Norman N. Holland
Department of English
University of Florida
P. O. Box 117310
Gainesville FL 32611-7310 U.S.A.

ver. September 21, 1999
nholland@ufl.edu

My Shakespeare in Love

Norman N. Holland

It's a delight. It's peaches and cream. It's funny. I love it, for all that it's nothing but a bit of fluff. Or is it? It's comedy, and comedy is hard to analyze. As some actor has said, Tragedy anybody can do, but comedy is hard. Can one analyze a bit of fluff?

And why do I feel I have to analyze it? Somehow, I can't just enjoy--I have to talk about that response and analyze it. It's my way, I suppose, of competing, of asserting my own intelligence against Shakespeare's. I show that I can master even his infinitely complex texts. I have to analyze it, because I'm challenged by it. As Freud said in "The Moses of Michelangelo, "Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me." It's the critic's occupational disease. I can't even laugh without figuring out why.

That's why I wrote a book about why people laugh. I concluded that every individual laughs for his or her own particular reason. We each have an individual sense of humor. We each laugh because we each re-create our identity in a sudden and playful way. So, I should be able to say why I love this film so and and laugh so delightedly at it.

Shakespeare in Love starts with an early "war of the theatres," the rivalry between two of the public theatres in London in 1593. One rival is the debt-ridden theatre manager Philip Henslowe, whose Rose Theatre is on Bankside, the south bank of the Thames across from the city. The other is Richard Burbage, the great tragedian of the 1590s, who owns the Theatre, across the river on the northern side of the city.

The film opens with slapstick. A moneylender, Hugh Fennyman (penny-man?), is trying to force payment out of Henslowe. He has two of his frighteners hold Henslowe's feet to the fire--quite literally. Promising payment, Henslowe goes off to make sure that the writer he has contracted with, Will Shakespeare, finishes his new comedy, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter." We go from farce to facts to farce.

Henslowe tries to get the play out of Will Shakespeare, who dodges. (He puts Henslowe off by rhyming:

Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move . . .
but that's from Hamlet, which doesn't come till 1601--an in-joke for us Shakespearean scholars.) Poor Will is suffering from writer's block. (Shakespeare with writer's block??!) He sits at his desk idly practising signatures. (This is another in-joke, about the six known signatures of Shakespeare.) Will rushes off to see an Elizabethan version of a psychoanalyst, complete with couch and hourglass to time the 50-minute hour and "See you next week"--a delightful conceit! From Shakespeare's all too obvious phallic symbols, the "analyst" infers that he is blocked not only in his writing, but in his sexual performance as well. I am reminded of a passage in Freud I recently ran across:

The sexual behaviour of a human being often lays down the pattern for all his other modes of reacting to life. If a man is energetic in winning the object of his love, we are confident that he will pursue his other aims with an equally unswerving energy; but if, for all sorts of reasons, he refrains from satisfying his strong sexual instincts his behaviour will be conciliatory and resigned rather than vigorous in other spheres of life as well.

As in this psychotherapy episode, the film makes outrageous sport with us. Inevitably we project our twentieth-century knowledge into the Elizabethan setting, and that provides a lot of the fun. At the same time, the film portrays Elizabethan street life and stagecraft quite accurately. How plays were directed, how costumed, how the audience sat and stood and what they were charged--all that fits what I learned in my twentieth-century graduate school. And the horsetroughs and costermongers and slops on the unpaved streets, all that seems accurate, too. This Elizabethan world is indeed Elizabethan.

On the other hand, as with the "psychoanalyst," the film playfully lets me--us--project my ordinary twentieth-century knowledge into the realistic world of 1593. The whole film from beginning to end builds on the conceit that we know that Will Shakespeare will become perhaps the greatest dramatist the world has ever known, while they in 1593 know him only as a hack playwright, playing second fiddle to Kit Marlowe. Hence we can laugh when we see Marlowe and Viola feeding him titles, names, and plots. We can understand and laugh at a souvenir mug from Stratford-on-Avon in Shakespeare's garret. In sum, we project, parsing the ostensible past with the present we know.

This playing to our projection of what we know into the film provides for someone who has taught Shakespeare, like me, the extra fun that screenwriter Tom Stoppard described in an interview as "pure mischief." A lot of what delighted me in this film was its repesentation--a pretty accurate representation--of Elizabethan stage practice. I took a seminar in graduate school with a great scholar of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, Alfred Harbage. He devoted the whole seminar to Elizabethan theater construction and stage practice. I was tremendously impressed by Harbage's learning. Years later, I could remember some of his lectures almost verbatim. I was dazzled by some of the details we knew, the profit and loss of owning a theater or a share in an actors' company, how plays were contracted for, the size of the playing space, the uses of the tiring-room and the upper stage, the lack of act and scene divisions, how an actor rehearsed with his part on a roll tucked into his sleeve, how directors directed with a staff to point out the blocking (as Shakespeare tells us in The Tempest), the cost of admission, the seating layout. I particularly remember one gadget: a folio piece of paper glued on a board. This was the prop man's scene-by-scene list of props. The board had a square hole cut in it--evidently it hung on a peg by the tiring-room door, and someone stood there and handed the actors the props they would need--sword, book, candle--as they entered on that bare forty-foot-by-forty-foot stage. Imagine such a detail surviving for three hundred and fifty years! I was delighted! I thought it detective work, finding these fascinating details--facts, certainties--behind the fictional surface of the plays.

Of course, there was a lot we didn't know. But so much that we did, and I took inordinate pleasure in these historical minutiae. I suppose you could say, psychologically, I was substituting the historical realities derived from research for the fantasies being played out on the stage itself. Facts about stagecraft were safe and solid, knowlege with which you could make a career as a scholar. You could get tenure learning this kind of thing. Look at Harbage.

Naturally, I was delighted when, decades after, they began constructing the New Globe nearly at the site of the old one in Southwark. When the project was under way, I dragged poor Jane through hours at the little basement museum that described what they hoped to do and the stages they were trying to imitate. When finally the New Globe was built and set to open, I got up at 3:00 a.m. to call the box office in London the day they began selling tickets. I had to make sure we would get in to one of the opening performances.

This movie does show what we know of Elizabethan London and its theaters pretty well. Granted, the film shows the earlier Theatre and Rose stages, about which we don't know as much as the Globe, but the film seemed quite accurate to me. And that was a lot of the fun.

The movie ties ability in writing to ability in sex. You could read this film then, using the theories of metaphor developed by the soi-disant cognitive linguists (George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Mark Turner, and others). They develop the idea that metaphor is one of the human ways of knowing, perhaps the most basic and pervasive. In metaphor, broadly understood, we use something we understand well, the source domain, to understand something we understand less well, the target domain. We "map" the source domain, say, a journey, onto the target domain, say, a love affair. We arrive at expressions like: We've had some bumps in our relationship. We've come a long way together. We've come to a parting of the ways. We're just spinning our wheels in this relationship.

We use things we know well, like a car's spinning its wheels, to understand something harder to grasp, a standstill (sic) in an affair. Shakespeare in Love builds on such a mapping. This is an end-of-century film, though, and we think we understand sex and love so well we can use them to map onto something more mysterious: the creative imagination. Hence this is a film that understands Shakespeare's block as a writer with his block as a lover.

Till now, Will Shakespeare's plays have been hackwork and Will distinctly second-rate compared to Marlowe. The movie has Marlowe snoot Will Shakespeare's Henry VIs, which are indeed half-successful imitations of the fashionable Marlowe. We can read the film as mapping Will's limitations as a writer onto Will's limitations as a lover. All Will's women have been easy up to this point--hackwork, so to speak: Anne Hathaway. who lured him into marriage; Aphrodite "who does it behind the Dog and Crumpet"; the various whores who greet him in the tavern scenes; and Rosaline. She is Burbage's seamstress, who, in the course of the movie, is had by all its principal men and treated by all of them with considerable contempt. She is also, of course, Romeo's first love in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare thinks she is the woman who must wear the bracelet the "psychoanalyst" has given him to cure his impotences.

She isn't. Enter beautiful, rich Viola de Lesseps, stagestruck and crazy about poetry. We meet her as she is watching a comedy being performed at court before Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona. He has come to the performance to see the audience's response. Elizabeth guffaws at the slapstick scene of Launce and his dog Crab, but she dozes during Valentine's lovelorn soliloquy, "What light is light, if Sylvia is not seen?" Two Gentlemen is indeed a rather stilted and artificial love comedy, but that soliloquy sends Viola into joyful erotic trance (another bridge between play and life, between creativity and sex).

I recognize all these in-jokes, because I taught Shakespeare for the first eleven years of my teaching career, and I wrote two books about the plays. Only now, thirty years later, am I slowly beginning to forget the quotations. I had memorized dozens, because I was constantly advancing them as evidence for my interpretations to my brainy and skeptical M.I.T. students.

In those days, I believed that I was teaching them how to dig out "the" meaning, a unifying principle that would enable them to recognize and experience the satisfying aesthetic unity of a Shakespearean play or, indeed, any work of art. I was quite dogmatic but to hard-edged minds like theirs, effective. They liked solid facts and exact reasoning. So do I. Although I fled the intellectual history laid on me in graduate school, I enjoyed interpreting the unity and meaning of complex, mysterious works of art like The Seventh Seal or Last Year at Marienbad--or Shakespeare's plays. And I can't get past it. I'm afraid I have little enthusiasm for current literary studies. They seem to me to wallow in doubtful "theory" but pay little attention to the beauty, the unity in diversity of the works of literature they address. "Unity," "diversity," tsk, tsk--bad words nowadays!

I like knowing odd historical facts like those I've mentioned about Elizabethan theatrical history, and that's an inconsistent thing for a relativist like me to say. Conservative Congressmen have announced that America's civil or not-so-civil culture wars of the 1990s are between lovely "absolute truth" (good) and relativism (evil). Absolute truth, I suppose, ultimately refers to some deity--for who else has access to it? But surely god has died well before our time, although right-wingers would like to keep him alive and enlist him as a celebrity endorsement for various projects of giant corporations and the very rich.

Absolute truth? I think not. I've written recently that I think we have gradually accepted relativism to the point where it dominates the intellectual life of our time:

It seems to me that that has been the dominant motif of our century. It really began with the cultural movement in anthropology in the 1880s, Tylor and on to Malinowski, Boas, Mead, Kluckhohn, and their successors. Values are expressions of different cultures and have no validity beyond those cultures.

We get relativity in physics, starting in 1905, then later, quantum physics, the Heisenberg principle, and so on. The physical properties of an event depend upon the position and the methods of the observer.

In the human sciences, we get a further push toward relativism from psychoanalysis, starting in the 1900s . . . . Events, traumatic events, do not cause neurosis directly. How the individual mentally handles the event determines the outcome.
* * *
In the 1950s, psychologists turned toward constructivism, the idea, as I read them, that people construct events, drawing on their culture and personality. Implicit in the whole cognitive science movement is the idea that you cannot know anything apart from some human mode of perception, which is relative to a personality, a culture, the circumstances of the event.
* * *
Yet another thrust in the direction of relativism [was] the widespread acceptance of Thomas Kuhn's thesis . . . that science . . . comes in sudden revolutions and long periods of "normal science." During such periods, what scientists conclude, what they even perceive, depends on what they already know.

* * *
Relativism, I say, is the central intellectual issue of our century and has been growing for ten decades.

I've played a bit of a joke on you. I'm quoting a fictional intellectual historian who is addressing a focus group in an intellectual playlet I wrote, one of my fitful tries in recent years at fiction. Really, though, I think I'm hedging my bets, using intellectual content to justify untalented creative writing. Which brings us back to Shakespeare in Love and me, not as would-be writer, but critic.

Shakespeare in Love builds on the basic pattern of Shakespeare's love stories. That is, in both his plays and poems, there are no lovers who are simply happy and in love. From Comedy of Errors to The Tempest, all his lovers have to overcome obstacles. They face barriers of class, race, nationality, mistaken identities, but most often of parental (particularly paternal) opposition. (Note the anagram.) Then the play breaks through the barrier to its happy or tragic ending.

This movie love story runs true to the Shakespearean formula (which indeed almost all writers of comedy use). Beautiful, rich Viola falls for Will Shakespeare, a hand-to-mouth actor and a hack playwright, not quite as good as Christopher Marlowe. But, and a very big "but" it is, her father is marrying her off to Lord Wessex, a brutish owner of tobacco plantations in Virginia. (No. Jamestown isn't settled until 1607.) Wessex is in debt, interested only in her money, and tells her so. Will Shakespeare, too, is penniless, but they love each other. Wessex, moreoever, can offer a distinguished title, while Will is one of a despised class, actors.

That's a "Freudian" reading of Shakespeare and Shakespeare in Love, a hypothesis to try out. They're "oedipal." I could say it a wiser way, though. The obstacles of class, race, fathers, and so on, provide us a "forbiddenness" that counters our fantasies of an overwhelming passion for someone who utterly and totally satisfies us, a "soul mate," perhaps a Muse, a "perfect" woman or man like Viola de Lesseps for Will or Will Shakespeare for her. We represent internal inhibition by external force. "Oedipal," so understood, is a word for a forbiddenness that can provide both the threat and the ecstasy for all our romantic loves and rivalries, beginning with mother and father. As I see it, this movie creates and then crosses such barriers, as Romeo and Juliet does, the one comically, the other tragically.

As part of this oedipal pattern, I see a second great Shakespearean theme: betrayal. Will betrays his former partner, Rosaline. He cuckolds Wessex. He betrays Viola by not telling her he is married. He betrays Marlowe by leading Wessex to believe that it is Marlowe who has been coupling with Viola. Further, the actors and theater owners are constantly betraying one another by stealing one another's plays. And various of the men are betraying Burbage with Rosaline.

In short, there are barriers--sexual (oedipal), ethical, financial, genderal, artistic. Sometimes it is good to break through them; sometimes breaking through is betrayal.

In all this, the film friskily parallels the stage play, Romeo and Juliet, and the film/play, Shakespeare in Love. In both the lovers meet at a ball. In both we have paternal interference. In both we have a forbidden lover and a sanctioned lover and enforced marriage (Wessex as Paris). Ned (Edward) Alleyn, Henslowe's leading actor, plays a Mercutio. In both, the ruler (Queen or Prince) steps in at the end to sort things out. Even Will's earlier fornications correspond to Romeo's infatuation at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet with Rosaline. While the parallels are not exact, I find them amusing and suggestive--penetrating, if you will.

Stagestruck Viola dresses as a boy, Thomas Kent, and tries out for a part in Will Shakespeare's yet-to-be-written play, "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter." But when he tries to hire her, she escapes to her family's mansion up the Thames. Class separates them. Will follows him/her and asks for Thomas Kent at the huge, imposing door--but no one (except Viola's nurse) realizes what has happened. But, like her, we know.

This being a 1990s movie, it has added a new barrier to romance besides the usual ones of class and paternal opposition--gender. Playing to today's interest in cross-dressing, Shakespeare in Love takes advantage of the Elizabethan convention that women could not appear on the stage. Viola/Thomas has done something taboo for someone in her class and gender, something that could cause Henslowe's theater, the Rose, to be shut down (and later does). Will's pursuit of this boy, his kissing him, is--disquieting.

At this point, the plot speeds up and entangles itself in complications. Will meets Viola at a ball in her father's mansion, a prelude to her engagement to Wessex. (Like Romeo and Juliet.) They fall in love. Romeo, however, we twentieth-century folk know, improvised a charming sonnet with Juliet when he met her. Will, however, is tongue-tied and interrupted here. He can say nothing. Similarly, he cannot climb the balcony as Romeo did. Instead, he climbs up, comes fact to face with nurse, yells, falls, rouses the house, and has to run for it. Compared to the ideal lover of the stage, this real-life lover comes woefully short.

Even so, his meeting with Viola/Juliet inspires Will. He begins churning out his "Romeo" comedy, and the Admiral's Men start rehearsals with Thomas Kent playing Romeo. Through Thomas, Will sends love letters to Viola (the "summer's day" sonnet). This time, though, he succeeds in climbing her balcony, and they consummate their affair in a night of ecstatic love. Interestingly, the language of this erotic scene comes from the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, a scene before Romeo and Juliet consummate. Is the film implying the play is chaster, more "poetic" than "real" life?

In the morning, Viola insists (as she will throughout) that Shakespeare get busy and write, and Will, now inspired, begins writing the "real" Romeo and Juliet. As he churns out text barely in time for the actors to rehearse it, the film cuts back and forth from love scenes in Viola's bedroom to the action onstage, with the text of Romeo and Juliet (notably the balcony scene) serving as a sound overlap.

After fights between the two rival companies of actors, Viola learns that Shakespeare is married. She points out that any marriage for them is doubly impossible. He is married, and she must marry Wessex. "If not you, why not Wessex?," she realistically says. He must write. We return to the cross-cutting between sex scenes and play rehearsal in a jumble of gendered roles, speeches, and locales.

Wessex realizes that Shakespeare is Viola's lover, and now he charges the Rose, sword in hand. Will defeats him, but the Master of the Revels closes the Rose for having a woman onstage. (Symbolism of roses?)

The players' drunken sorrows turn to joy, though, when Henslowe gallantly offers the use of his own theater, the Theatre. They are really going to put on Romeo and Juliet! Alas, just as they are about to begin, the voice of the lad who was to play Juliet--changes. (Another breakthrough?) We have no Juliet!

But, guess who is in the audience! Viola. Having escaped from Wessex after the marriage ceremony in order to see the final production, Viola steps in. She plays, now, Juliet. We have at long last Shakespeare's full-fledged Romeo and Juliet with Will himself as Romeo and Viola as Juliet. It is the "real" (i.e., historical) Romeo and Juliet in this fictional Shakespeare in Love. But the play is staged, a fiction, while thenaturalistic film portrays "real" life.

The play's being put on at all is another crossing of barriers. As for how it happens, as Henslowe says, "It's a mystery." In effect he brings in what we know are the origins of Western drama in the Dionysian mysteries of ancient Athens. At the same time, he suggests that we in the audience are witnessing the "mystery," the astonishing act of creativity involved in Will Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and the almost as astonishing creativity involved in Shakespeare in Love.

After the final death scene and the Prince's eulogy, Queen Elizabeth steps in, imperiously pardons everybody for having women on stage, and praises Will Shakespeare. This is Will's breakthrough. Alas, realistic Elizabeth also insists, harshly, that Viola go off to Virginia with Wessex. Though Will Shakespeare loses her as a woman, she will be his "heroine," his "heroine for all time". His social and sexual breakthrough with her equals, quite precisely, his breakthrough as a playwright.

It is in the production of the play that the film develops its themes (as I see them) most clearly. Will and the rest of the actors had rehearsed Romeo and Juliet with Viola playing Romeo (and, thus, more gender-crossing). The film then moved into a series of cross-cuts from Viola playing Romeo to Will and Viola making love in her chamber (the Nurse standing guard). Sound--the language of Romeo and Juliet--overlapped the cuts. In effect, the lovers, in their lovemaking, were creating the words of the play. Life creates art. Or--let me put it another way--the sexual penetration of Viola leads to Will Shakespeare's breakthrough in his writing. As Elizabeth points out, Shakespeare has succeeded in putting "the very truth and nature of love" on stage. And a sad love it is, with its barriers and sorrows. An inhibited love, an--if you will--oedipal love.

In other words the film (in the best Hollywood tradition) treats artistic creations as simply recording the artist's life in painting, music, or words. I suppose I saw too many movies as an adolescent, because that was what I thought when I was in my teens and twenties and wanted to be a writer. You have an experience and then you write it down and that's how you make literature. After all, isn't that what Hemingway and Wolfe did?

I was grandiose. I had sky-high ambitions. I was going to be the new Shakespeare. Just write down what I was experiencing or feeling. It took me years to realize that what counts in writing is not the content but the writing--the words. A writer--a real writer--writes words that are unexpected but feel right. Incidents, too, should be surprising but right. And characters. But you can have all kinds of incidents or characters so long as the language works. Readers find themselves saying, I didn't expect that, but yes, yes, it feels right, that makes sense, that satifies. These days, when I get a memo in my English department, I can tell in a sentence or two if it's from one of our "creative writers." I am surprised and delighted--as I am with this film.

You have to be able to surprise, to go beyond the cliché, and that I never could do. Can never do. I can do "right" all right--as a critic, for example, or a scholar. But "surprising"? No. Shakespeare's block is my block. That is my point of identification with this film.

He goes to a shrink. I went to a shrink. I had been trying to write poetry for several years with virtually no success. I got an appointment with an analyst and the first thing I blurted out as I walked into his narrow, quiet room was, "I want to be a writer, but I don't want to write." I wanted the prestige, the romantic fantasies I had of a writer's life, but the writing was painfully beyond me. Once I said it out loud, I scarcely needed the analyst. I was over it. I had made my breakthrough. I could turn to other things. I found I was good at doing criticism, and I, quite enthusiastically, became a critic or, nowadays we would say, "theorist." I settled for the truth, the board with a hole in it hanging on a peg instead of trying to write fantasies for the stage.

As I think of imaginative writing now, writers have to draw from places in their heads that are "deep," uncomfortable, touchy, even painful. They have to wrap the thoughts they so mine in words they love, words that surprise and delight, "edge words" a poet friend calls them. I had not been able to do that. End of creative writing career, except for occasional stabs at it in recent years.

Barriers, barriers, barriers. This is a film about writer's block, sexual block and breaking through the blocks. But not just writing and sex. There is the breaking through the barriers of class and parental opposition. Will jumps across class lines and just as surely, like Romeo, he risks death to make love to Viola. "A river separates us." In mythic fashion, Will has to cross the river to enter Viola's castle or to enter Viola, for that matter. "My lovers have to cross a wide river."

Will has to cross the gender barrier as well. The film has him kiss Viola even while she wears the mustache and tights of Thomas Kent/Romeo. I must confess that I would have found this disturbing had it not been for my knowing (in my twentieth-century capacity) that Thomas is really yummy Gwyneth Paltrow.

At the end of the film, a woman has appeared successfully on an Elizabethan stage, in fact two women: Viola de Lesseps and Queen Elizabeth. That taboo has also been broken (no--not historically).

The film penetrates the past with the present, when it has us project our twentieth-century knowledge into a sixteenth-century London. These are the lines that get the loudest laughs from a modern audience:


"The show must--" "Go on."
"Break a leg."
"Follow that boat."
"I think tobacco has a great future."
"I know something of what it is to be a woman in a man's profession."
"Are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?"

Conversely, "lines from Shakespeare" occur in street life. "A plague on both your houses," shouts a Puritan, reviling the two theaters. "The Rose by any other name would smell as . . . " referring to Burbage's theater.

The ending, in particular, uses what we know. Queen Elizabeth sets up a wager between Shakespeare and Wessex as to whether the "very truth and nature of love" can be presented onstage--and we know Romeo and Juliet did that. There follows a joke about cloaks and Sir Walter Raleigh, another chance for us to project. The Queen asks Will to produce something more cheerful for Twelfth Night, and we know he will produce that delightful comedy (but in 1600, not 1593!). Then follows a drowning scene as Viola and Wessex sail to Virginia (after all, if it worked in The Piano, why wouldn't it work here?) In the last shot of the film, Viola as sole survivor walks from sea to land across a deserted beach. We are, I guess, to think of the second scene of Twelfth Night (although in Twelfth Night she was accompanied by the sea captain Antonio and some sailors). "What country, friends, is this?" "This is Illyria, lady."

We see, cross-cut with the drowning, Will Shakeseare in his garret, fulfilling his lonely destiny as Great Writer with the lost Viola as his "heroine for all time." It looks like the ultimate in romantic notions of "the writer." It is, though, the conclusive penetration of love and life into art. On a blank sheet, Shakespeare writes "Twelfth Night, Act I," and, in voiceover, begins to describe the plot of that comedy. But--and this is the astonishing thing!--Elizabethan public theater plays were not divided into acts and scenes in Shakespeare's day, only by later editors. More obviously, what the voiceover gives us is not lines from the play Twelfth Night, but a recounting of the plot, a synopsis such as one would write as part of a "treatment" for a modern film. What this Shakespeare is writing is not the Elizabethan play Twelfth Night, but a twentieth-century "project," a film treatment of Twelfth Night! Surely this is the ultimate breakthrough from the staged and filmed story to life, to the medium we are at that very moment seeing before us. But I am playing critic. Perhaps 'twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

The film crosses yet another barrier between life and art in the final performance scenes, the barrier between audience and actors. The camera filming includes both players and spectators and so melds the audience's oohs, aahs, boos, and tears--real life--into the onstage play. The film also has fun with the closeness of audience and actors in the Elizabethan public playhouse. We see the groundlings staring raptly up at these loving and dying actors not six feet away from them.

I've been there! I stood as a groundling that first summer the New Globe in London was in operation. I was tremendously excited at the prospect of actually seeing the things I had learned in my decades-old seminar.

The theater itself is as exact a reproduction of Globe II as could be made, and it is an extraordinary sight. It is elaborately ornate in the Tudor-Jacobean mode with gilt and color and paintings and mascherons on the back facade, faux marble columns, and a painted "heavens," but that big open playing space, forty feet by forty feet, is just out there and waiting. The circular building means that wherever you sit or stand (on the asphalted groundling-space) you are within about thirty feet of the actors. It's as though everybody were in orchestra seats in the tenth row in a proscenium theater. Yet you and the actors are, by the same token, very much aware of the phsyical presence of the people around you as an audience. They move and shuffle and scratch and sweat. They are not, not as in a modern theater, vague shapes in the dark, but actual faces and clothes. This is particularly so with the groundlings, who are shifting positions, moving around, going out to the lobby, and so on. So this is not a theater of illusion, but one of listening.

The theater was wonderful. The production of The Winter's Tale we saw was not. The director had ingeniously staged Sicilia and Bohemia as two African kingdoms, complete with thrones made of cut up tractor tires (tyres?). But the Elizabethan theater is not a theater where you look at a visual effect, but a theater where you watch and listen to an actor. The director's role is much reduced from its modern status, so that in Shakespeare in Love sometimes Shakespeare directs his play, sometimes Ned Alleyn. (Come to think of it, we know the names of a lot of Elizabethan actors and theater owners, but next to nothing about any directors.) This Globe should be an actor's theater, not a director's.

The Autolycus in Winter's Tale, however, was superb. Where the other actors were caught up in trying to look African, Nicholas Le Prevost played a plain English rural con artist, working on the audience. In the latter part of the play, I left our (fairly expensive) seats in the first gallery and stood as a groundling right in front of the stage. It was fantastic! Like watching a close-up in a movie. I was often a mere yard from the actors (just like the groundlings in Shakespeare in Love). The actors would be playing to the whole house and I would see the sweat and spit of their speaking. It was exciting, like watching boxing close-up. But there was more to it than watching someone perform.

Being a groundling worked beautifully with Autolycus. He was, as I say, playing to the crowd, strumming a ukelele and otherwise carrying on, confiding his shady schemes to both the groundlings and the upper galleries. Yet I, as groundling, felt he was doing this to me. When he began cadging money, everybody in that front row of groundlings began tossing coins at him, even penny-pinching me. These real(!) coins he cheerfully picked up and pocketed to the guffaws of the rest of the audience. I've never felt quite that relation to an actor, that he was acting, but that I was part of his acting. People talk about crossing the line between performer and audience, but this happened in a very special way. He remained the performer, playing to the rest of the house, but I was there in his act, with him. I've never experienced anything quite like that in a theater. I was awed. Truly, as Henslowe says in this movie, it is a mystery. Part of the mystery is that Le Prevost's feeling for the experience strikingly matches mine, as he tells us at http://www.rdg.ac.uk/globe--truly a mystery beyond the critic's or scholar's ken.

Shakespeare in Love mixes actors acting actors acting a part in a Shakespearean play with an audience of actors (extras) acting an audience responding to actors acting actors acting a part in a Shakespearean play--very cute! Very postmodern. Even more postmodern is the way that the film's reality (the affair) creates the fictional play. But the fictional play is historically real and the seemingly real affair is fictional. Reality is a fiction and a fiction is reality. And yet, for all the postmodernism, no small part of the delight I took in this film was quite old-fashioned. I was simply seeing parts of Romeo and Juliet performed by superb actors on a quite accurate Elizabethan stage.

For me, the most important of the penetrations in Shakespeare in Love is the way life breaks into the theater and vice versa. It's obvious in the interplay of lovemaking on and off stage, but it is also the subject of the wager between Will and Wessex. Can real love--can real life--be represented in a play? Earlier, Viola had said that the stage would never be able to represent love truly so long as women were played by these "pipsqueak boys." And in the finale, we have a woman playing a woman, Viola playing Juliet to Will's Romeo.

Likewise, life breaks in again when Viola reconciles herself to her marriage. She ruefully accepts that it, or something like it, is inevitable. Life breaks in with Elizabeth's insistence in the finale that everybody realistically accept their destiny, Viola as playless in Virginia, Wessex as deceived bridegroom, Shakespeare as writer. In this film--as in life?--the women deal in reality, the men in fantasies. And the "very truth and nature of love" seems to be a sad truth: frustration and defeat or--psychologically--inhibition.

Finally life--our life at the movies--breaks in at the end when Will begins writing. The sentences he speaks in voiceover are not the play, Twelfth Night, but a synopsis for a screen play like the one we are seeing. (As many have pointed out, were Shakespeare writing today, he would be writing not for the stage for the screen. Whether big or little screen is debatable and debated.)

In this as in all fine films, one can read its essence in its first few scenes. In this film, it's the first few seconds. The first thing we see is a series of images of an Elizabethan theater. Cut to a playbill, advertising a play, "The Moneylender's Revenge." It flashes by, and the next shot shows moneylender Fennyman torturing poor catch-as-catch-can Henslowe, who owes him money, by sticking his feet into a bucket of hot coals. We are seeing the translation of a play into life or life into a play--as the film will do with the creation of Romeo and Juliet from the affair of Will Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps or, equally, the creation of what we are seeing at that instant in the movie theater, Shakespeare in Love, out of Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, we are seeing a modern idiom (like "Follow that boat") being turned into an episode in a fictional 1593. We are seeing Fennyman "hold his feet to the fire," as we say today of financial and political coercions. The film moves from theater-words, "The Moneylender's Revenge," and our words, the modern idiom, to reach "life," the people on the screen, who are, of course, fictional. The film crosses barrier after barrier, that, a few scenes later, in the psychoanalyst scene, we see Will blocked from doing. Then the action of the film shows his breaking through the barriers--his penetration.

The film equates potency in writing with potency in sex. That's a standard, cookbooky kind of "Freudianism." There is another formulaic psychoanalytic interpretation that seems to me relevant here: primal scene. A child sees or overhears or fantasies the act of love, servants having sex or parents or animals or an episode on television or in the movies. The child may misunderstand sex as a scary, aggressive act. The child may fearfully fantasize about missing body parts or become confused about what is real and what is unreal in the scene. Am I in this scene or or out of it, watching? Watching stage plays or movies, for that matter, "stands for" the primal scene, the analysts tell us.

In this film, of course, it being an end-of-century film, primal scene and sexual intercourse are real enough. We see Will and Viola making love in several highly erotic scenes. Will, by means of his poetry, has penetrated, quite literally, the de Lesseps mansion and the hitherto virginal Viola.

The first time they make love, Viola's nurse hears what is going on. She plunks her rocking chair down in front of the door, keeping out intruders and rocking more and more noisily as the sounds from inside get louder. She herself gets more and more itchy and restless and hot. The audience laughed, but I found it unfunny and uncomfortable. She is both witness and participant in the forbidden scene, but soon the film is cross-cutting between the romantic scenes in Romeo and Juliet and the deliciously erotic scenes in Viola's bedroom. The language of the play we are seeing rehearsed on a stage flows seamlessly back and forth from scenes in the bedroom to the next scene on the stage. What is real and what is fictional? Talk about primal scene!

Rich and poor, noble and base, male and female, stage and life, actors and audience, past and present--all barriers broken through--penetrated--and especially Shakespeare's creative and sexual block. If I were to try to put all this into a "unifying idea," a theme of themes, I would say something like, "the ability of artistic creativity to penetrate." "Penetrate" expresses for me what I feel is the essential quality of the film: these sexualized breakings through barriers. Modern critics say such a theme "marginalizes" details. I think not. I think such a theme gives a reason for existence even to such tiny details as the nurse sticking a scraper in Viola's ears, scouring them out, penetrating them, before putting her to bed.

In crossing these barriers, both the play Romeo and Juliet and the film Shakespeare in Love are being created moment by moment by Will's breakthrough on both the theatrical and the erotic fronts. Life's creativity--sex--breaks through Shakespeare's inibitions to poetic creativity. Would we could all do the same.

But we can't. Or, at least, I can't. Some of us settle for hard facts and solid proofs and unifying ideas--intellectualizing (like this essay) about art and sex. No breakthroughs for us--me. Instead I get a safety that wards off the fears of the uncertain and the unknown and the not understood, waiting somewhere deep down in me to jab their way up to the surface. When I try to think of them, my hands tense, my skin feels cold and damp, my heart starts pumping. Like the nightmares I suffered as a child.

Like many film critics, I got nightmares as a child from something I saw at the movies. I suppose we film buffs are all over-compensating as adults. At any rate, at the age of seven, I started having nightmares because of something at the movies. For several years, my parents kept me from going to movies at all. (Needless to say, I've been making up for lost time ever since.) Decades later, in analysis, I recalled this and verified that primal scenes were an important part of my childhood. I was even able many years after analysis was over, to discover what it was that had frightened me: a perfectly innocuous trailer for a Laurel and Hardy film. But it had images I interpreted as other images, more frightening, more overpowering. If I break through, if I give up certainty, they will still be there, and they will be overwhelming. And when I think about this, my heart tenses.

Shakespeare's block is my block. He broke through. I didn't. And it's just as well.

I settled for a safe life as a professor and critic (often a movie critic) against some slambang writer's life of taking chances, never knowing where the next dollar is coming from. Or a life of sexual and domestic lurchings and, yes, breaking through sexual inhibitions. Perhaps that's why I can be so content with data about the Elizabethan playhouse, the board hanging on a peg. Facts are solid, facts are safe, facts pay. I can use my sexual and creative inhibitions to content myself, in other words, to defend.

Freud said that, to be a creative writer, you had to have a "lack of inhibition." Writers are sexy, he thought. I've even written an essay suggesting that some of Freud's faintly contemptuous thinking about writers being given over to the pleasure principle or being like children playing came from his own fear and jealousy of them as romantic beings, more powerful sexually than a scholar like himself. I think most people read this film with that idea in mind. I know I do.

I think most people, however, read this film as enabling. If you can have this terrific sexual affair, you can write Romeo and Juliet. You can be a great writer. All you have to do is write down this affair you're having.

Oddly, that isn't the way the film ends. Queen Elizabeth seems to be saying, You can't have this totally desirable woman that you are madly in love with, but you can be a great writer. You must inhibit yourself. Then you can sublimate your love into writing that I and everyone else will celebrate. That is, of course, nonsense, but blessed nonsense. Hollywood is soothing us. Writers need to be less inhibited, not more inhibited, and that can be a disturbing thought. It is for me, anyway.

I too feel the film links writing prowess to sexual prowess--it is, after all, quite explicit on the point, so to speak. But for me, the ending says, You must accept your sexual inhibitions and you must accept your limitations as a writer. You are not Shakespeare and you are not going to be. You can't have Gwyneth Paltrow, and you can't be a great writer.

But somehow that's OKAY! You don't have to defy the harsh Queen or killer Wessex. You're safe. Writing about inhibition, Freud spoke about "civilization and its discontents." Yet inhibitions are the contentments of civilization as well as the discontents. You could not be sitting, reading this essay, if you had not accepted inhbitions. I could not be writing it had I not also done so. For me, the film comforts me in the choice I made, critic instead of writer, the peg and the prop list instead of the play. I am, in my bourgeois way, safe, reassured--content.

When I dig down into my feelings, that is why I love this unbelievable film so, this film that dramatizes a sexual and creative freedom I have given up. Because I'm safe. Because I've had and I'm having a good life, as good as it gets. I can take pleasure, at long last, in there being a Will Shakespeare without my having to be that Will Shakespeare. I can simply delight in the play of his imagination and the filmmakers' without trying to compete, to do the same myself. That's enough pleasure for me, and that terrible imperative I felt when young to do or to be the biggest, the most, the best, has quieted. I can witness Shakespeare's breakthrough without feeling that I have to do it, too. In effect, I can use my sexual and creative inhibitions to content myself, in other words, to defend. "The sexual behaviour of a human being often lays down the pattern for all his other modes of reacting to life." Just the opposite of Will Shakespeare in this film.

That's comedy for you. It lets us be easy on ourselves. When we see a tragedy, we break down a defense. We feel anxious and uneasy. When we see a comedy, we begin by breaking down a defense--penetrating--but we end by building one up or restoring one. We feel secure again. Shakespeare in Love allows me some old friends, repression and denial. I am not Shakespeare nor do I want to be. 1593 is not 1999. Uh-huh.

Where does that leave me as a critic and you as my reader? What have I been writing here? On the one hand I generalize about tragedy and comedy or point out about metaphorical mappings of sexual love onto creative writing. On the other I talk about my own poetic ambitions and their coming to nothing. I can understand why you might be interested in what I can say about comedy or metaphor, but why should you give a damn about my youthful aspirations?

What has happened to my fall-back position as critic? I think I am still behaving as a critic, as, if you will, handmaiden to the muse. If the aim of the writer be, as Horace put it, aut prodesse aut delectare, to enlighten and to delight, the aim of the critic is to enhance the writer's work. As a critic, I try to add to your pleasure and your sense of the "rightness" of the work.

With a little bit of luck, I may have done that here. I've set out the processes and associations in my own mind by which I like this film as much as I do. You can, if you are willing, use those themes that were psychologically important to me. You can try them out. You can, as I phrase it, "pass them through" the film and see what, if anything, they do for you.

That is, you can say, He says this is a film about inhibitions, sexual inhibitions and writing inhibitions. Let me think about my inhibitions as a writer. You did once want to write, didn't you? Most people have. Let me think my thoughts about writing as I watch this film. How do I feel when I think about my limitations as a writer in connection with Shakespeare in Love? You can bet that Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, when they wrote the film, were thinking about themselves as writers competing with Shakespeare.

More interestingly, you can say, How do I feel when I think about my own sexual inhibitions in connection with Shakespeare in Love? And, yes, you have them, we all do. I cannot guarantee it, but I feel quite sure that you will find a more complicated, a more intriguing, and a more pleasing response to the film. I will then have done my work, less idolized than the writer's, but work that works for me, my work as a critic.