Hello and welcome to Is This Problematic? the ongoing thought experiment where we (Brooke and Shannon) revisit the films of the past and near-past with a feminist lens and ask ourselves the tough questions about the narratives that shaped the culture, and our younger selves.
The film: Shakespeare in Love
It gave us one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in Academy Awards history (beating out Saving Private Ryan for the little gold man), a supporting actress nod for one of the briefest performances in Oscar history (Judi Dench as Elizabeth I), and the best ‘shipping experience since we devoured Romeo and Juliet in 9th grade English. 1998’s Shakespeare in Love gave us the story of William Shakespeare and the fictional Viola De Lesseps, a pair of star-crossed lovers whose passion for each other sets the stage for the Bard’s future works.
B, I think we’d do our dear readers a disservice if we don’t first address the elephant (read: monster) in the room. Did producer Harvey Weinstein ooze his creeper goo all over this feature?
B: Ugh, Harvey. Isn’t he a spectacularly ripe plague boil on this otherwise ravishing production? I have no doubt that Harvey was critical in orchestrating the talent in this picture. His name carried massive weight in the late 90s, after all — Miramax was to the cinephiles of Gen X what A24 is to me. It was the studio where auteurs went to make the films the other studios wouldn’t touch. It was a powerhouse, creatively and in the awards circuit. Miramax stumbled post Chicago in the early-to-mid aughts, and it’s never been quite the same perhaps because Harvey had too many skeletons to juggle by then. But when Shakespeare In Love toppled Saving Private Ryan it was *the* prestige arthouse and much of that was down to the Weinsteins’ savvy. Which is why I am also convinced that Harvey was all over the Oscar campaign for this thing. And as much as I rejoice that a movie about the Bard beat a WWII drama for Best Picture, it’s unpleasant to think about the ways and means Hollywood’s Creep-in-Chief might have employed to ensure the vote carried. I speak here more of political muscle than sexual threats, but it all adds up to one terrifying sense of entitlement.
Here’s the ray of light. I can’t imagine Harvey had too much creative influence here. Miramax in the 90s seemed to have the good sense to let their talent do their thing. I can’t know for sure, but I think director John Madden and writers Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard led the creative charge with their cadre of brilliant performers. Or so I hope.
But let’s not give that poisonous bunch-backed toad (h/t to Willy Shakespeare) more ink than he deserves. Shakespeare in Love is a remarkable cinematic achievement, the kind of storytelling that’s every bit as transporting 20 years later as it was then. Let’s go back to London 1593 and unpack the most unfortunate era in which our heroine, Viola finds herself.
Take it away, S!
S: Sooooo many problems to discuss. But first, I must support your point and send a shout out to my fellow Gen X film snobs. Poring over Miramax films was what we did while all the cool kids were going to parties. Did we discover Kevin Smith before he was cool and watch Clerks a total of 37 times in one week? Yes we did. (Sidenote: we should probably add that film to our list. Upon dropping that subtle Clerks joke – you with me Gen X cinephiles? – I realized…yup, probably problematic.) Did we name a super dreamy dude who worked at a local grocery store “the crow” because he looked like Brandon Lee in The Crow, and also, were we obsessed with the movie The Crow? Yup.
My point is, you’re right. 90s Miramax permeated my high school experience as much as Counting Crows and Barenaked Ladies did (also discovered them before they were cool…ok, I’ll shut up now), and had a lot to do with molding me into the film lover/snob I am today. Knowing that Creepy McCreeperton had a hand in shaping my pop culture affinities bugs the living shit out of me. It’s a good thing my dear friend Brooke invited me to write this series with her…it’s therapeutic.
But, I digress. You asked me to dive into the serious problems the Elizabethan era introduces to our Lady Viola. And to answer that question, I submit an exchange between Viola’s darling daddy and her betrothed-to-be, Lord Wessex:
Lord Wessex: Is she fertile?
Sir Robert De Lesseps: She will breed. If she do not, send her back.
Lord Wessex: Is she obedient?
Sir Robert De Lesseps: As any mule in Christendom. But if you are the man to ride her, there are rubies in the saddlebag.
Um, thanks dad? And also…gross?
The 16th century (and TBH, centuries afterward) was not the ideal time to be a woman. Even in an era when the world’s most powerful nation was ruled by a fierce, fearless female, women were traded into marriage like cattle, banned from the stage and forced (in more ways than one) to “do their duty.” Even our favorite monarch, the Virgin Queen, refused to marry for fear she would have to submit to a man.
But what this film demonstrates – in spades – is the subtle, but powerful arrow that women of this era did have in their quiver: their wit. B, what was your favorite lady-delivered sick burn?
B: It is a most ideal question you raise. My notes are cram-jam full of snippets of dialogue and declarations like “The Queen has the sickest burns. SICKEST BURNS.” And of course, it is from she that I take my favorite lady-delivered sick burn (Viola gets all the good swoon-y lines), but as nearly every one of Dame Judi Dench’s scant handful of minutes on screen is peppered by wit, I had a bear of a time choosing. Much as I adore the shade the Queen throws at Lord Wessex, I think my favorite moment was her dressing down of the entire assemblage of play attendees who were scandalized to think that they’d seen a woman on stage. “The Queen of England does not attend exhibitions of public lewdness. So, something is out of joint.”
And this brings me to another of my most frequent ruminations during this re-watch. Shakespeare’s actual works have many instances of characters donning a disguise in order to be their truest selves. And many is the time that those disguises involve taking on another gender — it’s rather as if the Bard understood a great deal more of gender fluidity and the spectrum of sexuality than … well you know who. But I digress, I found myself wondering about the degree of intention to all of that tension. Will and “Thomas Kent” share sultry glances and steamy kisses, while Will reads Juliet and Viola recites Romeo during their trysts. It’s all powerfully intoxicating — talk about your stark contrast in sex scenes from Terminator to a film where even the camera movements emit seduction. But, was the intention to flex the gender roles in a playful, sexy way? Or was it simply a plot device? Watching it now, it sure feels intentional, even if Will’s long overdue recognition of Viola and Thomas as one is a bit confusing.
Am I overthinking this, S? Or have we stumbled not only into a film that’s built on the injustices of life as a woman in 1593, but also one that’s sex-positive and 90s woke?
S: I think you’re spot on, B, and I’ll go one step further with your analysis. Shakespeare in Love uses gender fluidity to draw a metaphor about gender dynamics, and particularly about the plight of the 16th-century female. You see, Viola is only truly free when she becomes Thomas Kent, a man. She is free to pursue her passion for acting, and she can experience romantic love. As Viola De Lesseps, a woman, she is barred from seeking a career she loves, and romance is out of the question. Similarly, it is while posing as a woman that Shakespeare makes a wager that eventually allows him to escape the drudgery of being a playwright for hire. It is as though the film is telling us that it is only through acceptance of gender fluidity that one can thrive.
And speaking of sex-positive and 90s woke, I must share one of my favorite moments of Shakespeare in Love: Viola’s nurse becoming the sock on the doorknob to Viola’s late-night hookup with that hot, artsy writer from the theatre downtown.
Well, B, I think it’s about that time. Shall we to the stray observations? And…as a bonus question, which of Shakespeare’s works do you think is the most feminist, and why?
B: I love stray observations time, even if most of mine are about how Nurse is the greatest wingwoman of all time. But before we get there, I’ll dip my toes into this question of the most feminist Shakespearean work. The title that immediately comes to mind for me is As You Like It.
We’ve already discussed Shakespeare’s use of disguise to allow characters to be their most true selves and pursue their forbidden desires. Well, As You Like It is full of these sorts of charades. Here’s my lackadaisical Reader’s Digest version of the goings-on. Our heroine, Rosalind, is chased out of her place at court after she upsets the Usurper of her father’s crown. The usurper’s daughter, Celia, is a wonderful, ride-or-die kind of friend who decides to run away with Rosalind, but not before Rosalind falls head over heels for Orlando. The ladies away to the countryside where they buy pastures and decide to live that agrarian life while sometime running about in the forest making friends and weaving romantical webs, all whilst dressed as men, of course. For his part, Orlando has been betrayed by his brother and likewise finds himself headed toward the forest of Arden, where he leaves all kinds of love notes for Rosalind, leading to a host of amusing mistaken identity scenarios wherein Rosalind plays matchmaker for herself and all of her friends.
Basically: Rosalind has hella agency, gets to find love, makes that money and solves all the problems for everyone before she captures love with a sweet guy. In other words, she does dude things in a time when that was a revolutionary act.
But enough of this fine literary analysis, I have some random thoughts to air:
- It has nothing to do with anything we’re talking about, but I feel like recognizing Downton Abbey’s Carson as a drunkard actor was a real full-circle moment for me.
- What exactly does Will sprinkle on his pages when he’s finished with them? Flour? Starch? What was the posh 1590s ink absorber?
- Will says that all of his muses are called Aphrodite, implying he falls fast and hard, but his pals constantly confuse this metaphor with a girl named Aphrodite who “does it behind a pub.” Which begs the question, has mankind labeled sex as “it” for centuries at this point?
- This line and so many like it: “I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all else.”
- I swear to henceforth work both anon and suffering cats into my vocabulary.
S, I implore you. Give us your observations and your pick for most feminist bit of the Shakespeare canon. I need all of your thoughts. Then, let’s making a final ruling on this picture with all the panache of the Queen.
S: Prepare thyself, because I’m about to make a controversial choice. For me, feminism in fiction is alive and well when women have the opportunity to play the breadth and depth of parts that men do … and that means big, juicy, scenery chewing bad guy roles. And one of my favorite Shakespearean baddies is Lady Macbeth. She was a “fixer” long before Olivia Pope pulled the strings at the White House. She ruthlessly power grabbed ahead of Claire Underwood. And she played the game of thrones with the manipulative intensity that Cersei Lannister would come to be known for centuries later. With lines like “screw your courage to the sticking place,” she is the toughest of badass baddies. And also, the witches are rad.
But now tis time to speak mine random thoughts:
- Ben Affleck. I completely forgot he was in this movie, and I love him so. In fact, I think this is my favorite Ben Affleck role of all time.
- Speaking of sick lady burns, Viola had some of the best. My faves? “I see you are open for business, so let’s to church.” Also, in response to Lord Wessex’s “Lady Viola, I have spoken with your father,” Viola retorts, “So my lord? I speak with him every day.” Ya burnt, Wessex.
- Seeing Romeo and Juliet performed at the end of the film sent my heart a-flutter. I love Shakespeare so.
- The subtle nods to lines from Shakespeare’s plays throughout — this movie is impeccably written.
Before we bid this post adieu, I think it’s time to screw OUR courage to the sticking place and come to a verdict. Behold! The math:
- +10 cringes for Harvey Weinstein. No mercy for the creeper to end all creepers.
- -9 cringes for the writers managing to build a surprisingly feminist story out of one of the least feminist times in world history.
- +1 cringe for the minor creeper crutch moment in the form of Lord Wessex planting an unwanted kiss on his bride-to-be. Gross.
- -1 cringe for Dame Judi, who managed to play Elizabeth I as terrifying, hilarious, compassionate and powerful all at once, in less than 10 minutes of screen time.
If mine eyes do not deceive me, I believe that leaves us with 1 cringe — which I must leave in place to account for the Harvey factor. Had the movie not had a Harvey problem, this would have been our first cringe-free film.
What say you, B?
B: I couldn’t agree more, S. But indeed, I hath two more bits of ‘rithmatic to add to our equation.
- +4 cringes for the fact that Will Shakespeare is a married man and a lothario, but the fact that Rosalind bangs other dudes ruins her position of honor as his muse for him. C’mon, Will.
- -2 cringes for Viola’s unrepentant enjoyment after her first night with Will. When her nurse warns her, “Viola, the house is stirring. It is a new day.” Viola responds with glee, “It is a new world.”
- -2 cringes for the good nurse as history’s greatest wingwoman, I’ll say it again for the people in the back: History’s. Greatest. Wingwoman.
As ever, we agree. And for the record, I am thrilled Shakespeare in Love won best picture over Saving Private Ryan. I know you agree, S, and I don’t much care if anyone else questions our (correct) opinion.
Anon, dear readers, we’ll be back by and by. Our next effort finds us on the road with Thelma & Louise, and you better believe we’re going to find the Brad Pitt gif of your dreams.