excellent interpretation of Romeo and Juliet within it. It is one of my five favorite movies from the 90's.  It may have the most literate script of any film I saw in the 1990's, cleverer even than The Sweet Hereafter or The Red Violin.

It's also damned funny, and the cinematography looks great.

What more is there to say?

In a way, the film itself seems to be true to its own running gag. As the plot of the film develops, it always seems that things cannot work out for the good, and somebody says so. When somebody else insists it will work out and is then asked how that could be, the answer is always the same. "I don't know. It's a mystery." Same deal with the movie itself. If you had heard in advance about the casting in this film, what would you have said when you heard that Ben Affleck was playing the greatest Elizabethan actor? That couldn't work. Yet it did. How? It's a mystery.

 Of course, Gwyneth and some of the bit players like Geoffrey Rush and Tom Wilkinson are always superlative, but many of the principal parties involved in this film have never come remotely close to this level again. Ben Affleck is the most obvious example, but consider director John Madden. Madden made his two great movies "Mrs Brown" and "Shakespeare in Love", in short order, but his next strongest film at IMDb is Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a highly respected book that he turned into a sloppy, often sappy, movie. And then there is Joseph Fiennes. He dazzled the world with his portrayal of Shakespeare, but he has continued to play Shakespeare ever since. In Forever Mine, he was El Seņor Shakespiro, hopelessly in love with another guy's wife. In Enemy at the Gates, he was Komrade Komissar Shakspirov, hopelessly in love with another guy's woman. In Elizabeth, he may have worn the exact same clothing as in Shakespeare in Love, and seemed to be playing the same guy, hopelessly in love with Queen Elizabeth this time.

How did everything and everyone just somehow deliver their lifetime achievements at the same time for Shakespeare in Love?

I don't know. It's a mystery.

But I do know this. It's just about the ultimate romantic movie. If you take a woman to this movie and don't get laid, you will probably die a virgin.



  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

  • Full-length director commentary

  • full-length cast commentary

  • French dubbing

  • behind the scenes featurette

  • costumes featurette

  • expanded scenes (don't get your hopes up. There are only tiny variations from the ones in the final cut)


Gwyneth Paltrow is topless in several scenes, mostly while lying on her back. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Apollo 88/100, Maltin 3.5/4, Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4

  • Seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress. Tom Stoppard, the co-screenwriter and a passionate lover of Shakespeare, got the Oscar for best original screenplay.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.5
  • With their dollars ... it was a hit, but not a blockbuster. Did $100 million domestically, $30 million in England. Budget $25 million.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a A-. How much better can a movie get?

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