81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Shakespeare in Love

October 29th, 2009 · No Comments · 1998, Ben Affleck, Christopher Marlowe, Colin Firth, Comedy, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Mid-Point, Miramax, Nudity, Original Screenplay, Plot Point I, Plot Point II, Romeo and Juliet, Screenplay Structure, Sex, Shakespeare in Love, Stuttering, Swearing, Tom Wilkinson

Shakespeare in Love“Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?” is a question posed by Queen Elizabeth to Viola De Lesseps.

I have a question of my own to pose: “Can a movie show us what perfect screenwriting looks like?”

Yes, it can – if that movie is Shakespeare in Love.

Shakespeare in Love is brilliant.



Once in a while a screenplay comes along that makes me wonder if I am even qualified to string together a collection of letters roughly approximating a sentence. Shakespeare in Love is one of those screenplays.

It is the story of a struggling young playwright/poet named Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) who is in desperate need of a muse to get his words flowing again. He finds his muse in Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful young women who yearns to experience the kind of love about which Shakespeare writes but who, sadly, is promised in marriage to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth).

Will and Viola fall madly in love and, in so doing, give the struggling playwright the beautiful, flowing words required to craft Romeo and Juliet, often called the greatest love story ever written.

Sprinkled throughout the movie are references to the rivalry between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, as well as Marlowe’s mysterious, untimely death. (A knife fight in a bar.)

Shakespeare in Love is the closest Hollywood has come to a Shakespeare play winning Best Picture since Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948 because it is, essentially, a play within a movie, that play being Romeo and Juliet.

Much has been written about Shakespeare. His Romeo and Juliet has probably been performed tens of thousands of times since it was penned in the late 1500s. But Shakespeare in Love offers a reason why Will Shakespeare was able to conjure forth such a profound expression of love – the loss of his soul mate, his muse, Viola to Lord Wessex in marriage.

This is a very fine movie, one of the best I’ve ever seen. It is witty, clever, creative, extremely well written and equally well acted.

I would like to examine Shakespeare in Love while I watch it to see if it follows screenplay structure as I’ve come to understand it.

Screenplay Structure – Shakespeare In Love

Act I
Inciting Incident: In the first scene, Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) is being tortured by loan shark Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) for twelve pounds, one shilling and four pence owed to him. Henslowe forestalls further torture by promising Fennyman he’ll be paid because he has a wonderful new play. A comedy. By Will Shakespeare. It’s called Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. Now, an Inciting Incident is supposed to happen to the protagonist or because of the protagonist. So this, although critical to the movie, is not the Inciting Incident.

That occurs a few seconds later, at about the 5-minute mark. That’s when Henslowe bursts into Will’s home and says, “Will, where is my play?”

That sets the rest of the movie in motion. It pushes Will to get a play into Henslowe’s hands. Will’s search for the muse he needs to give Henslowe his play is the movie.

Plot Point I: At the 28:16 mark, Will Shakespeare lays eyes on Viola for the first time. They are at a ball and she is dancing. At the 28:24 mark, Will leans over to a musician and asks, “By all the stars in heaven. Who is she?”

He manages to take his turn with Viola. She knows him and has admired him for a long time. “Good, Sir,” she says to him. “I hear you are a poet. A poet of no words.”

At that point, Lord Wessex steps in and threatens Will. “Poet?” he says to Will, holding a knife to his throat.

“I was a poet until now,” Will says to him. “But I have seen beauty that puts my poems at one with the talking ravens in the tower.”

Act II
Mid Point:
There are two possible Mid Point turning points. I haven’t decided which is the correct one. Here are the choices: (a) between 59:34 and 59:46, Viola tells Will, “Oh, Will. As Thomas Kent, my heart belongs to you. But as Viola, the river divides us. And I must marry Wessex a week from Saturday”; (b) at the 1:10:06 (one hour, 10 minutes, six seconds) mark, the cast of Will’s play are in a house of ill repute. Henslowe chides Will about something and says, “We shall send you back to Stratford to your wife.” Viola feels as thought punched in the gut. Will realizes the import of what Henslowe has said and his face goes pale.

Either one of those could qualify as the Mid Point. Both give the audience a push over the Act II hump. But I think the real Mid Point is (a), when Viola tells Will she will marry Lord Essex in one week.

Plot Point II: At the 1:25:21 mark (85 minutes and 21 seconds), Thomas Kent (Gwyneth Paltrow posing as a boy to be able to act on the all-male stage) is found out. A big row is made of the situation. “This theater is closed!” a magistrate bellows. “In the name of the Queen of England…” Suddenly, the Queen steps out of the shadows. The audience goes hush. Everyone bows.

“How does it end?” Wessex asks the Queen.

“As all stories must when love is denied,” she replies. “With tears, and a journey.”

She knows Viola and Will are in love. But, as she says, God joined Wessex and Viola in holy matrimony that not even she can put asunder. So she tells Master Kent (Viola) to go inside to find the wife of Lord Wessex and say her goodbyes.

Will and Viola make their tearful good-byes. And Viola helps Will once more – by giving him the general story of another of his plays, a comedy, Twelfth Night. One of the main characters in Twelfth Night is Viola, twin sister to Sebastian who disguises herself as a man, known as Cesario.

Clever, clever, clever.

Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow are magical. Both turn in amazing performances. But this film features many of my favorite actors: Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, and Colin Firth. The weak link in the movie is Ben Affleck. He may be a nice guy. But he’s no actor.

The Cast
Geoffrey Rush (1951- )……………………..Philip Henslowe
Tom Wilkinson (1948- )…………………….Hugh Fennyman
Gwyneth Paltrow (1972- )………………….Viola De Lesseps
Imelda Staunton (1956- )…………………..Nurse
Colin Firth (1960- )…………………………..Lord Wessex
Joseph Fiennes (1970- )…………………….Will Shakespeare
Ben Affleck (1972- )…………………………..Ned Alleyn
Judi Dench (1934- )…………………………..Queen Elizabeth
Rupert Everett (1959- )…………………….Christopher Marlowe
Mark Williams (1959- )………………………Wabash

Directed By
John Madden (1949- )

Written By
Marc Norman (1941- ), and
Tom Stoppard (1937- )

Shakespeare in Love was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won seven: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Judi Dench), Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Music, Original Musical or Comedy Score, Best Picture, Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard)

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a rock star. So I learned how to play the guitar. My first guitar was a Guild single-pickup cherry-red beast of a guitar. I discovered I had a natural ear for playing along with almost any record I owned.

I gave it up, however, when I realized I would never play like Alex Lifeson of Rush, or – heaven forbid! – Eddie van Halen. In short, I knew my limitations and quickly calculated that I would never have their talent.

Movie like Shakespeare in Love make me feel the same way about screenwriting. So I don’t know whether to be profoundly moved by the greatness I see on the screen, or discouraged and chuck Final Draft into the trash can because I’ll never reach the heights I saw in this film.

As they say repeatedly in the movie, “It’s a mystery.”


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