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Shakespeare in Love

This paper attempts to present a brief discussion of the movie “Shakespeare in Love” in terms of its historical accuracy.  As we shall see, there are many instances in which the film is not particularly accurate.  It should be remembered, however, that the movie really makes no pretensions to being true history.  It is a comedy set in the past and part of its charm, its wit, derives from the fact that it deliberately transposes twentieth century social conventions back into Elizabethan England (e.g. Henslowe’s “cash flow” problem).  But, having said that, some of the movie’s inaccuracies are so glaring, and so apparently unnecessary, as to make one wonder why its writers were not more careful.

Shakespeare in Love

The first inaccuracy occurs at the very opening of the play, which gives the date of the action of the movie, which revolves around the writing of Romeo and Juliet, as occurring in 1593.  There is a broad consensus among Shakespeare scholars that Romeo and Juliet was written in 1595.  Nor is this the only inaccuracy that occurs with respect to the movie in terms of dating.  At the end of the movie Queen Elizabeth advises Shakespeare to consider writing something for Twelfth Night and we are shown Shakespeare in the act of composing the play of that name.  But the consensus for the dating of Twelfth Night is 1601. 

Another departure from accuracy is the movie’s depiction of the way in which Shakespeare wrote the play. It shows him as being the creator of the plot and as modifying it to conform to the events in his own love life. But Shakespeare got almost all of his plots ready-made from earlier sources.  Romeo and Juliet was no exception to this; it was derived from the work of Bandello, an Italian novelist of the 16th century, and from a poem by Richard Brooke, written in 1562.  If Romeo and Juliet did contain topical material, that would have been drawn not from one of his own love affairs (fictional), but from a feud between the Danvers and Long families in Wiltshire in 1594.

There are numerous literary inaccuracies in the movie including this curious one.  Shakespeare describes his “muse” as being Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.  But Aphrodite was not one of the Nine Muses (the muse of tragedy was Melpomene) and had nothing to do with them.  This distinction is by no means trivial, for Shakespeare, like every highly literate person in Tudor England, knew a great deal about classical Greek mythology.

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