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Shakespeare in Love is a 1998 romantic comedy film. The film was directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard's first major success was with the Shakespeare-influenced play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

The film is largely fictional, although several of the characters are based on real people. In addition, many of the characters, lines, and plot devices are references to Shakespeare's plays.

Shakespeare in Love won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Gwyneth Paltrow) and Best Supporting Actress (for Judi Dench). It was the first comedy to win the Best Picture award since Annie Hall (1977).


The film centres around the forbidden love of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant.

As the film begins, theatre manager Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) finds himself in debt to loan shark Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson). Henslowe offers Fennyman a partnership in the upcoming production of Shakespeare's newest comedyRomeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter — promising that it will be a hit. However, after learning that his love was cheating on him with his patron, Shakespeare burns the original play and tries to start anew. This play will later be renamed Romeo and Juliet and be reworked into a tragedy (but with some comical undertones with a few characters, like the Nurse).

Suffering from writer's block, Will Shakespeare is unable to complete the play, but begins auditions for Romeo. A boy named Thomas Kent is cast in the role after impressing Shakespeare with his performance and his love of Shakespeare's previous work. Unknown to Shakespeare and the rest of the theatre company, Kent is young Viola de Lesseps, who desires to act, but, as women are barred from the stage, she must disguise herself as a young man to fulfill her dream.

After Shakespeare discovers his star's true identity, he and Viola begin a passionate secret affair. There are strong parallels between the pair's romance and the one in Romeo and Juliet, including the ballroom scene from Act 2 and the balcony scene immediately following it. The element of forbidden love forms the basis of Shakespeare's inspiration, and many of their conversations later show up as some of the most famous quotes in the play.

Inspired by Viola, Shakespeare begins writing feverishly. His work in progress also benefits from the off-hand advice of playwright and friendly rival Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe (Rupert Everett). Yet Shakespeare and de Lesseps know that their romance is doomed. Shakespeare is married, albeit long separated from his wife, and Viola’s parents would never permit her to marry a commoner such as Shakespeare. In fact, Viola's father has privately arranged her betrothal to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a poor aristocrat.

When Viola is summoned to the court of Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench), Shakespeare dons a woman's disguise to accompany her as her country cousin. At court, Shakespeare goads Wessex into betting fifty pounds that a play cannot capture the nature of true love. If Romeo and Juliet is a success, Shakespeare as playwright will win the money. The Queen, who enjoys Shakespeare's plays, agrees to witness the wager. The meeting's true purpose is revealed when Wessex announces his intent to marry Viola.

The Master of the Revels (Simon Callow), the Queen's official in charge of the theatres, learns that there is a woman in the theatre company at the Rosemarker playhouse. He orders the theatre closed for violating morality and the law. Left without a stage or lead actor, it seems that Romeo and Juliet must close before it even opens, until the owner of a competing theatre, the Curtainmarker, offers his stage to Shakespeare. Shakespeare assumes the lead role of Romeo, with a boy actor playing Juliet.

Viola learns the play will be performed on her wedding day. After the ceremony, Viola's loyal nurse (Imelda Staunton) helps her slip away to the theatre. In a final twist, shortly before the play begins, the boy playing Juliet starts experiencing the voice change of puberty. Viola takes the stage to replace him and plays Juliet to Shakespeare's Romeo. Their passionate portrayal of two lovers inspires the entire audience.

Mr. Tilney, the Master of the Revels, arrives at the theatre with Wessex, who has deduced his new bride's whereabouts. Tilney invokes the Queen's name to arrest all there for indecency. Suddenly, Elizabeth I's voice rings out from the back of the theatre: "Mr. Tilney! Have a care with my name; you will wear it out." The Queen had decided to attend the play in disguise, and says that she will handle this matter herself. Although she recognizes Viola in her guise as Thomas Kent, the Queen does not unmask Viola, instead declaring that the role of Juliet is being performed by the boy Thomas Kent.

However, even a Queen is powerless to break a lawful marriage. Queen Elizabeth orders "Thomas Kent" to fetch Viola so that she may sail to America. She also states that Romeo and Juliet has accurately portrayed true love and so Wessex is forced to pay Shakespeare the fifty pounds, the exact amount Shakespeare requires to buy a share in the Chamberlain's Men. The Queen then directs "Kent" to tell Shakespeare to write something "a little more cheerful next time, for Twelfth Night".

Viola and Shakespeare part, never to meet again: she must accompany Wessex to a colonial settlement in Virginia. Shakespeare immortalizes her by making the main character of his new play, Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, a strong young woman named Viola who disguises herself as a boy. The final image of the film has Viola walking away down a beach, with a voice over by Shakespeare discussing his plans to write Twelfth Night and musing of its main character, "For she will be my heroine for all time, and her name will be... Viola."


  • Ben Affleck was not considered for his role (Ned Alleyn) until Paltrow put him forward, supplying an audition tape to the producers that they had prepared together.

References to Shakespeare's work

The main source for much of the action in the film is Romeo and Juliet, which the events in the film ultimately inspire Will to write. Will and Viola play out the famous balcony and bedroom scenes; like Juliet, Viola has a witty nurse, and is separated from Will by a gulf of duty (although not the family enmity of the play: the "two households" of Romeo and Juliet are supposedly inspired by the two rival playhouses). In addition, the two lovers are equally "star-crossed" — they are not ultimately destined to be together (since Viola is of nobility promised to marry Lord Wessex and Shakespeare himself is already married). There is also a Rosaline, with whom Will is in love at the beginning of the film.

Many other plot devices used in the film are common in various Shakespearean comedies and in the works of the other playwrights of the Elizabethan era: the Queen disguised as a commoner, the cross-dressing disguises, mistaken identities, the sword fight, the suspicion of adultery (or, at least, cheating), the appearance of a "ghost" (cf. Macbeth), and the "play within a play".

The film also has sequences in which Shakespeare and the other characters utter words that will later appear in his plays:
  • On the street, Shakespeare hears a Puritan preaching against the two London stages: "The Rose smells thusly rank, by any name! I say, a plague on both their houses!" Two references in one, both to Romeo and Juliet; first, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (Act II, scene ii, lines 1 and 2); second, "a plague on both your houses" (Act III, scene i, line 94).
  • Backstage of a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare sees William Kempe in full make-up, silently contemplating a skull (a reference to Hamlet).
  • Shakespeare utters the lines "Doubt thou the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move" (from Hamlet) to Philip Henslowe.
  • As Shakespeare's writer's block is introduced, he is seen crumpling balls of paper and throwing them around his room. They land near props which represent scenes in his several plays: a skull (Hamlet), and an open chest (The Merchant of Venice).
  • Viola, as well as being Paltrow's name in the film, is the lead character in Twelfth Night who dresses as a man after the supposed death of her brother.
  • At the end of the film, Shakespeare imagines a shipwreck overtaking Viola on her way to America, inspiring the second scene of his next play, Twelfth Night, and perhaps also The Tempest.
  • Shakespeare writes a sonnet to Viola which begins: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (from Sonnet 18).
  • Shakespeare tells Henslowe that he still owes him for "one gentleman of Verona", a reference to Two Gentlemen of Verona, part of which we also see being acted before the Queen later in the film.

Christopher Marlowe appears in the film as the master playwright whom the characters within the film consider the greatest English dramatist of that time — this is accurate, yet also humorous, since everyone in the film's audience knows what will eventually happen to Shakespeare. Marlowe gives Shakespeare a plot for his next play, "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" ("Romeo is Italian...always in and out of love...until he meets...Ethel. The daughter of his enemy! His best friend is killed in a duel by Ethel's brother or something. His name is Mercutio.") Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is quoted repeatedly: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burned the topless towers of Ilium?"

The child John Webster who plays with mice is a reference to the leading figure in the Jacobean generation of playwrights. His plays (The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil) are known for their blood and gore, which is why he says that he enjoys Titus Andronicus, and why he says of Romeo and Juliet when asked by the Queen "I liked it when she stabbed herself."

When the clown Will Kempe says to Shakespeare that he would like to play in a drama, he is told that "they would laugh at Seneca if you played it," a reference to the Roman tragedian renowned for his sombre and bloody plot lines which were a major influence on the development of English tragedy.

Will is shown signing a paper repeatedly, with many relatively illegible signatures visible. This is a reference to the fact that several versions of Shakespeare's signature exist, and in each one he spelled his name differently.


The writers of Shakespeare in Love were sued in 1999 by Faye Kellerman, author of the book The Quality of Mercy. Ms. Kellerman claimed that the story was lifted from her book, a detective novel in which Shakespeare and a cross-dressing Jewish woman attempt to solve a murder. Miramax derided the claim of similarity as "[an] absurd...publicity stunt". After the film's release, certain publications, including Private Eyemarker, noted strong similarities between the film and the 1941 novel No Bed for Bacon, by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon, which also features Shakespeare falling in love and finding inspiration for his later plays. In a foreword to a subsequent edition of No Bed for Bacon (which traded on the association by declaring itself "A Story of Shakespeare and Lady Viola in Love") Ned Sherrin, Private Eye insider and former writing partner of Brahms', confirmed that he had lent a copy of the novel to Stoppard after he joined the writing team, but that the basic plot of the film had been independently developed by Marc Norman, who was unaware of the earlier work.


Award Category Name Outcome
Academy Awards Academy Award for Best Picture Won
Academy Award for Best Actress Gwyneth Paltrow Won
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress Judi Dench Won
Academy Award for Best Art Direction Martin Childs & Jill Quertier Won
Academy Award for Costume Design Sandy Powell Won
Academy Award for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score (retired category) Stephen Warbeck Won
Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard Won
Academy Award for Directing John Madden Nominated
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor Geoffrey Rush Nominated
Academy Award for Best Cinematography Richard Greatrex Nominated
Academy Award for Film Editing David Gamble Nominated
Academy Award for Makeup Lisa Westcott & Veronica Brebner Nominated
British Academy Film Awards BAFTA Award for Best Film Won
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role Judi Dench Won
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role Geoffrey Rush Won
BAFTA Award for Best Editing David Gamble Won
BAFTA Award for Best Direction John Madden Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role Gwyneth Paltrow Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role Joseph Fiennes Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role Tom Wilkinson Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography Richard Greatrex Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Makeup & Hair Lisa Westcott Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Sound Robin O'Donoghue, Dominic Lester, Peter Glossop, John Downer Nominated
Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music Stephen Warbeck Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design Sandy Powell Nominated
BAFTA Award for Best Production Design Martin Childs Nominated
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures John Madden Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy Won
Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy Gwyneth Paltrow Won
Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard Won
Golden Globe Award for Best Director - Motion Picture John Madden Nominated
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture Geoffrey Rush Nominated
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture Judi Dench Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Awards Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Won
Screen Actors Guild Award - Best Female Actor Gwyneth Paltrow Won
Writers Guild of America Award Best Original Screenplay Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard Won

Cultural influence

Shakespeare in Love has since been used as material in the VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education) in Australia.



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