Critics and fans alike have questioned the truth behind the Academy Award-winning film starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes.

Early in Shakespeare in Love, Queen Elizabeth I bears witness to, and must ultimately adjudicate a wager: “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?” With a slight change, a similar question could be asked of the Academy Award-winning film: Can the film show us the very truth and nature of William Shakespeare?

A box-office hit and audience-pleaser when first released, Shakespeare in Love would go on to win seven Oscars – Best Picture, Writing/Screenplay, Costume, Music, Art Direction, Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow and Supporting Actress for Judi Dench, onscreen for a mere eight minutes as the above-mentioned Queen Elizabeth.

But how well does it really represent the life of the famous bard?

Martin Clunes and Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love

Martin Clunes as Richard Burbage and Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespear in 'Shakespeare in Love'

While many scholars have taken the film to task for playing fast and loose with characterizations, dates and plausibility, the overall charm of the story (in particular the use of Shakespeare’s written structure and nodding winks to historical fact and fiction pertaining to his life and work) has helped Shakespeare in Love remain beloved across decades and audiences.

Adam Hooks, Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Iowa and author of “Selling Shakespeare: Biography, Bibliography and the Book Trade,” remembers seeing the movie when it was first released: “The reason why scholars generally seem to enjoy the film is that it is very clear, very self-conscious and very self-aware about playing around with all these biographical fantasies that have been attached to Shakespeare over the years.” 

Directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love is set in 1593 (part of a period of years in which much is historically unknown about the playwright’s life) and speculates about where the young Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), who is short on cash and ideas, finds inspiration for one of his best-known works, Romeo and Juliet. Onscreen, much credit for the inspiration is given to Shakespeare’s growing love for the fictional Viola (Paltrow), a woman of means striving to find her place in a world governed by men.

“This film is entertainment which doesn’t require it to be justified in the light of historical theory,” said writer Stoppard at the time of its theatrical release. That sentiment was echoed by director Madden: “What’s glorious is that so little is known about this period that you’re not trapped by any kind of historical circumstance.”

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Shortly after its debut, Thomas Barnes, History Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, took issue with the facts pertaining to the era far more than the actual story. “The problem is with the overall portrait of the age: the queen, her courtiers, the London scene. The portrait is that of the 20 century, not the 16 century,” Barnes said. Though like Hooks and other scholars, Barnes found the movie to be “great theater, but it’s not history.”

Regarding historically accurate dates, the movie fudges on much more than just the depiction of the age. While it’s true Shakespeare was in London in 1593, Romeo and Juliet would not be published until 1597, probably first written and performed in 1595 or 1596, according to Hooks. Viola’s betrothed, nobleman Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), talks of his plantations in America more than a decade before Virginia would host the establishment of Jamestown. And the addition of Shakespeare having an analyst who times his therapy appointments in grains of sand, well, best smile and put that down to creative Hollywood license.

Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love

Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth I in 'Shakespeare in Love'

The film sets up a rivalry between two playhouses, The Rose and The Curtain (both real Elizabethan theaters), and the playwrights and players that inhabit them. While it is fact that plot-point and playwright Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett) did indeed die in May 1593, the movie ignores that playhouses in London were closed between January 1593 and the spring of 1594 due to social unrest and an outbreak of plague.

For Hooks, the most implausible part of the film comes at the conclusion, when an actual woman performs a female role onstage (only men were allowed to be actors of the era) and Queen Elizabeth I rises up having been a hidden spectator in the public theater (plays and players made the journey to appear before the Queen at her location, she would not travel to a public playhouse).

Like the era in which it is set, the male characters dictate much of what occurs in the film, and it is amongst the supporting roles where real tops reel. Among those helping, or hindering, the young Shakespeare in his onscreen quest for a hit new play include famous actors-of-the-age Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes) and Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck), theater entrepreneur Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) and a teenage version of playwright John Webster (Joe Roberts). All were real contemporaries of Shakespeare, as of course was Queen Elizabeth.

Marlowe was a famed playwright and poet of the Elizabethan era, but rather than competitors, the film depicts Marlowe and Shakespeare as respectful contemporaries, so much so that they meet in local tavern and Marlowe helps Shakespeare begin his new play, titled early in the film as Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. The scene is a sly reference to the oft-repeated notion that Shakespeare didn’t actually write his own plays.

“To have that scene where Marlowe and Shakespeare meet in the pub and they are kind of talking shop is a fanciful representation that scholars have long held of Marlowe influencing Shakespeare’s work,” Hooks says. “So, in that sense, it is probably the most historically inaccurate character representation in the film, but at the same time it is a faithful representation of the myths and legends that have come to surround Marlowe and his possible influences on Shakespeare’s early work.”

Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love

Gwyneth Paltrow as Viola in 'Shakespeare in Love'

Like much of what still appeals about the film, it is this type of knowing wink regarding Shakespeare’s life and work that resonates and lifts it above a plodding biopic strictly constrained by facts. The movie celebrates much of what is loved about Shakespeare’s work and themes, even taking structure from the play whose origin is the fictional peg on which Shakespeare in Love is hung.

“One of the smartest things is that it doesn’t just tell a fantasy story about the origins of Romeo and Juliet, the film is dramatically structured like Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet,” says Hooks. “It starts out as a frolic, a kind of comedy, but then edges into tragedy. The film is so skillfully structured that it plays on a lot of the aspects in Romeo and Juliet specifically, and also the larger body of Shakespeare’s work.” This also includes the exploration of fluid sexuality, and the playing with gender roles and the misrecognition of such, according to Hooks.

In the case of the fictional Viola, the film takes much inspiration from many of Shakespeare’s leading female characters. “Romeo and Juliet is not just a love story, but also the story of a woman who finds her voice and articulates her desires and tries to find a way to fulfill them within the social restrictions that are placed on her,” Hooks says. “The Paltrow role does a kind of interesting job as her desires are awakened and fulfilled and she is able to give voice to them through the language of the play.”

To answer the question posed earlier, no, Shakespeare in Love does not show us the very truth of William Shakespeare. How much of his nature is depicted is also up for debate, but the movie lovingly riffs on the myths that surround his persona and work to this day. Enough to cast a spell almost as magical, and relatable, as his words must have seemed those who first heard them performed more than 400 years ago.