12 Facts About Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love will likely never win any accolades for its historical accuracy, but that doesn't stop it from being one of the most romantic movies of all time. The 1998 film, which cleaned up the following year at the Academy Awards, told the tale of a writer's-block-stricken William "Will" Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), and how he went on to compose his most famous love story, Romeo and Juliet.
While Shakespeare in Love's version of how Romeo and Juliet came to be is an imagined one—the movie's plot has the penniless Will falling for the fictional Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wealthy merchant's daughter who subsequently becomes his muse—many of the characters in the film did exist in real life. Still, as the old saying goes, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," which explains co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard's argument that it's okay for the movie to be a far cry from reality.
"This film is entertainment," Stoppard told The New York Times in 1998, "which doesn't require it to be justified in the light of historical theory."
That being said, there are some honest-to-goodness facts that can be culled from Shakespeare in Love, which took home more than $300 million at the worldwide box office. So read on for 12 things you may not have known about this lavish, Elizabethan-era rom-com, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
1. It caused a major Oscar upset.
In what is still regarded as one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history, Shakespeare in Love won the Best Picture trophy in 1999 over Steven Spielberg's WWII masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. While Saving Private Ryan garnered a win for Best Director for Spielberg, and finished out the evening with five awards total, Shakespeare in Love remained on top with seven Oscars. These included Gwyneth Paltrow's Best Actress win for her portrayal of Viola de Lesseps, Judi Dench's Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Queen Elizabeth I, and Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's award for Best Original Screenplay.
2. Judi Dench had less than 10 minutes of screen time, but still snagged an Oscar.
Queen Elizabeth I appears a total of three times in Shakespeare in Love, but that didn't stop a powerhouse like Dame Judi Dench from stealing each of her scenes from the rest of her fellow actors. Still, when she won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role (see video above), Dench immediately acknowledged the awkwardness of being honored for an eight-minute performance. More than a decade after Dame Judi's win, the argument continues to be made that the Shakespeare in Love Oscar was a consolation prize for Dench not being given the Best Actress trophy the previous year for her portrayal of another English monarch, Queen Victoria, in Mrs. Brown.
3. The two actresses who played Dench's ladies in waiting in Shakespeare in Love also played her attendants in Mrs. Brown.
Guess it's hard to find good help in any time period, be it the 1500s or the 1800s: Bridget McConnell and Georgie Glen played Judi Dench's courtiers in both Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown. While serving Dench's Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, they were given the anonymous "ladies in waiting" billing. However, as attendants to Dame Judi's Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown, McConnell appeared as "Lady Ely" and Glen as "Lady Churchill." This repeat casting is hardly a coincidence considering both Shakespeare in Love and Mrs. Brown were directed by John Madden.
4. Jim Carter, who played butler Carson on Downton Abbey, also played a servant in Shakespeare in Love.
The man who will forever be known as the Crawley family’s faithful butler Carson in Downton Abbey portrayed (fictional) actor Ralph Bashford in Shakespeare in Love. As was the custom of the time, women were banned from performing in the theater, so actors like Ralph had to take on the female parts. Carter’s character played Juliet’s Nurse in the final production of Romeo and Juliet, slipping out of his affected high-pitched voice upon realizing Paltrow’s Viola had illegally stepped into the role of Juliet.
Another fun fact about Carter’s portrayal of Ralph/Nurse? The actor’s real-life wife, Imelda Staunton, played Viola's Nurse, who inspired the Romeo and Juliet role in the film. Both Carter's and Staunton's performances can be viewed in the above clip.
5. Many of the film's characters are real historical figures.
The story of Shakespeare in Love may be fictional, but in addition to William Shakespeare, his rival Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett) and, as previously mentioned, Queen Elizabeth I, many of the other characters featured in the film did exist during the Bard's time. Elizabethan-era actors Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes) and Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck) were indeed the equivalent of modern Hollywood superstars—Affleck even referred to Alleyn as "the Tom Cruise of his day.
Geoffrey Rush's buffoonish, always-in-debt theater manager Philip Henslowe may appear to be someone straight out of the creative mind of Tom Stoppard (who, let's not forget, gave us Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), but he, too, was a real person; his diaries defend the idea that he was as much of a kook as the film suggests.
6. QUEEN ELIZABETH II’S YOUNGEST CHILD, PRINCE EDWARD, ASKED TO BE TITLED AFTER COLIN FIRTH’S CHARACTER.
When Prince Edward got married in 1999, his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was going to make him the Duke of Cambridge (the title eventually bestowed upon Prince William when he married Kate Middleton in 2011). However, according to a 2010 article in The Telegraph, Edward asked to be styled the Earl of Wessex instead, after seeing Shakespeare in Love and noticing Colin Firth's fictional character was named "Lord Wessex." Apparently the prince just liked the sound of “Wessex” (there is no proof that he was a fan of Firth’s snobbish and greedy nobleman). Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, are now known as the Earl and Countess of Wessex.
7. Lord Wessex took his new wife to a colony that didn't exist.
Spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the film: Will and Viola don't end up together. Instead, Paltrow's character honors her duty by marrying the loathsome Lord Wessex and agreeing to accompany him to his tobacco plantation in Virginia. There's one tiny snag with that plan: Shakespeare in Love takes place in 1593, and the first American colony wouldn't be established for another 14 years. Then again, it would make sense that someone as idiotic as Lord Wessex would make arrangements to move halfway across the world to a place that existed only in his head.
8. The movie's cast participated in a classroom video supplement on Shakespeare.
Those of us who were in school during the late 1990s and had a cool enough teacher to pop in this educational video got a chance to learn all about William Shakespeare from such experts as Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Dame Judi Dench, Ben Affleck and Geoffrey Rush. "Shakespeare in the Classroom" used Shakespeare in Love as a visual and historical aid to teach students about life during the Bard's time.
9. The film is peppered with references to multiple Shakespeare works.
Before Will even begins writing Romeo and Juliet, he overhears a minister ranting about "a plague on both your houses!" (which would eventually become one of Mercutio's most famous lines in the play). Other notable works by the Bard referenced in Shakespeare in Love include Hamlet (Will tosses a crumpled-up paper at a skull), Twelfth Night (Paltrow's character of Viola, with both her name and tendency to cross-dress, is suggested to have inspired the future Shakespeare comedy) and "Sonnet 18" (Will compares Viola to "a summer's day").
10. PALTROW SAYS HER BREAKUP WITH BRAD PITT ALMOST COST HER THE OSCAR-WINNING ROLE OF VIOLA DE LESSEPS.
During an interview with Howard Stern in January 2015, Paltrow opened up about how she initially turned down the part of Viola de Lesseps, citing emotional distress following her breakup with Brad Pitt. Paltrow told Stern that she was "very sad" and said, "'I'm not going to work' and all that nonsense" (listen above at around 31:20). Eventually, she was persuaded by Miramax producer Paul Webster to go out for the role, and the rest is Oscar history.
11. The boy who exposes Viola's deception is future playwright John Webster.
In Shakespeare in Love, Viola de Lesseps secretly poses as male actor Thomas Kent in order to subvert the laws preventing women from performing onstage. However, her scam is revealed by a meddling, rat-loving street urchin, who happens to go by the name of John Webster. Webster would go on to make a name for himself as a writer of grisly plays such as The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil.
Early in the film, the dialogue includes a tip of the hat to Webster's penchant for gore, when Will asks the teenage ragamuffin his opinion of Titus Andronicus: "I like it when they cut the heads off," answers young Webster. "And the daughter mutilated with knives … Plenty of blood. That's the only writing."
12. The film is a fictional examination of what the Bard was up to at the end of his so-called "Lost Year."
One of the reasons co-screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard were able to take so many liberties with the script was that not much is known about Shakespeare's life between the years 1585 and 1592. (The aforementioned educational video featuring the Shakespeare in Love cast alludes to this fact as well; other than a few dates pertaining to his marriage, christening, and death, there wasn't a lot of concrete evidence available regarding the playwright's life.)
"What's glorious is that so little is known about this period that you're not trapped by any kind of historical circumstance," director John Madden told The New York Times in 1998.
This article originally appeared in 2016.