Shakespeare in Love took the world by storm when it was released at the end of 1998, a whimsical, clever, funny, and moving tale of how a lovestruck William Shakespeare came to write Romeo and Juliet. This starred a deep bench of A-list screen talent and relentlessly entertaining writing to tell a wonderful love story about the most famous love story of all, all with a knowing wink and nod to both the literary crowd that reveres Shakespeare’s work, as well as the world of theatre which acts it out. But more than anything, it’s a tale about what it means when you find the one you’re supposed to be with for the rest of your life, and the stars just don’t line up for it. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but to those whom it does, it’s something they never, ever forget.
London, 1593. Young William Shakespeare is poor, marginally renowned and up against one hell of a writer’s block. He dwells in the shadows of more charismatic players and playwrights, such as Kit Marlowe, and no matter how hard he tries, he just cannot bottle the creative lightning he needs to write his next play…which is already seriously overdue, and shaping up to be a hot mess anyway. Seeking solace in drink and the company of questionable women does little for him and he seems destined to end up on the pointy end of a moneylender’s poniard until he meets Viola de Lesseps, a wealthy merchant’s daughter who is far more taken with the theatre—and with Shakespeare’s work in particular—than she is in fulfilling her expected role as chattel between her rich, lowborn family, and that of the poor but highborn Lord Wessex. Possessing a fiery spirit, Viola sneaks off and disguises herself as a boy to join Shakespeare’s troupe, but soon Shakespeare learns Viola’s secret. The two instantly fall for each other, and Will finds the inspiration he has lacked for so long. What began as Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter turns into the sublime Romeo and Juliet, with Will to play Romeo, and Viola to play Juliet.
But fate is never kind to such star-crossed lovers, and as Will and Viola’s passion grows, so do the forces arrayed against them. Lord Wessex suspects the affair. Moneylenders and rival theatres are looking to cute a few notches into Shakespeare and his friends. And the Master of Revels himself shuts down Will’s production with a bogus claim of plague. Meanwhile, Will has surreptitiously made a large bet with Wessex—one he cannot afford to lose—that his new play can truly express the meaning of love, something even Queen Elizabeth herself states is impossible.
Ultimately, things turn out for our lovers…in a way. Will and Viola get to play their roles, using their love for one another to fuel a perfect performance of Romeo and Juliet, capturing the hearts and tears of all who see it. The previously bawdy crowds are hushed into stunned silence stunned they by the play’s tragic ending, and the ruined promise of what could have been. Even Elizabeth herself—who famously denied herself any romantic ties for the political benefit of England— must also admit to a stirring deep within her heart that she has fought her entire life to keep at bay. However, the sharp-eyed queen cannot fail to notice that Viola is breaking both the law of the land by performing as a woman, and the law of matrimony by defying her noble husband.
By all rights, Viola and Will should be punished severely for their actions. But the Queen knows real love when she sees it; she has spent a lifetime learning how to tell it apart from false passion and mindless lust. She sees it in Will’s play. And she sees it in Will and Viola, and she knows that she would be no kind of Queen at all if her great powers could not protect so precious and rare a thing as this. And so she uses her royal authority to give Viola a pass, and to reward Will for his creative prowess. Elizabeth lets Viola skate on breaking the law of the theatre, but she cannot break the law of her husband, and so she must bid Will farewell. It turns out, our lovers, so perfectly matched, are star-crossed, indeed.
The way in which Elizabeth gently but firmly puts and end to Viola and Will’s romance is my moment of truth here, because she unwittingly transforms Will and Viola’s feelings into a thing of legend. Viola must depart with Wessex to the Virginia Colony, but as she does, she leaves Will with the inspiration for his next work specifically—Twelfth Night. So close to his heart, but so far from his body, she will be his muse forever more. Shakespeare the man must endure this as his greatest pain. Shakespeare the Bard must accept Viola’s great gift as something too great to squander, and so he transforms it into a literary brilliance that will one day light up the whole world. As far as love goes, it doesn’t get much grander than that.