The representation of Shakespeare as an author in John Madden's

Essay, 2006
10 Pages, Grade: 1,7

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The representation of Shakespeare as an author in John Madden’s

Shakespeare in Love

The works of William Shakespeare are present in today’s culture and known by a large part of Western society. They have been the object of various adaptations in theatres, ballets, operas and movies. John Maddens film Shakespeare in Love takes on a new perspective in the line of Shakespeare movies and seeks to display the life of William Shakespeare himself. The screenwriters’ depiction of the “Immortal Bard” however sets itself apart from the image of a literary genius that the name Shakespeare evokes today. Thereby, the film raises questions about the very concept of authorship itself: the romantic notion of authorship that art comes from life is opposed to a very down-to earth conception where authorship is primarily labour, a way to earn a living. In the course of the film, William Shakespeare discovers himself and is transformed by the experience of love into the genius of literary mythology. Furthermore, the screenwriters present their answer to the question who the real author of Shakespeare’s works was by scattering details that are known about Shakespeare’s life throughout the film. These appear to explain several mysteries about the playwright’s identity.

Little is known about William Shakespeare himself, author of numerous famous plays sonnets and poems in English literature. The film Shakespeare in Love is set in London 1593. Although there are only few documents that give information about Shakespeare’s whereabouts at that time, there is evidence that suggests Shakespeare’s presence in London. It is believed that Shakespeare was working as a playwright and an actor in London, and that his plays were already starting to attract attention. The lack of concrete information leaves a great deal of creative freedom to the screenwriters. The many theories about Shakespeare’s life inspired the screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard to deliver a portrait of the author that is on the one hand credible, but on the other hand humorous, fantastic and controversial to our picture of the divine poet. Every audience will recognize the how the film takes elements from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and weaves them realistically into the story by presenting his own love story as inspiration for his work. However, there are numerous subtle details and story twists that create a certain wit for the scholastic audience.

Coming back to the depiction of the character of Shakespeare himself, he is not the expected romantic genius that is generally associated with the name William Shakespeare in the film but simply “Will”, a young amiable writer who is struggling from writer’s block and tries to find inspiration in Rosaline’s bed. Moreover, Will uses a rather sexual language when describing his writing problems to his apothecary, and it is revealed that Will seems to have problems with his sexual performance. For Norman it is clear that in 1593, “[Shakespeare was] not a magical, mysterious, genius playwright. … He was broke, he was horny and he was starved for an idea.”[1] Elaborating this idea, the movie plays with the possibility that Shakespeare could have suffered from writer’s block, and much of the film’s humour is built upon the many obstacles and hurdles he deals with while writing the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Indeed our very first sight of him shows a feverish Shakespeare scribbling something on a piece of paper. Anticipating to see familiar lines of poetry, the audience is mocked when it finally becomes clear that Shakespeare is simply practicing his signature. Additionally, this joke is directed at the academic Shakespeareans, as mysteriously six different spellings of his name have survived and caused mysteries about Shakespeare’s identity itself.

In the film, Will’s career as a playwright for London’s theatres has already begun, as he has already completed One Gentleman of Verona[2] and Henry VI. However, he is not yet a celebrated author and constantly has to put up with remarks and praises of the “great Christopher Marlowe” who ironically is far less renowned nowadays than Shakespeare. Will is thoroughly depicted as a “journeyman scribbler with money problems”[3], a hack taking pieces from here and there, trying to compose “Romeo and Ethel: the pirate’s daughter”, a ridiculous title as Will himself admits. This presentation of the author Shakespeare seeks to take him down from the pedestal that academics have placed him on. Instead, the screenwriters present us with a realistic figure of the Elizabethan time: Will is a playwright who writes for money as well as for art. It is admitted that his work is in part the result of collaboration, as ideas and phrases are taken directly from everyday London life.

Rather than adhering to the modernist tradition and representing the Bard as a master-genius who writes in isolation in a literary vacuum, Norman and Stoppard playfully depict a variety of characters as they participate, both implicitly and explicitly, in the composition of Shakespeare’s drama[4]

Norman and Stoppard make a point to show him in the everyday theatre business, negotiating with the theatre owners and participating in auditions and rehearsals. Additionally, he is not widely appreciated as a playwright: when the actors first begin to rehearse and Will wants to make his speech, Fennyman shows no respect and boldly interrupts him. However, he shows a great deal of respect for Alleyn who will later play Mercutio, commenting on his excellent acting as “Tamburlaine”. As mentioned above, Shakespeare’s inferiority to a contemporary literary figure of the time is an omnipresent theme in the film: “Of course it was mighty writing. There is no one like Marlowe”[5]. One effect of this “demystification”[6] is clearly that Shakespeare and his art are brought closer to the audience. Shakespeare is studied and interpreted in high schools to such an extent that by many his works are not seen as enjoyable free time reads but as intellectual heavyweights. The neglect of Shakespeare’s literary genius and the very down-to-earth characterization of Will in Shakespeare in Love help to restore the simplicity behind Shakespeare himself and his works, whose timeless themes such as love in Romeo and Juliet, jealousy as in Othello or the seeking of power in Richard III are taken from life. However it could also be argued that to an extent, Shakespeare in Love simplifies Shakespeare and gives evidence to the claim that nowadays knowing Shakespeare boils down to the knowledge of key phrases, as the audience can recognize citations from Shakespeare’s famous plays in the course of the film. For example, Will’s declaration “Words, words, words” in his weekly psychologist session is inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Although the screenwriter’s make a point in demystifying the figure of Shakespeare, a romantic idea of authorship that we tend to believe in even nowadays is always present:

For the length of the film the audience may subscribe to the myth that Great Art is the direct product of a Great Writer’s extraordinary experience.[7]

Will believes that a play can show the true nature of love and as the film unfolds it becomes apparent that his art is inspired by life. His appearance, the open shirt and in addition his very sexual private life that is revealed to his apothecary/psychologist render him a very romantic figure, a depiction that might be inspired by the romanticist George Byron, whose scandalous private life has made him a legendary, almost mythical figure of English literature[8].

Whereas the mechanical writer image prevails in the beginning of the movie there is a definite turning point of this representation. When Viola, alias Thomas Kent, appears on the stage and auditions for Romeo’s part, the reawakening of Will’s imagination is emphasised by director John Madden’s suspenseful and gripping mise-en-scene: The despondent Will, lying despondent on the benches of the theatre, stands up as Thomas Kent delivers Valentine’s monologue from The Gentleman of Verona. Whereas Will is at first merely astounded to hear his own words, he is captivated and stumbles towards her on the balcony. String music begins playing and in the course of her passionate speech the cameras take turns slowly zooming in on Viola and Will from the other’s perspective. The scene climaxes in Will’s animated interruption of her, which signals the inspiration he just gained. As the screenplay instructs, “he has found his Romeo”[9]. Later, having entered De Lessepses’ house with some musicians, Will falls in love with Viola at their ball. After a somewhat parodied balcony scene, which ironically serves as Will’s inspiration for the famous balcony scene in the play Romeo and Juliet, the playwright is shown working throughout the night. Numerous pages of script then signify that Will has at last found his muse and literary ability: William Shakespeare has finally become the Shakespeare we imagine.

Norman and Stoppard demonstrate the reawakening of Will’s imagination ... through a sensual and protracted montage that deftly shifts between the text of Will’s life and the act of composing Romeo and Juliet. The Manner in which the scenes blend into one another … represents the porousness of the borders that separate art and life.[10]

This mise-en-scene emphasizes the underlying romantic concept of art. Moreover, Todd Davies identifies major elements of romanticism in the construction of the sequence itself:

The unreality inherent in the montage sequence mirrors the otherworldly quality of the couple’s experience as they wilfully defy the legalistic and social structures that forbid their union.[11]

In the film Shakespeare in Love, Shakespeare is demystified and cut down to size. However, the image of the life-inspired poet-genius is fulfilled again by the end of the movie. Will finds an immortal muse in Viola, “a heroine for all time”[12]. The last scenes of the film emphasize this: while we are presented with Viola walking on a beach, Will’s thoughts are delivered by a voice-over that make her out to be the heroine of his next play, Twelfth Night.

Moving on to another aspect of authorship in Shakespeare in Love, Norman and Stoppard argue for the cultural production of Shakespeare’s plays. They emphasise the variety of sources that contributed to Shakespeare’s text. For example, quotations of London’s citizens (“A plague on both your houses”) and Shakespeare’s own idiom (“Oh I am fortune’s fool”) find their way into Will’s play. Shakespeare in Love admits that Shakespeare’s works were the result of collaboration and not the work of an individual genius writing in isolation. As a matter of fact, most of his play’s plots were not created by his imagination but taken from other sources. The story of Romeo and Juliet was well-known in Shakespeare’s times, and formed the plot of various short stories and poems. Arthur Brook’s poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet is seen to be the direct source that inspired Shakespeare to write his tragedy with the same name. Although the screenwriters most certainly know this, this fact is omitted. Nevertheless, they acknowledge the fact that Shakespeare did not invent the plot himself. Shakespeare in Love presents Christopher Marlowe, “Kit”, a fellow author and Shakespeare’s friend in the movie, suggesting setting, character names and the plot of Romeo and Juliet to Will. This twist in the story accentuates the hack-image that the screenwriters sought to reinforce, as it renders the image of an incapable and unimaginative playwright. In addition, Todd Davis argues that the screenwriters broached the issue of authorship by employing various levels of metanarration.

By referencing numerous textual, cultural, and historical aspects of Shakespeareana, moreover, the film continually reminds us that we are witnessing the construction of a narrative[13].

In reducing the distance between viewer and text, he argues, Shakespeare in Love seeks to reduce the boundaries of composition.

The fact that Marlowe is shown to provide Shakespeare with the basic plot of his new play refers to another problem with Shakespearean authorship: Several scholars and historians denied Shakespeare to be the real author of his texts and have argued that one of his contemporaries, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere was the real author. Shakespeare in Love humorises the fact that today Marlowe is merely known to be a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, by showing the 16th century Shakespeare to be inferior to Marlowe, who is continuously praised and worshipped by Will’s fellow Londoners. However, the film makes a point in revealing Shakespeare to be the author of his works: Marlowe’s death wipes out the possibility that he was the real author. They retort any other theory by presenting the poet’s life in an entirely plausible yet little realistic way. Moreover, they mock any theory that Shakespeare might not have been Shakespeare himself with details such as the souvenir-mug from Stratford-upon-Avon or the plausible explanation for the different spellings of his name: he was procrastinating writing and so practiced his signature.

Regarding the film in the context of Hollywood films in the 1990s, Shakespeare films have become a part of pop culture. Shakespeare in Love adopts a new approach to Shakespeare and his works. Seeking the demystification of the literary genius, it succeeds to render him and his art appealing and easily accessible to a modern audience. Describing his idea of the figure of William Shakespeare, Norman argues that “if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d have a three-picture deal at Warner Brothers, he’d be driving a Porsche, and he’d be living in Bel Air.”[14] Furthermore, it can be argued that, in the tradition of easily digested Hollywood cinema, the transformation of the handsome heterosexual Will into the spiritually inspired genius might in parts be the result of the film makers’ orientation towards 20th century consumer expectation.[15]

Although Shakespeare in Love does not represent a realistic picture of the poets life, it nevertheless considers the facts that are known and supports the traditional version of his life. The film presents Shakespeare as a very humane writer. In positing the idea that inspiration can be found in life’s everyday experience, the film upholds a romantic notion of art and authorship. By the end of the movie, Shakespeare is reinstated as the love-inspired playwright and has discovered his literary genius.


William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, Wordsworth Editions, Kent 1999

Norman, Marc and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love: A Screenplay, Miramax Books 1999

Boose, Lynda E. and Richart Burt (eds.), Shakespeare the Movie II: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, Video and DVD. Routledge: New York and London, 2003

Russel, Jackson (ed.), The Cambridge companion to Shakespeare on film , Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000

Rothwell, Kenneeth S., A history of Shakespeare on screen : a century of film and television, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004

Shellard, Dominic, The British Library writer’s lives: William Shakespeare, Oxford: Oxford UPress, 1998

Kingsley-Smith, Jane, Literature/Film Quarterly (30:3); Salisbury, 2002

Davis, Todd and Kenneth Womack, Reading (and writing) the ethics of authorship: Shakespeare in Love as postmodern metanarrative, Literature/Film Quarterly (32:2), Salisbury 2004

Claudon, Francis, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Romanticism, Chartwell Books, New Jersey 1980


[1] Boose, Lynda E. and Richart Burt (eds.), Shakespeare the Movie II: Popularizing the Plays on Film, p. 68

[2] the title of the play The Two Gentlemen of Verona according to the screenplay, p. 7

[3] Jane Kingsley

[4] Davis, Todd and Kenneth Womack, Shakespeare in Love as postmodern metanarrative

[5] Norman, Marc and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love: A Screenplay, p. 53

[6] Boose,

[7] Russel, Jackson, The Cambridge companion to Shakespeare on film, p. 310

[8] Claudon, Francis, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Romanticism, p. 213

[9] Norman, Marc and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love: A Screenplay, p. 34

[10] Davis, Todd and Kenneth Womack, Shakespeare in Love as postmodern metanarrative

[11] ibid.

[12] Norman, Marc and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love: A Screenplay

[13] Davis, Todd and Kenneth Womack, Shakespeare in Love as postmodern metanarrative

[14] Boose, p. 68

[15] “Shakespeare on Film“ lecture by Fiona Brideoake, May 24th 2006

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The representation of Shakespeare as an author in John Madden's
Shakespeare on Film
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This essay looks at the representation of Shakespeare as an author in John Madden's Shakespeare in Love, and comments on the Shakespeare-hype that took place in the 90s as well as Shakespeare as a cultural phenomenon.
Shakespeare, John, Madden, Film
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Nadine Marik (Author), 2006, The representation of Shakespeare as an author in John Madden's, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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