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.

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

The Definitive Guide to All the Cats in Cats

James Corden, Laurie Davidson, and Francesca Hayward star in Tom Hooper's Cats (2019).
James Corden, Laurie Davidson, and Francesca Hayward star in Tom Hooper's Cats (2019).
Universal Pictures

Regardless of whether you were impressed, confused, or downright frightened by the trailer for Tom Hooper’s upcoming film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical Cats, it’s safe to say that the star-studded cast and “digital fur technology” generated strong reactions all around. And, if you didn’t grow up listening to the soundtrack or watching performers in the 1998 film version purr and prance in furry, feline bodysuits, your shock is completely understandable.

Cats is light on plot, heavy on characters, and sprinkled with words that T.S. Eliot made up for his 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the basis for the musical. To familiarize yourself with all the eccentrically named cats—and find out who’s portraying them in the film—here’s a comprehensive list of every "romantical, pedantical, critical, parasitical, allegorical, metaphorical, statistical, and mystical" cat you’ll meet.

Admetus

admetus cats film 1998
Really Useful Films

Played by: Eric Underwood

Admetus is a ginger and white chorus cat with no spoken lines, but plenty of strong dancing sequences—perfect for former Royal Ballet soloist Eric Underwood. Though some musical productions have renamed Admetus as Plato (both names are mentioned in “The Naming of Cats”), the film will feature them as two separate characters.

Alonzo

Played by: Bluey Robinson

Alonzo is another chorus cat, identifiable by the black patches of fur on his face and the black-and-white stripes on his head. Apart from his ensemble appearances, he has intermittent solo lines and also assists Munkustrap during the fight against Macavity. Since singer/songwriter Bluey Robinson will portray him in the film, it’s possible that Alonzo will dance less than he has in stage productions.

Asparagus, the Theatre Cat

Played by: Sir Ian McKellen

Nicknamed “Gus,” this elderly, trembling tabby has an impressive acting history, which he recounts at length during his song (along with a few disparaging comments about how the theater isn’t what it once was, and kittens these days aren’t properly trained). Who better to play one of the Jellicles’ most well-respected thespians than one of the humans' most well-respected thespians, Sir Ian McKellen?

Bombalurina

Played by: Taylor Swift

Though Bombalurina is only mentioned by name once (in “The Naming of Cats”), she’s pretty hard to miss: the slinky, red-coated cat helps introduce Jennyanydots, the Rum Tum Tugger, Grizabella, Bustopher Jones, and Macavity. She most often sings with Demeter, her duet partner for “Macavity the Mystery Cat.”

Bustopher Jones

Played by: James Corden

Known as “the Brummell of cats,” this black-and-white, epicurean dandy frequents gentlemen’s clubs, wears white spats, and weighs a whopping 25 pounds. Jones’s genial manner endears him to just about everyone—not unlike James Corden.

Cassandra

cassandra in 1998's cats film
Really Useful Films

Played by: Mette Towley

With her sleek brown coat and her regal, mysterious manner, Cassandra seems like she might’ve been worshipped by ancient Egyptians in a past life. You might recognize Mette Towley, a member of Pharrell’s dance group, The Baes, from her appearances in 2019’s Hustlers and Rihanna’s “Lemon” music video—and you can be sure that she’ll uphold Cassandra’s legacy as one of the most eye-catching chorus cats.

Coricopat and Tantomile

Played by: Jaih Betote and Zizi Strallen

These striped twin tabby cats always move in unison and boast psychic abilities. Though the roles are sometimes cut from theatrical productions, we’ll get to see them in the film, played by hip hop dancer Jaih Betote and Zizi Strallen, best known for her work as Mary Poppins in the recent West End revival.

Demeter

demeter in 1998's cats film
Really Useful Films

Played by: Daniela Norman

This multicolored, slightly skittish cat usually duets with Bombalurina, and together they perform “Macavity the Mystery Cat” in full. It’s often implied that Demeter has a complicated romantic past with Macavity, who tries to abduct her during his attack. British ballet dancer Daniela Norman will star opposite Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina in the film, and you can also see her in Netflix’s upcoming ballet drama series Tiny Pretty Things.

Grizabella, the Glamour Cat

Played by: Jennifer Hudson

This aging starlet is now decrepit, depressed, and shamefully rejected by the rest of the Jellicles—think Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with more self-awareness and very raggedy fur. Even if the Cats original cast recording wasn’t the soundtrack for your childhood road trips, you might have heard Grizabella’s song “Memory;” it’s been covered by Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Barry Manilow, Glee’s Chris Colfer, and more. American Idol alum (and general ballad-belting powerhouse) Jennifer Hudson will bring her Academy Award-winning talents to the role of Grizabella in the film.

Growltiger and Griddlebone

Played by: Ray Winstone and Melissa Madden Gray

Growltiger, a rough-riding sea captain cat, and Griddlebone, his fluffy white lover, appear during “Growltiger’s Last Stand,” during which Gus reminisces about having played the part of Growltiger in a stage production long ago. The characters have been left out of some productions, including the 1998 film, but Hooper’s version will feature them, where they'll be played by British actor Ray Winstone and Australian performer Melissa Madden Gray (whose stage name, fittingly, is Meow Meow).

Jellylorum

Played by: Freya Rowley

Named after T.S. Eliot’s own cat, Jellylorum is a maternal calico who cares for Gus and also helps introduce Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones. Though sometimes portrayed as older and more mature than some of the other cats, Freya Rowley (who performed as Tantomile on the UK tour of Cats) will likely bring a younger energy to the character.

Jennyanydots, the Old Gumbie Cat

Played by: Rebel Wilson

Jennyanydots is a goofy old tabby cat who lazes around all day and spends her nights teaching the basement vermin various household skills, etiquette, and performing arts. Under her tutelage, the mice learn to crochet, the cockroaches become helpful boy scouts, and the beetles form a tap-dancing troupe. Rebel Wilson is a perfect match for such a multifaceted, eccentric, and amusing gumbie cat (whatever gumbie is).

Macavity, the Mystery Cat

Played by: Idris Elba

The show’s main antagonist is a tall, thin criminal cat with sunken eyes and dusty ginger fur. While the Jellicles are plainly terrified of this “monster of depravity,” they also seem eerily impressed by his ability to elude capture and conviction. Historically, Macavity hasn’t done any speaking, singing, or dancing—he only shows up briefly to kidnap Old Deuteronomy during a rousing cat fight—but here’s hoping that Hooper has broadened the role for the film so we get to hear at least a good growl or two from Idris Elba.

Mr. Mistoffelees

Played by: Laurie Davidson

Laurie Davidson, who played Shakespeare in TNT’s Will, will take on the role of Mr. Mistoffelees, an affable tuxedo cat who peppers his magic tricks with plenty of high leaps and pizzazz. He’s generally beloved by the rest of the cats, and he also saves the day by conjuring Old Deuteronomy from wherever Macavity had hidden him.

Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer

Played by: Danny Collins and Naoimh Morgan

These two roguish calicos describe themselves as “knockabout clowns, quick-change comedians, tightrope walkers, and acrobats.” They’re also partners in petty crime, notorious for smashing vases, stealing pearls, and generally wreaking havoc upon their posh family in Victoria Grove. British dancer Danny Collins will join Naoimh Morgan—who actually played Rumpleteazer in the Cats international tour—to bring the spirited rascals to life in the film.

Munkustrap

Played by: Robert Fairchild

Without Munkustrap, viewers would have little hope of understanding what’s actually happening in this vaguely plotted musical. Though there’s no song to introduce him, the striking, silver cat is still arguably the most important character: He describes the function of the Jellicle Ball, narrates the action as it unfolds, and leads the charge against Macavity’s attack. It takes a certified musical theater machine to play such an integral part, and Hooper has surely found that in Robert Fairchild, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Tony Award nominee for An American in Paris.

Old Deuteronomy

Played by: Dame Judi Dench

In the gender-swapped role of our dreams, Dame Judi Dench will play Old Deuteronomy, the revered (usually male) town elder who chooses one lucky kitty at the annual Jellicle Ball to ascend to cat heaven, the Heaviside Layer, and be born again. It isn’t Dench’s first time in the junkyard: She was preparing to appear as both Jennyanydots and Grizabella in the original 1981 West End production of Cats when she snapped her Achilles tendon and had to pull out.

Plato and Socrates

Played by: Larry and Laurent Bourgeois (Les Twins)

Though Plato is a chorus cat mentioned in “The Naming of Cats” and included in some stage productions, Socrates was created specifically for Hooper’s film to make room for both halves of Les Twins, also known as Larry and Laurent Bourgeois. The French hip hop duo gained mainstream recognition after Beyoncé featured them in her 2018 Coachella set and subsequent Netflix concert film Homecoming.

Rum Tum Tugger

Played by: Jason Derulo

The Rum Tum Tugger is a perpetually fickle feline with a lot of rock-n’-roll flair and a pair of hips that he seems to have stolen from Mick Jagger himself. In addition to his own song, Tugger also sings “Mr. Mistoffelees” and features in a few other numbers. With Jason Derulo taking on the role for the film, there’s a good chance we’ll see a modernized, moonwalking version of this swoon-worthy cat.

Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat

Played by: Steven McRae

Skimbleshanks is a charming Scottish cat who looks like a friendly tiger and ensures that all is in order on the night trains, which includes everything from patrolling for mice to reminding the guard to ask passengers how they like their tea. With his flaming red hair and graceful precision, Royal Ballet principal dancer Steven McRae definitely has a couple things in common with his character.

Syllabub/Sillabub/Jemima

Played by: Jonadette Carpio

This kitten’s name varies from production to production, but she’s usually characterized by her playful, innocent manner and her willingness to accept Grizabella when the other Jellicles try to shun her. Jonadette Carpio, Philippines native and member of the all-female Krump crew Buckness Personified, will bring her street dance background to the role in the film.

Victoria

Played by: Francesca Hayward

Though lithe, light-footed Victoria doesn’t sing any lines of her own in the original musical, her gleaming white coat and balletic dance solos still make her a standout—so it’s only fitting that Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesca Hayward will bring her to life in the film, where the role has been expanded into a main character. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift even collaborated on a new song called “Beautiful Ghosts” that Hayward will sing in the movie.

Miscellaneous Chorus Cats

Because theater companies vary in size and scope, certain chorus cats are sometimes omitted from productions—or members of the ensemble just aren’t assigned specific characters. At this point, Bill Bailey, Carbucketty, Electra, Etcetera, Peter, Pouncival, Quaxo, Rumpus Cat, Tumblebrutus, and Victor are all chorus cat names that haven’t been given to anybody in the film, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see extra cats in the shadows. According to Dance Spirit, Corey John Snide and Kolton Krause, who played Coricopat and Tumblebrutus on Broadway, respectively, have both been cast as ensemble members in Hooper’s film.

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