Shakespeare in Love (1998)

There are people who will respond to criticism of a movie they like by saying, “Well, it’s just a movie.” Rather than answer the criticism, they indicate their lack of interest in discussing the movie with that dismissive remark. But then there are those who will respond to criticism of a comedy by saying, “Well, it’s just a comedy.” Somehow, this seems to be a more defensible position, for they are saying that serious criticism may be appropriate for serious movies, but a comedy, by its very nature, is not serious, and thus is exempt.

In reality, the only thing that makes a comedy immune from criticism is laughter. When a comedy makes us laugh, no criticism can touch it; when a comedy does not make us laugh, however, it deserves all the criticism we care to bring against it, even though the absence of laughter says it all. And Shakespeare in Love is just such a comedy.

The Academy is hesitant about handing out the award of Best Picture to a comedy, because that would seem to be beneath the dignity of the institution. Shakespeare in Love, however, being about the title character, insulates the Academy from being thought lowbrow, thereby permitting its members to embrace such a comedy. The fact that the movie is not really funny did not bother them. All that mattered was the glow of culture that radiated from the Academy when they voted for this film. In short, a movie about Shakespeare is Oscar bait, and the members bit.

Nietzsche once said that Homer would never have created an Achilles, nor Goethe a Faust, had Homer been an Achilles, or Goethe a Faust. This goes contrary to the way a lot of people think. They like to imagine that an author must be like the characters he creates. Shakespeare in Love plays off this notion, for it would have us believe that Shakespeare’s inspiration for Romeo and Juliet was that of a real life love affair that he had, with all sorts of parallels, balcony scene included, between what happened to him and the play he finally wrote. But to paraphrase Nietzsche, Shakespeare would never have created a Romeo had he been a Romeo.

The movie dares us not to be amused, even if we cannot bring ourselves to laugh. Bits and pieces of Romeo and Juliet, along with some of Shakespeare’s other plays, are strewn throughout the movie in a disorganized way, the idea being that the elements of all these plays just need to be put together in the right way, as we know they eventually will. Every such reference flatters us for catching the allusion, and we can display our sophisticated familiarity with these quotations from plays not yet written by chuckling, whereas if we merely sit there in the movie theater without exhibiting the slightest bit of mirth, others may think us lacking in culture and refinement.

When we watch a Shakespearian comedy being performed today and find ourselves not laughing, we are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. We allow that it might have been funny when it was first performed four centuries ago. With Shakespeare in Love, we know better.

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