There is a boatman in "Shakespeare in Love" who ferries Shakespeare across the Thames while bragging, "I had Christopher Marlowe in my boat once." As Shakespeare steps ashore, the boatman tries to give him a script to read. The contemporary feel of the humor (like Shakespeare's coffee mug, inscribed "Souvenir of Stratford-Upon-Avon") makes the movie play like a contest between "Masterpiece Theatre" and Mel Brooks. Then the movie stirs in a sweet love story, juicy court intrigue, backstage politics and some lovely moments from "Romeo and Juliet" (Shakespeare's working title: "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter").
Is this a movie or an anthology? I didn't care. I was carried along by the wit, the energy and a surprising sweetness. The movie serves as a reminder that Will Shakespeare was once a young playwright on the make, that theater in all times is as much business as show, and that "Romeo and Juliet" must have been written by a man in intimate communication with his libido. The screenplay is by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, whose play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" approached "Hamlet" from the points of view of two minor characters.
"Shakespeare in Love" is set in late Elizabethan England (the queen, played as a young woman by Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth," is played as an old one here by Judi Dench). Theater in London is booming--when the theaters aren't closed, that is, by plague warnings or bad debts. Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is not as successful as the popular Marlowe (Rupert Everett), but he's a rising star, in demand by the impecunious impresario Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), whose Rose Theater is in hock to a money lender, and Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes), whose Curtain Theater has Marlowe and would like to sign Shakespeare.
The film's opening scenes provide a cheerful survey of the business of theater--the buildings, the budgets, the script deadlines, the casting process. Shakespeare, meanwhile, struggles against deadlines and complains in therapy that his quill has broken (his therapist raises a Freudian eyebrow). What does it take to renew his energy? A sight of the beautiful Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a rich man's daughter with the taste to prefer Shakespeare to Marlowe, and the daring to put on men's clothes and audition for a role in Will's new play.