In 1593 London, William Shakespeare is a sometime player in the Lord Chamberlain's Men and poor playwright for Philip Henslowe, owner of The Rose Theatre. Shakespeare is working on a new comedy, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter. Suffering from writer's block, he has barely begun the play, and is further distracted by attempts both to seduce Rosaline, the mistress of Richard Burbage, owner of the rival Curtain Theatre and to convince Burbage to buy the play from Henslowe. Shakespeare receives helpful advice on his play from rival playwright Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe', but becomes despondent when he learns Rosaline is sleeping with Edmund Tilney, the powerful Master of Revels. Henslowe, who is in debt to the ruthless moneylender Fennyman and in desperate need for a new play, begins auditions anyway.
Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, who has seen Shakespeare's plays at court, disguises herself as a man named Thomas Kent to audition. "He" gains Shakespeare's interest when he auditions with a speech from Two Gentlemen of Verona after a series of actors bore him by reciting Christopher Marlowe, but when Shakespeare questions her, Viola runs away in fear of being discovered. Shakespeare pursues Kent to Viola's house and leaves a note with the nurse, asking Thomas Kent to begin rehearsals at the Rose. He sneaks into the house with the minstrels playing that night at the ball, where Viola's parents are arranging her betrothal to Lord Wessex, an impoverished aristocrat. While dancing with Viola, Shakespeare is struck speechless, but is forcibly ejected by Wessex. Wessex also asks Will's name, to which he replies that he is Christopher Marlowe after Wessex threatens to kill him. Shakespeare sneaks into Viola's garden, finding her on her balcony, where they briefly confess their mutual attraction to each other before he is discovered by her nurse and flees.
Inspired by Viola, Shakespeare writes quickly, completely transforming the play into what will become Romeo and Juliet. Rehearsals begin, with "Thomas Kent" as Romeo, the leading tragedian Ned Alleyn as Mercutio and the stagestruck Fennyman given a small role as the Apothocary. Shakespeare soon discovers Viola's true identity, and they begin a secret affair.
Viola is summoned to court to receive approval for her proposed marriage to Lord Wessex. Shakespeare accompanies her, disguised as her female cousin. There, he persuades Wessex to wager £50 that a play can capture the true nature of love, the exact amount Shakespeare requires to buy a share in the Chamberlain's Men. Queen Elizabeth I declares that she will judge the matter when the occasion arises.
When Burbage finds out that Shakespeare has both seduced Rosaline and cheated him out of the money he was paid for the play, he goes to the Rose Theatre with his Curtain Theatre Company and starts a brawl. The Rose Theatre company drives Burbage and his company out and then celebrate at the local pub, where a drunken Henslowe lets slip to a horrified Viola that Shakespeare is married, albeit separated from his wife. News arrives that Marlowe has been murdered, and a guilt-ridden Shakespeare believes Wessex has had Marlowe killed, believing him to be Viola's lover. Viola briefly believes Shakespeare has been murdered but he appears at her church, terrifying Wessex who believes he is a ghost. Viola confesses her love for Shakespeare, but both recognize she cannot escape her duty to marry Wessex.
John Webster, an unpleasant young boy who hangs around the theater, spies on Will and Viola making love and informs Tilney, who closes the Rose for breaking the ban on women actors. Viola's identity is exposed, leaving them without a stage or lead actor, until Richard Burbage offers them his theatre and the heartbroken Shakespeare takes the role of Romeo. Following her wedding, Viola learns that the play will be performed that day, and runs away to the Curtain. Planning to watch with the crowd, Viola overhears that the boy playing Juliet cannot perform, his voice having broken overnight, and Henslowe asks her to replace him. She plays Juliet to Shakespeare's Romeo to an enthralled audience.
Master Tilney arrives to arrest everyone for indecency due to Viola's presence, but the Queen reveals herself having been in attendance and restrains Tilney, instead asserting that Kent's resemblance to a woman is, indeed, remarkable. However, even a queen is powerless to end a lawful marriage, and she orders Kent to "fetch" Viola because she must sail with Wessex to the Colony of Virginia. The Queen also tells Wessex, who followed Viola to the theatre, that Romeo and Juliet has won the bet for Shakespeare, and has Kent deliver his £50 with instructions to write something "a little more cheerful next time, for Twelfth Night".
Viola and Shakespeare say their goodbyes, and he vows to immortalise her, as he imagines the beginnings of Twelfth Night, imagining her as a castaway disguised as a man after a voyage to a strange land.
The original idea for Shakespeare in Love came to screenwriter Marc Norman in the late 1980s after a rudimentary pitch from his son Zachary. Norman wrote a draft screenplay which he presented to director Edward Zwick, which attracted Julia Roberts, who agreed to play Viola. However, Zwick disliked Norman's screenplay and hired the playwright Tom Stoppard to improve it (Stoppard's first major success had been with the Shakespeare-themed play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead).
The film went into production in 1991 at Universal, with Zwick as director, but although sets and costumes were in construction, Shakespeare had not yet been cast, because Roberts insisted that only Daniel Day-Lewis could play the role. Day-Lewis was uninterested, and when Roberts failed to persuade him, she withdrew from the film, six weeks before shooting was due to begin. The production went into turnaround, and Zwick was unable to persuade other studios to take up the screenplay.
Eventually, Zwick got Miramax interested in the screenplay, but Miramax chose John Madden as director. Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein acted as producer, and persuaded Ben Affleck to take a small role as Ned Alleyn.
The film was considerably reworked after the first test screenings. The scene with Shakespeare and Viola in the punt was re-shot, to make it more emotional, and some lines were re-recorded to clarify the reasons why Viola had to marry Wessex. The ending was re-shot several times, until Stoppard eventually came up with the idea of Viola suggesting to Shakespeare that their parting could inspire his next play.
Among the locations used in the production were Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (for the fireworks scene), Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire (which played the role of the de Lesseps home), the beach at Holkham in Norfolk, the chapel at Eton College, Berkshire, and the Great Hall of Middle Temple, London.
After the film's release, certain publications, including Private Eye, noted strong similarities between the film and the 1941 novel No Bed for Bacon, by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, which also features Shakespeare falling in love and finding inspiration for his later plays. In a foreword to a subsequent edition of No Bed for Bacon (which traded on the association by declaring itself "A Story of Shakespeare and Lady Viola in Love") Ned Sherrin, Private Eye insider and former writing partner of Brahms', confirmed that he had lent a copy of the novel to Stoppard after he joined the writing team, but that the basic plot of the film had been independently developed by Marc Norman, who was unaware of the earlier work.
The film's plot can claim a tradition in fiction reaching back to Alexandre Duval's "Shakespeare amoureux ou la Piece a l'Etude" (1804), in which Shakespeare falls in love with an actress who is playing Richard III.
The writers of Shakespeare in Love were sued in 1999 by bestselling author Faye Kellerman. She claimed that the plotline was stolen from her 1989 novel The Quality of Mercy, in which Shakespeare romances a Jewish woman who dresses as a man, and attempts to solve a murder. Miramax Films spokesman Andrew Stengel derided the claim, filed in the US District Court six days before the 1999 Academy Awards, as "absurd", and argued that the timing "suggests a publicity stunt".
The film is "not constrained by worries about literary or historical accuracy" and includes anachronisms such as a reference to Virginia tobacco plantations, at a time before the Colony of Virginia existed. A leading character is a member of the House of Wessex, which died out in 1066. Elizabeth I never entered a public theatre, as she does in the film. Between Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote ten other plays over a period of six years. The biggest historical liberty concerns the central theme of Shakespeare struggling to create the story of Romeo and Juliet as he simply adapted an existing story for theatre. The Italian verse tale The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet had been translated into English by Arthur Brooke in 1562, 32 years before Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
Janet Maslin made the film an "NYT Critics' Pick", calling it "pure enchantment". According to Maslin, "Gwyneth Paltrow, in her first great, fully realized starring performance, makes a heroine so breathtaking that she seems utterly plausible as the playwright's guiding light." Roger Ebert, who gave the film four stars out of four, wrote: "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... Is this a movie or an anthology? I didn't care. I was carried along by the wit, the energy and a surprising sweetness."
Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a 92% positive rating based on 131 critics' reviews with an average rating of 8.3 out of 10. The critics' consensus states: "Endlessly witty, visually rapturous, and sweetly romantic, Shakespeare in Love is a delightful romantic comedy that succeeds on nearly every level."
Shakespeare in Love was among 1999's box office number-one films in the United Kingdom. The U.S. box office reached over $100 million; including the box office from the rest of the world, the film took in over $289 million.
The Sunday Telegraph claimed that the film prompted the revival of the title of Earl of Wessex. Prince Edward was originally to have been titled Duke of Cambridge following his marriage to Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999, the year after the film's release. However, after watching Shakespeare in Love, he reportedly became attracted to the title of the character played by Colin Firth, and asked Queen Elizabeth II to be given the title of Earl of Wessex instead.
American Film Institute recognition:AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – #50
In 2005, the Writers Guild of America ranked its script the 28th greatest ever written.The film was spoofed and homaged, along with Star Wars, in the 1999 short film George Lucas in Love.
The film was seen and frequently interrupted by Brenda Meeks in Scary Movie.
In November 2011, Variety reported that Disney Theatrical Productions intended to produce a stage version of the film in London with Sonia Friedman Productions. The production was officially announced in November 2013.
The production opened at the Noël Coward Theatre in London's West End on 23 July 2014, receiving rave reviews from critics. It was called "A joyous celebration of theatre" in the Daily Telegraph, "Joyous" in The Independent, and "A love letter to theatre" in The Guardian.
Based on the film screenplay by Norman and Stoppard, it was adapted for the stage by Lee Hall. The production was directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod, the joint founders of Cheek by Jowl.