It's one of literature's supreme ironies that we know so little about William Shakespeare the person. We know plenty about Shakespeare the poet, Shakespeare the playwright, Shakespeare the 800-pound gorilla of Western Civ. But what about Shakespeare the man? What was it like when he strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage? Critic Harold Bloom just published a 745-page book that claims Shakespeare invented our very notion of what it means to be human. But what about Shakespeare's own humanity? Was he the jealous type? A hopeless romantic? A brooder? A bon vivant? A wit? A twit? A lover? A fighter? A writing machine? Or did even the most fluid pen in English literature sometimes run dry? John Madden's deliriously cheeky Shakespeare in Love has answers to many of these questions, especially the last one, and it doesn't really give a hoot whether the answers are right or wrong. Appearing to make itself up as it goes along, this truly Shakespearean comedy whisks us back to Elizabethan England, 1593, when the Bard (Joseph Fiennes, Ralph's goofily handsome younger brother) was about to unleash his genius on an unsuspecting world. What will eventually be called Romeo and Juliet is still being called Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter; and William Shakespeare, one of the more promising hacks of the London stage, has high hopes for it. Now if he could only write, say, the first line.... What he needs is a muse, preferably female, preferably beautiful. Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola De Lesseps, silk-haired daughter of a wealthy merchant, meets both requirements, with the further recommendation that she's infatuated with the sound of Shakespeare's voice--his writing voice, that is. In fact, she wouldn't mind acting in a Shakespeare play, though women are strictly forbidden from treading the boards. And that's how Shakespeare first meets her--disguised as Thomas Kent, a young actor auditioning for the role of Romeo. Gender-bending cases of mistaken identity were a staple of Shakespeare's comedies, of course, and that's not the only way Shakespeare in Love reflects the oeuvre it so lovingly pays tribute to. You've heard of a movie-within-the-movie? Shakespeare in Love is a movie-outside-the-play. Madden and his scriptwriters, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, hold a mirror up to Romeo and Juliet--a fun-house mirror in which art imitates life imitates art, or something like that. As Shakespeare's relationship with Viola deepens, then darkens, his work on Romeo and Juliet deepens and darkens, comedy giving way to tragedy. We watch as the playwright, like a magpie, collects scraps for his nest--Viola's nurse transformed into Juliet's, Shakespeare's own rather prosaic balcony scene with Viola transmuted into poetic gold. The parallels, though fabricated out of whole cloth, interweave in dazzling patterns. Stoppard did something similar in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which took the two least significant characters in Hamlet and imagined what happened (or failed to happen) to them while they were waiting in the wings. Shakespeare in Love has the same giddy ingenuity, but it also has romance--the romance of William and Viola, those star-crossed lovers (he's married, she's betrothed to somebody else), and the romance of what Hamlet once called "words, words, words." Exceptionally well written itself, the movie's a passionate love letter to the poems and plays that flowed from Shakespeare like a river of honey. And that's not all, folks.... There's also a biting satire--what Geoffrey Rush, as a theatrical producer who's woefully short of cash, calls "a crowd-tickler." Like Shakespeare's own comedies, this one works on at least two levels, the lower level a behind-the-scenes look at the commercial theater of Shakespeare's day. Drawing parallels between 1590s London and 1990s Hollywood, the movie insists there's no business like show business, the key word being "business." Money-grubbing, back-stabbing, name-dropping--the problems are almost too familiar. When we first meet Shakespeare, he's assiduously practicing his autograph, hurling the rejects across the room. On the table behind him is a mug emblazoned with a plug for his hometown: "Stratford-on-Avon." At such moments, the movie seems like refried Mel Brooks--Shakespeare: Men in Tights. But those moments are mercifully few and far between. When it's working, which it almost always is, the movie's a hybrid of poetry and prose, swordplay and wordplay, comedy high and low. And the cast seems to have come from both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Simon Callow shows up as the high-and-mighty Master of the Revels. Judi Dench radiates regality as the higher-and-mightier Queen Elizabeth. Even Ben Affleck reveals a heretofore hidden flair for comedy as an actor who takes the role of Mercutio solely on Shakespeare's promise that the play is to be called Mercutio. A pragmatic man of the theater, Shakespeare promises everybody everything and delivers on those promises when he damn well feels like it. But this is also "Shakespeare in Love," a swooning swain who seems to have been hit by Cupid's arrow for the first time. Fiennes, who has the half-asleep, dewdrop eyes of an ardent 14-year-old, is perfectly cast as the original Romeo--a mercurial young man with a tongue that can slice like a rapier. And Paltrow's equally well cast as the original Juliet--a trailblazer who will let nothing stand in the way of her love for either Shakespeare or Shakespeare's plays. A little ethereal in her previous movies, especially Emma, Paltrow finally inhabits a role, moves in and makes it her own.
And director Madden, who kept a stiff upper lip throughout Mrs. Brown, makes Shakespeare in Love his own, paying equal justice to the Shakespeare who wrote Romeo and Juliet and the Shakespeare who might have written Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter. Whoever Shakespeare was, he would surely have loved this movie, which has his spirit ever-so-briefly breathing again before melting into air, into thin air.