12 Facts About Shakespeare in Love

Miramax
Miramax

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.

10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars

Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Winning an Oscar is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you're Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you'd think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are (we're looking at you, Colin Firth).

1. Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie with her Oscar in 2000.
HO/AMPAS

At the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, after Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world collectively squirm, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage when Marcheline died in 2007, but it hasn't yet surfaced. "I didn't actually lose it," Jolie said, "but nobody knows where it is at the moment."

2. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg with her Oscar.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. "Oscar will never leave my house again," Goldberg said.

3. Olympia Dukakis

Olympia Dukakis with an Oscar statue.
Steven Henry/Getty Images

When Olympia Dukakis's Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. "For $78," they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando in 1957.
Keystone/Getty Images

"I don't know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront," Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. "Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared." He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. "The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don't know where it is now."

5. Jeff Bridges

Actor Jeff Bridges, winner of Best Actor award for
Jeff Bridges, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart, poses in the press room at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In 2010, Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges won his first-ever Oscar for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the time next year's ceremony rolled around, when he was nominated yet again for his role in the Coen brothers's True Grit

When asked about his year-old statuette, Bridges admitted that "It's been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now." Finding the MIA Oscar seemed even more urgent when Bridges lost the 2011 Best Actor Oscar to Colin Firth for The King's Speech. "I'm hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven't won a spare," Bridges said. "But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better." 

6. Colin Firth

Colin Firth with his Oscar in 2011.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed Colin Firth as he said those aforementioned words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. Matt Damon

Actor Matt Damon in 1999
Brenda Chase/Hulton Archive

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn't sure where his award went. "I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it," Damon said in 2007.

8. Margaret O'Brien

Child actress Margaret O'Brien.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1945, 7-year-old Margaret O'Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O'Briens' maid took the award home to polish it, as she had done before, but never returned. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O'Brien's mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There's a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O'Brien. "I'll never give it to anyone to polish again," she said.

9. Bing Crosby

Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944's Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school's library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a 3-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. "I wanted to make people laugh," the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. Hattie McDaniel

A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting A
A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

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