Madden's 1998 Shakespeare in Love

Everything you want to know about the movie can be found at Steven Marx's Shakespeare in Love page.

Did falling in love inspire Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet? When we read the play, we'll look at Shakespeare's inspiration.

We'll start the course with Shakespeare in Love. This movie gives us a great sense:

  • of Shakespeare's times,
  • what his theater was like,
  • how the plays were performed and how the playhouse influenced how the plays were written,
  • what the acting company was like and how the size and composition of the acting company influenced the plays,
  • who Shakespeare's competitors were and how rivalry influenced Shakespeare's plays.

Background for Shakespeare in Love and Romeo and Juliet :

Shakespeare in Love offers the wonderfully romantic view that Romeo and Juliet was inspired by an impossible-to-fulfill love affair that Shakespeare had with Gwyneth Paltrow – uh, Lady Viola, I mean. However, we will see tomorrow when we read Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare based his story on well-known sources that both he and his audience were familiar with. So we can conclude, in this case, that autobiography doesn't play the kind of direct role in the making of his plays that the movie postulates. But several aspects of the movie can give us great insight into his plays.

During the night of Dec. 28, 1598, while the landlord was out of town, the Lord Chamberlain's Men disassembled the Theater beam by beam and carted it across to the south side of the Thames River. There they reassembled the Theater and renamed it the Globe.

It was now in the heart of the entertainment district but outside of the city limits, so it was free of many restrictions. The Globe's neighbors were the Bear Garden (where bear bating was held), brothels, the Swan theater, and Henslowe's theater, the Rose.

The movie gives an excellent sense of what the theater looked like and how close the audience was to the stage, which was thrust out into the audience. Although the audience capacity was 2500, the farthest seat was near by our standards. People in the audience would freely comment on and respond to the plays since the standing audience of "groundlings" might be just two to three feet from the actors.

You can see from the movie that the setup of the theater stage remained the same from scene to scene. Costumes were important but scenery was not used. When you watch the movie, notice the stage thrust out into the audience. Notice how actors could enter from the audience. Notice that the stage has a trap door. It was by Hamlet's father's ghost as well as as the grave for Ophelia in Hamlet. Notice the pillars at the rear of the stage, the doors between the pillars for entrances and exits, and the balcony up above. That balcony is where Juliet is when Romeo comes to gaze upon her.

The Lord Chamberlain's Men owned a theater with the catchy name of "Theater." The problem was that they didn't own the land the Theater was built on. They rented the land. When their lease ran out, the landlord tried to gouge them. That caused Shakespeare and the other partners to come up with one of the great schemes in all theater history.

The new Globe Theater, London. ©University of Reading (used with permission)

Here is one of the surviving copies of Shakespeare's First Folio, in the University of Pennsylvania Furness Library. Used with permission.

Shakespeare's acting company. Shakespeare's acting company was what we call a repertory company today—that is, all the actors stayed together, most from season to season.

Shakespeare, who, as part owner of the building and the company, wrote his plays with the actors in mind. In every play he uses all of them, some in more than one role. He writes the plays with their strengths and weaknesses in mind. As you read a number of his plays, you can see how similar parts are included in each play because he had an actor who could act well in particular kinds of roles – for example, the cynical role of Mercutio is just one of a string of parts at this period written for the same actor who could be witty and cynical and dirty.

The most unusual aspect of the acting companies of Shakespeare's day was how many plays they performed in a season.They usually put on a different play every day. One company one year put on 38 different plays, of which 21 were brand new that year! Can you imagine learning so many new plays in a year? Imagine acting in Hamlet one day, Romeo and Juliet the next, and so on.

The main parts were taken by the eight principal actor-owners (including Shakespeare). All the actors were on the weekly payroll. They employed several more regular actors and four or five boy-actors for the female roles.

Remember, women didn't act. Women's roles were played by pre-pubescent boys. The Juliet in Shakespeare in Love looks a little old to be pre-pubescent, but that was the idea. Therefore, Shakespeare would never have written parts for women that would have put them in bed as lovers. Love-making would always consist of words and flirting and courteous kisses. A good example is the meeting of Romeo and Juliet when they "kiss" palm to palm.

Unlike today, when movie and theater directors usually assemble a cast after the script has been written, in Shakespeare's day, the company of players came first.