Deciphering Shakespeare in Love

‘Shakespeare in Love’ is a wonderful film, but as far as historical accuracy is concerned, it’s almost total bunkum from beginning to end.


In my reading around Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre, I’ve come across references to the film Shakespeare in Love to illustrate a point, and I wondered if the writers realised that, as far as historical accuracy is concerned, the film is almost total bunkum from beginning to end.

That’s not to say it isn’t a great film. When I watched it again, pen poised for the purposes of this article, I found myself, once again, crying buckets in the closing scenes. Knowing Shakespeare much better than I had on seeing it the first time, I appreciated much more its wonderful language, wit and masterly construction. However, I was even more aware of its historical inaccuracies.

This is not to disparage the writers and producers of the film. Tom Stoppard, one of Britain’s finest contemporary playwrights, was one of them and I have no doubt that he had made an in-depth study of the period. They knew exactly what they were doing, but I wonder if their audience realised how much fun they were having with the known facts. In effect the script is a parody of the most commonly recognised, but half understood, factoids from the period, tossed in amongst a few cute anachronisms and a lot of wry in-jokes. Unlike the later film Anonymous (see Anonymous: a fraud indeed), despite its historical inaccuracies, Shakespeare in Love is not trying to mislead its audience, but rather to entertain while it educates them.

This article therefore is not to deplore the film as a work of art, or even to denounce the inaccuracies, but rather to allow the viewer to separate fact from fiction, and perhaps enjoy the fiction better for what it is. (Follow the links to see where I have written elsewhere in more depth about some of the points I touch on in this article.)

Before we go on, I do hope the reader knows that the story itself is totally fictitious. As far as we know, Shakespeare never had an affair with a young woman called Viola, his company was never accused of casting a female and even the title of Viola’s intended, the Earldom of Wessex, did not exist at the time, having been last bestowed in the eleventh century and not revived until the end of the twentieth, in fact the year after the film was made.

Shakespeare and Henslowe


Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe
Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe

In the film Henslowe is portrayed as a dodgy theatrical impresario. The real Philip Henslowe was the owner of The Rose playhouse, but it is much more likely that he was a silent partner than an active entrepreneur. His name has come down to us for leaving behind what is probably one of the most important surviving documents about the Elizabethan theatre, a notebook known as Henslowe’s Diary. There he recorded in minute detail all his income and expenditure from The Rose from 1592, including daily listings of the plays performed, payments to writers etc. (see The Secret of Henslowe’s Diary)

Yet for all that detail there is no record of Philip Henslowe ever paying William Shakespeare for a play. In fact this omission has been one of the arguments used against Shakespeare in the Great Authorship Debate. The closest we come to a reference to Shakespeare is the listing of some of his titles in the repertoire of Lord Strange’s Men during their long tenure of The Rose playhouse, and of the Chamberlain’s Men during one short stint. (see Shakespeare and Henslowe)

Shakespeare on the couch

One of the cutest anachronisms in the film is the scene in which Will visits an Elizabethan ‘analyst’ and regales him with phallic metaphors to describe his writer’s block. The analyst is therefore prompted to ask about Will’s sex life and his marriage to Anne Hathaway. The film is accurate in describing the marriage itself. Anne was eight years older than the eighteen year old Will and pregnant, and as they didn’t have any more children after the birth of their twins, it’s safe to assume it was a ‘cold marriage bed’ after that time, as total abstinence was the only reliable form of birth control available. It is also true that he would have been living a bachelor’s existence in London as Anne never joined him there. (see Will and Anne: love story or shotgun wedding? )

However Anne is described as a woman of property, the implication being that Will married her for her cottage — the famous cottage every tourist to Stratford-upon-Avon must see. However, Anne was never in line to inherit that cottage, having an older brother and a couple of younger ones who would inherit well before she did. She could bring nothing more to the marriage than a modest dowry. It’s much more likely that Anne coveted the Shakespeares’ substantial two storey house in the middle of town that Will stood to inherit.

Writing ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Probably the silliest joke in the film is that Shakespeare started off writing Romeo and Juliet as a comedy called ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter’.

Anyone who studied the play in school would know that Shakespeare did not make up the story from scratch, but derived it from existing literary sources. Not only is his play one of three surviving English versions (and it is suspected there may have also been an earlier play, now lost, on the same subject), but it derives from a series of Italian and French versions of the story that even then went back over a hundred years.

Marlowe and Shakespeare


Rupert Everet as Christopher Marlowe
Rupert Everet as Christopher Marlowe

One point in the film that was very true, albeit in a metaphorical sense, was the relationship between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Although the scene between them in which Marlowe advises Will on where to go next with the play could never have happened, it does epitomise their artistic relationship.

While they were exactly the same age, Marlowe’s career, aided by his university education, blossomed long before Shakespeare’s. It was Marlowe who created the revolution in play-writing that Shakespeare took up, and pioneered the blank verse style in which he wrote. While the scholarly mainstream, the Oxford University Press, no less, has finally conceded that Marlowe co-authored the Henry VI trilogy, there is no clear cut evidence that they knew each other personally, but given how small the London theatre world was, and this collaboration, it’s more than likely that they met. (see Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare)

I particularly liked the film’s depiction of Marlowe that avoided the usual clichés in which he is portrayed either as dark and brooding or touchy and violent. Rupert Everett’s Marlowe is reserved but friendly, gracious and generous in helping Shakespeare plot his play. (see Christopher Marlowe’s History of Violence)

The details of Marlowe’s death are still in contention, even after the discovery of the coroner’s report in 1925. It describes his death as the result of a rather improbable fight between friends after dining in a respectable lodging house. Although the news might have taken more than a couple of hours to reach London, it was generally believed at the time that he died in a tavern brawl. (see A Fateful Day in Deptford: the ‘Death’ of Christopher Marlowe)

Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn


Ben Affleck as Edward Alleyn
Ben Affleck as Edward Alleyn

The film correctly identifies Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn as the star players of their time. However, in 1593 Edward Alleyn was an established star of several years’ standing, while Richard, a couple of years younger, was still struggling in his wake. (see Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe)

Edward Alleyn had made his name with the Lord Admiral’s Men which were originally formed in 1585. However after a falling out between him and the Burbages in 1590 there was a general shake-out of the companies and Alleyn ended up with Lord Strange’s Men. He would return to the Admiral’s Men when they were re-organised in 1594.

At the time, Richard Burbage was most likely with the Earl of Pembroke’s Men, a company probably put together by his family after the shake-out left Richard in limbo. It lasted only a couple of years at most and its members went on to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594. (see The Troublesome Reign of James Burbage – Part 3 )

The Playwright and the Play


Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare

The film is also quite anachronistic in its depiction of how plays were commissioned, owned and paid for. There are suggestions that companies stole plays from each other, and that playwrights sold their plays to more than one company. In the days when all plays were handwritten, meaning there could not be more than one or two copies, the owner of the play was the person who held the manuscript. This was not the author as he lost all rights to the play once it was sold.

The plays were generally purchased by playing companies, which had to have the play licensed by the Master of the Revels before they could perform it. The licence also gave the company the exclusive right to the play.

From my own perusal of Henslowe’s Diary I have come to the conclusion that plays may sometimes have been sold by one company to another. Plays were also purchased by individuals. Edward Alleyn seems to have bought plays from both Marlowe and Shakespeare and took these plays with him as he moved from one company to another. Such exchanges would have given the impression to later researchers that the plays were stolen or sold more than once by the playwright. (The Name on The Title Page )

In the film Marlowe is offered £20 for his last play. The going price for plays at the time was £5–6. I doubt that even Marlowe could have commanded £20.

The Rose, The Curtain and The Theatre


Martin Clunes as Richard Burbage
Martin Clunes as Richard Burbage

The film sets up the rivalry between two playhouses, The Rose and The Curtain, to parallel the rivalry between the two houses of Capulet and Montague. However, by doing so it omits a much more important playhouse, The Theatre, London’s first purpose built playhouse. In the film The Curtain is presented as the venue for the premier of Romeo and Juliet based on a slim reference suggesting that the play was once performed there. However, it is much more likely that it premiered at The Theatre.

The Theatre had been built by James Burbage, Richard Burbage’s father. James Burbage played a very important role in the development of Elizabethan theatre, but the description Richard gives of him in the film is quite inaccurate. He says his father acquired the first licence to form a playing company and commissioned the work of great poets. The true story is rather different.

James Burbage was a player with the Earl of Leicester’s Men when, in 1574, Leicester acquired the first royal patent for his company, assuring them of the Queen’s legal protection. Burbage’s name was the first of the members of the company listed on the patent. In 1576 Burbage left Leicester’s Men and built The Theatre which was available for hire by any touring company. He then went on to take over The Curtain as well, a smaller playhouse a couple of hundred metres away. In 1593 he would have been running both of them concurrently. (see The Burbages: First Family of Theatre)

Philip Henslowe built The Rose in 1587 and leased it out. In 1592 he resumed the lease and went into partnership with his soon-to-be son-in-law Edward Alleyn who brought Lord Strange’s Men with him and his brother John as administrator. (see The Secrets of Henslowe’s Diary)

The actual rivalry, therefore, was between the Burbages at The Theatre and the Alleyns at The Rose.

Players and the playing company

The film includes one of the enduring clichés of theatrical and musical films, the auditions sequence. This is another anachronism. An impresario could not just decide to put on a play and put together an ad hoc cast. All playing companies had to have the patent of a noble patron and the plays they performed had to be licensed. Elizabethan playing companies were repertory companies comprised of a core group of sharers who ran the company plus hired men and boy apprentices. They performed a repertoire of plays, a different play every day, and most likely each player played several roles in each play. (see The Elizabethan Playing Companies)

I doubt the concept of an audition would even have been understood at the time as players were apprenticed as boys and though they may have moved from company to company they would have been hired based on their all-round experience and versatility rather than their ability to play one particular part.

Chamberlain’s Men and Admiral’s Men

Another highlight in the film is the all-out brawl between the Chamberlain’s Men and the Admiral’s Men. Unfortunately, this could never have happened in 1593, the date of the film, because at that point the Chamberlain’s Men did not yet exist. In fact, after the general shake-up, with the loss of Edward Alleyn and several others of their major players, the Admiral’s Men itself was merely a rump of a company confined to touring the provinces.

It was not until 1594 that the duopoly was formed under the patronage of two of the most powerful men in the country and under the leadership of the country’s pre-eminent theatrical families. Under the Alleyns, the Lord Admiral’s Men took up residence at the Rose, and under the Burbages, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at The Theatre. (see The Troublesome Reign of James Burbage – Part 3 )

The Playhouses and the Plague

However, all this is a moot point because none of the playhouses were open in May 1593 when the film is set, a date chosen so that the plot could revolve around Marlowe’s death which occurred in that month.

As a result of plague and social unrest, the London playhouses had been closed almost continuously since the previous June, opening for only a few short weeks for the Christmas season. All of the playing companies were struggling. Those that could went on tour in the country, others folded.

It was largely as a result of this disruption that the playing companies had to be re-organised on a more stable basis and so the duopoly was formed.

Master of the Revels


Simon Callow as Master Tilney
Simon Callow as Master Tilney

Edmund Tilney was indeed the Master of the Revels and in charge of licensing plays and playing companies. However, although he had the power to censor plays, his chief role was to provide entertainment to the court. Early in her reign, Queen Elizabeth found that it was cheaper to outsource entertainment than to produce it in-house. (Sound familiar?) So rather than stage the elaborate masques enjoyed by her father, Elizabeth encouraged her courtiers to patronise touring playing companies and the best companies would be invited to perform at court. It was Tilney’s job to see the plays and decide if they were good enough to get an invitation.

Although the Master of the Revels might assist in enforcing the orders, it was not up to him, but for the city authorities or the Privy Council, to order the closure of playhouses at times of plague and social unrest.

It would be difficult to judge if Tilney was corrupt, but he had a great deal of power and held the post until his death in 1610. Regular payments to Tilney are recorded in Henslowe’s Diary, but these were most likely legitimate fees. However, he did keep those fees for himself, not because he was corrupt, but because it was the way Elizabeth ran her government. Instead of paying her officials, she gave them the right to collect certain fees and taxes.

The First Performance of Romeo and Juliet

However, where this film is very true is in its depiction of the Elizabethan playhouse and how it operated. The reconstructions of the playhouses and the performances were exquisite. One cause of my tears when I watched the performance of Romeo and Juliet was imagining how it would feel to be in that very first audience, to be one of the illiterate groundlings who didn’t know how the story would end, or one of the players standing backstage bewildered by the silence, then overwhelmed by the rapturous applause. (see The Elizabethan Playing Companies)


So despite all the inaccuracies, I would certainly recommend this film to anyone who loves Shakespeare, who enjoys a beautiful love story or who wants to get a feel for the Elizabethan theatre, as long as you remember that the producers are just having a bit of fun.


© Pauline Montagna 2016

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