confess. Shakespeare in Love was my pick over Saving
Private Ryan in 1999 for best movie of the year. As I've said elsewhere, Private
Ryan isn't even the best war movie of the year, The Thin Red Line, is better. If Ryan features
perhaps the greatest battle scene of all time in its opening twenty minutes, after
that, everything is sequel. On the other hand, Shakespeare in Love
contains one of the most romantic love affairs ever filmed, and, following the
plot lines of Romeo and Juliet, it builds relentlessly toward
its inexorable conclusion. By superimposing an imaginary love story over the narrative
of Shakespeare's writing, rehearsing, and staging his play, Marc Norman and Tom
Stoppard are able to transform the bard's original into a post-modern commentary
on the nature of love.
of poetry and erotic passion that connects Joseph Fiennes
(Will Shakespeare) and Gwyneth Paltrow
(Viola De Lesseps) in this film is unbeatable. This is clearly Paltrow's greatest
performance thus far, and she is a perfect love object for the young playwright
who makes her into Juliet. Remember what Shakespeare's story is all about. A fourteen
year old Juliet, engaged to be married, falls in love with the 17 year old Romeo.
Their relationship would have been regarded as adultery in that day and time.
In the overlay provided by Norman
and Stoppard for this movie, the teen teenager falls for an older, married man.
She is an intern, of sorts, in his theatre company.
affair, whether in the Shakespeare original or the movie overlay, involves all
the "salacious" activity our newspapers have been obsessed about for most of the
past year, but somehow this adultery soars to the point that it is studied by
every high school student in America. Those who are alarmed about the content
of contemporary movies, music, television and other media, should think about
this very carefully. What is the "message" communicated by this work of
Shakespeare transformed into a post-modern morality play?
Professor Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare,
The Invention of the Human, defines what he believes was Shakespeare's
message in Romeo and Juliet. "This play is the largest and most persuasive celebration
of romantic love in Western literature." And the most articulate evangelist
of love in the play is none other than Juliet who declares to Romeo:
bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep: The more I give to thee The
more I have, for both are infinite.
is, she declares in the same dialogue, "the god of my idolatry." This, says
Bloom, is "an epiphany in the religion of love." Epiphanies are, by their
very nature, short lived. And passion, even passionate love, is often closely
related to death. In "Romeo and Juliet," a double suicide provides the
only escape for the young lovers whom the whole world would conspire to separate.
They die, not in punishment for any wrong doing, but because the political and
social realities of late feudal society did not make sufficient room for such
a love as this.
the movie, the star crossed lovers are separated too, but there is a resurrection
of sorts, following a ship wreck along the coast of the New World, and we see
Gwyneth Paltrow walking alone, across an open beach, toward the promised land.
And what are we to make of this story in our world which is, if anything, over
indulgent of such romanticism? Note that Juliet's line about Romeo could
be turned around upon Joseph Fiennes' lips to read, she is "the goddess of my
adultery." And, indeed, the Norman / Stoppard gospel seems to be that such love
will triumph in the end, not only against the narrow norms and conventions of
society, but even against the force of fate and death itself. Forced to choose
between the living God and the god of such idolatry, I would choose the former.
Still, if you want to be swept away, on a flight of fancy, toward the infinite
possibilities of human love, this movie is a good place to begin. Just keep in
mind that love and death are very closely related in the drama which we all live
out here on earth, and one cannot choose one, without in the same breath, choosing
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Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister Publisher of CrossCurrents
Author of God and Science