20 years after its release, this work of Shakespeare fan fiction approaches inaccuracy with aplomb.
William Shakespeare has certainly left his mark on modern culture. Whether his work is being adapted (Romeo + Juliet, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing), remixed (She’s the Man, 10 Things I Hate About You, West Side Story), or just constantly quoted (Westworld sure does like to remind us that “These violent delights have violent ends.”), Shakespeare has become ubiquitous in film and television. But despite his enduring impact, we know little about the foundational playwright.
1998’s mega-hit Shakespeare in Love gave us the first, and still one of the only, portrayals of Shakespeare the man in film. Today, Joseph Fiennes’ take on the famous playwright remains our most commonly recognized cinematic portrait of William Shakespeare. Of course, that portrayal is wildly inaccurate (Shakespeare certainly wasn’t as smoldering as Fiennes made him out to be), and it situates Shakespeare in the middle of a romantic comedy rather than a researched biopic. But despite the movie’s inaccuracies, it still has a lot of insight to impart about Shakespeare the man.
20 years after its release, Shakespeare in Love holds up. It’s witty, sexy, and a whole lot of fun. The movie finds much of its humor in anachronisms. As Kyle Kallgren points out in his video essay about the movie, Shakespeare has a psychoanalyst centuries before Freud was even born, Colin Firth’s haughty villain has plantations in Virginia a decade before Jamestown, and the audition montage is distinctly modern.
But what the film lacks in historical accuracy, Kallgreen says, it makes up for in dramatic accuracy. It plays with Shakespeare’s most identifiable tropes and explores the concept of constructing an artist’s identity through their work. Shakespeare in Love portrays Shakespeare as a person. He struggles to balance his personal and professional lives. He falls in love, he suffers from writer’s block, he competes with another colleague in his field. Rather than indulging in a performance of enigmatic genius, this version of Shakespeare is just another person trying to make sense of the world. Though the details of his life are fuzzy and his looks are greatly exaggerated (to my delight), the spirit of Shakespeare the man and the playwright shines through.
Shakespeare in Love is, above all, a work of fan fiction — beguiling, enchanting, and timeless fan fiction. It takes its liberties with aplomb, and exercises incredible self-awareness, cementing it as a classic. Check out the video essay below to learn more about why Shakespeare in Love is still charmingly anachronistic 20 years after its release: