Using the Source Film and Other Media

Shakespeare in Love: Using the Source Film and Other Media Companions to Preview the Stage Adaptation

by Mary T. Christel 

Preparing students for the theatrical adaptation of Shakespeare in Love might follow a somewhat different path from preparing for a production of Romeo and Juliet, for example. Typically, you might pull out available copies of the text to read in full or in part with students. Or, you might screen a film version of the play to acquaint students with basic details about its setting, conflict and characters, as well as its key speeches. The film, Shakespeare in Love, occupies a celebrated place in popular culture, so preparation to attend the stage adaptation might seem unnecessary. How hard would it be to follow? Though, Tom Stoppard, a contemporary playwright noted for his intricate, allusive wordplay, co-created a screenplay layered with allusions to the lives and plays of Shakespeare and his rivals, as well as to the raucous theatrical world, rowdy street life, and to the courtly demi monde of Elizabeth I’s London. 

In order for students to fully engage with the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love as a rich text, they can use the film as source material in several ways. Students certainly can watch the film in its entirety, but there might not be time enough in class to screen and discuss it. The film is also rated R for nudity and sexual situations, which might make it difficult to screen in its entirety in some classrooms. Since the near-identical plots in both film and stage production are relatively easy to grasp, targeted viewing strategies open up paths to discussing aspects of the treatment that focus on genre, intertextuality and verisimilitude in a concentrated, analytical manner.

Students can examine how Shakespeare is portrayed in the film and stage adaptation by exploring how other films and television programs put together the pieces of what we know about Shakespeare through relatively scant historical source material. We know a great deal about his plays and his times, but how much do we know about the man himself? And, does his “real life” make for good drama, comedy, or romance?

Genre: Did Shakespeare Invent the Modern Rom-Com?

The rom-com is a genre staple of the film industry. When the rom-com got its start in the 1930’s, the film industry was adjusting to the introduction of sound. Rom-coms of that era relied heavily on sophisticated, witty dialogue, and followed two highly verbal lovers who must overcome a series of obstacles involving social class, gender norms, and their own stubborn resistance to surrender to each other’s charms. After those lovers “meet cute” in a zany, improbable, adorable, destined-to-be-together manner, they become entangled in circumstances that temporarily keep them apart. Viewers, though, expect the lovers to overcome their obstacles and eventually be united in wedded bliss, but their romantic path is complicated typically by mistaken identities, poorly timed events, awkward encounters, and the interference from an array of stock characters (wise-cracking ally, haughty rival, jealous sibling or friend, naive parent, clever or conniving subordinate).

Students can prepare for seeing the stage production of Shakespeare in Love that draws on many elements of the rom-com by screening the following excerpts from the film.

The Comedic Premise: Will in search of his muse 5:00–9:25
Introduction of Lovers: A command performance 10:41–13:33
Meet Cute Scene(s): Auditioning as Thomas Kent
Meeting Viola at party
21:50–23: 37
Declarations of Attraction:   On the balcony 30:47–32:07
Complication #1: Wessex’s pompous proposal 38:07–40:43
Complication #2: Thomas Kent’s identity revealed 42:17–46:46 
Complication #3: Viola’s presentation to Elizabeth I 59:40 –64:20
Complication #4: Will’s marital status revealed 75:15–76:55
Complication #5: Viola marries Wessex 79:57–92:02
Resolution: Theatrical triumph, parting, and continued inspiration   94:00–117:20


Shakespeare in Love does not include the standard romantic resolution for Will and Viola. Unlike the couples from rom-coms or Shakespeare’s own comedies their amorous entanglements do not end in marriage. For Shakespeare’s Viola in Twelfth Night (for whom, incidentally, the female lead has been named by screenwriters Stoppard and Norman), despite all the improbable obstacles that she faces she is able to have her romantic wish fulfilled in marriage.

Use the following questions to discuss the rom-com elements present in Shakespeare In Love excerpts:

  • How is a conflict presented in comedic premise sequence to set up the search for a romantic relationship as its resolution?  
  • When Will and Viola meet, twice, how is it clear that they fulfill each other’s romantic wishes or personal ambitions? And, how can those “meet cute” situations be described as “zany” or  “improbable”?
  • What obstacles must the lovers overcome at various points? How do those obstacles play out in comedic or dramatic ways based on mistaken identities, poorly timed events, awkward encounters, or the interference of supporting characters?
  • Which supporting characters act as the lovers’ ally or nemesis? Which comedic stereotypes do these allies and nemeses reflect?  
  • How do Will and Viola confront a series of romantic obstacles as well as obstacles that are based on social norms and prejudices? To what extent are they able to fully resolve both sets of obstacles?
  • How do either Will or Viola provide any stubborn resistance to the other? When and why are they set against each other? Why don’t these moments end their romantic attraction?
  • To what extent is the conflict established in the comedic premise resolved by the end of the film?
  • Rom-coms traditionally end in marriage to unite the romantic couple and to create or reestablish social order. Why is that not possible in this scenario?  How do the screenwriters craft a plausible and satisfying resolution for the viewers for one or both of the lovers?


Understanding Intertextuality: How is Shakespeare In Love Built on the Tropes of Romeo and Juliet?

Most of Tom Stoppard’s works for the theater draw direct parallels between several works of literature within his newly created play. And much of the pleasure derived by audiences from plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead depends on the audience recognizing how it relies on clever and artful appropriations from existing works. The connections Shakespeare in Love makes with Romeo and Juliet are evident in the relationship between Will and Viola and the bitter rivalry between Henslowe and Burbage, two theater impresarios. Students can examine how elements drawn from Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy, are used to infuse comedy and romantic fun into another tale of youthful, clandestine love.

Acquaint students with the following concepts so they can discuss how contemporary writers like Stoppard refer to existing literature and popular culture in their own works.

  • Allusion: a detail used to bring to mind another work of literature, visual art, popular culture.
  • Trope: conventions, devices, and details that are drawn from a pre-existing work or genre to act as a kind of narrative shorthand or easily recognized storytelling pattern.
  • Intertextuality: drawing on elements from existing texts through direct references or inference to create a new text using allusions, parody, pastiche, among other techniques and devices.

Students should establish the “who, what, where, when, and why” of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Screening the 30-minute film version of the Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare: The Animated Tales (Ambrose Video) provides an efficient means to acquaint, or reacquaint, students with the star-crossed lovers. As a first step toward understanding the function of intertexuality, students should identify stories, television shows, and movies that include elements drawn from Romeo and Juliet to establish how often contemporary writers borrow from the Bard.   

Romeo and Juliet is a play well known for its signature scenes and circumstances:  

  • grudges and disputes between two factions
  • a festive occasion to bring lovers together
  • a balcony scene for a nighttime rendezvous
  • a loyal servant acting as a discreet go-between
  • the loss of a loyal friend to a tragic encounter
  • tragic misunderstanding that leads to the lovers’ deaths.

Encourage students to brainstorm their own list of scenes and characters that any adaptation of Romeo and Juliet would likely include. Once students assemble their lists, ask them pare the list down to scenes and characters with the potential for comedic treatment in an adaptation like Shakespeare in Love, which imagines Shakespeare writing and rehearsing Romeo and Ethel: The Pirate’s Daughter before transforming his new play into the famous tragedy.

Finally, students can watch scenes from the film that take their inspiration from Romeo and Juliet, which set up all the obstacles in the path of Will and Viola’s romance. As students watch each scene, ask them to take notes and later discuss how the scene uses characters, plot points, settings, and lines of dialogue from its source material, Shakespeare’s tragedy, to explore how intertextuality works, literally, to fill in the blanks of Will’s imagined romance with Viola.

Scenes to match with Romeo and Juliet tropes:

Scene #1 Rivalry and romantic desire revealed 9:33–11:51
Scene #2 Party at Viola’s home 27:08–30:30
Scene #3 A balcony scene 30:37–32:07
Scene #4 A night of guarded, stolen passion 45:56–49:41
Scene #5 A public confrontation among rivals 65:30–68:40
Scene #6 More confrontation and swordplay between romantic rivals 81:00–84:35
Scene #7* Crosscutting sequence (in case parallels to Romeo and Juliet are in doubt…)   58:45–84:33

*Sequence contains nudity and sexual situation that earned the film an R-rating.

Once specific elements from Romeo and Juliet are identified, students should be encouraged to examine how elements of tragedy can become comedic by applying some of the following techniques: repetition, hyperbole, incongruity, situational irony, dramatic irony, sight gags, running gags.


Parody: Do Modern Authors and Filmmakers Have Writing Block of Shakespearean Proportions?

With the resurgence of the Star Wars franchise, students might find George Lucas in Love (8:50) an amusing parody. It is easily accessible online at several sites including the remastered fifteenth-anniversary version.

Used as an exemplar, this short film can provide the springboard for creating similar parodies for the authors they have studied throughout the year: Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Kafka, Harper Lee, Tim O’Brien, among so many others.


Introducing Twelfth Night with a Condensed, Animated Version or a Contemporary Production Using Original Practice

The film Shakespeare in Love ends with Queen Elizabeth (and Christopher Marlowe in the play, though not the film) directing Shakespeare to write a comedy for “twelfth night”; Viola’s departure with her husband to Virginia then becomes the inspiration for the play, Twelfth Night, that we see him writing as the film concludes. You may want to include screening the final minutes of the film to set up this viewing activity.

Students’ understanding of how intertextuality works on so many levels in the source script can be enhanced by their acquaintance with a broad understanding of Twelfth Night’s plot and characters by screening Shakespeare: The Animated Tales (Ambrose Video) thirty-minute animated adaptation of the play.  As students watch, they should keep the following questions in mind:

  • Why must Viola disguise herself as a young man? What does she risk if she does not adopt this disguise?
  • Under which circumstances is it easy for Viola to maintain her male identity? When is it far more difficult?
  • How is Viola able to manipulate her circumstances to satisfy the romantic goals of both Olivia and Orsino to each one’s satisfaction and to hers?
  • How do other characters in Twelfth Night rely on disguise or deception to achieve their goals?
  • Even though Twelfth Night is a comedy, how does it incorporate moments of pathos into interactions between various characters? How do those touches of sadness enhance or illuminate the play’s comic spirit?

In addition to watching the condensed version of the play, students can also learn about Twelfth Night’s central premise involving the shipwrecked and disguised Viola as well as becoming acquainted with a modern approach to original practice performance techniques by screening selected scenes from Globe on Screen’s all-male production of Twelfth Night, featuring Mark Rylance as Olivia. (All of these scenes can be found on Disc One.)

Viola washed ashore and devises a plan to serve Orsino as his eunuch 5:16–8:40
Viola as Cesario receives his charge from Orsino to woo Olivia on his behalf 16:10–18:45
First meeting between Cesario/Viola and Olivia 26:50–39:18
Malvolio delivers Olivia's ring to Cesario 42:06–45:02
Cesario/Viola briefs Orsino on his visit to Olivia and is captivated by the Duke's charm     60:10–71:35


As students watch these excerpts, ask them to keep in mind the following questions for a post-viewing discussion:

  • How does makeup, vocalization, and physical behavior help the male actors playing female roles create feminine personas?
  • To what extent are you able to accept the convention of a man playing a woman’s role?
  • How might the experience of seeing this original practice approach be more satisfying if you were an audience member in the playhouse rather than seeing the performance captured by a camera that placing so close to the actors?
  • How does the convention of a man playing a woman playing a man create particular moments of comic recognition from the audience that might be lost when a woman plays the same role?

Students can read Ben Brantley’s article “How Mark Rylance Became Olivia Onstage” (New York Times 14 August 2016) to gain further understanding of how a contemporary actor tackles the challenges of original practice.


Verisimilitude: Will the “Real” William Shakespeare Please Stand Up?

Documentaries, docudramas and now television series have pieced together what we know about William Shakespeare: the celebrated son of Stratford-on-Avon, the absent family man, the successful London playwright. Shakespeare in Love constructs a light-hearted portrait of Shakespeare as a struggling playwright trying to please the theatrical impresarios producing his work, the actors playing his characters, and the audiences paying to attend his plays. The viewing excerpts from several of these films and television programs would provide students with different approaches to constructing an identity for the Bard that falls at various points on a continuum between fact and speculation. Students then have a context to compare how the portrayal Shakespeare in Love falls on that verisimilitude continuum.

Choose excerpts from the following films and shows, preferably representing each of the three genres.

  • In Search of Shakespeare (2004 BBC documentary series 240 min. NR)
    • Each episode runs approximately 60 minutes. Even though the series official PBS site is no longer active, there are a number of resources available online, including viewing guides. Episodes 2 & 3 are particularly appropriate for anticipatory viewing prior to attending a performance of Shakespeare in Love.
      • Episode 1: “A Time of Revolution” traces William Shakespeare’s early years in Stratford with particular attention on his schooling, his father, and his hasty marriage to Anne Hathaway.
      • Episode 2: “The Lost Years” focuses on his early career in London, the murder of Christopher Marlowe and features performances by the RSC in the yard of a Tudor inn.
      • Episode 3: “The Duty of Poets” chronicles the death of his son, his fascination with a young nobleman, and an affair with a mysterious married woman all while the Globe Theater is built and he writes his greatest plays.
      • Episode 4: “For All Time” follows the Gunpowder Plot, the writing of Macbeth, the end of his career in London, and his return to Stratford.
  • Last Will and Testament (2012 PBS documentary 85 min. NR)
  • Anonymous  (2011 docudrama 131 min. PG-13)
    • This theatrical docudrama vividly recreates Shakespeare’s London and Elizabeth I’s court while advancing the claim that Edward de Vere was indeed the author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. And in this film, Shakespeare, a supporting character, is presented as shallow opportunist who revels in the fraudulent celebrity he enjoys as a front for de Vere. 

▪ Modern-day Prologue that sets up the authorship controversy


▪ de Vere attends performance by Earl of Southampton with Henslowe and Shakespeare backstage

6:57–10:47 (12:29)

▪ de Vere’s play performed for Elizabeth with flashback of MND performed


▪ Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare discuss De Vere’s proposal for Jonson become the “beard” for his plays


▪ de Vere attends a performance of Henry V with no author attributed to it suggesting it is DeVere’s work


▪ The first performance of R&J with a flashback to what inspired it in de Vere’s past – his romance with young Elizabeth


▪ Shakespeare’s rivals discuss Romeo and Juliet’s success, which is followed by Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and Hamlet


▪ Ben Jonson learns of Shakespeare’s meager education from Christopher Marlowe who wants to expose the actual author of the plays


▪ de Vere and Shakespeare come face to face as Will shakes down the Earl for money to support his celebrity lifestyle


▪ de Vere writes Richard III late in Shakespeare’s career (a major liberty with the historical facts)


▪ Ben Jonson observes the rehearsal of Richard II at The Globe and attends its performance which de Vere anticipates will incite the audience to support Essex and Northampton


▪ Bitter confrontation between Jonson and Shakespeare, followed by final meeting with de Vere who looks for Jonson’s approval and promise not to expose Shakespeare as a fraud  




  • Related lesson plan for authorship controversy films:
  • A Waste of Shame: The Mystery of William Shakespeare and His Sonnets (2005 BBC docudrama  85 min.  TV-MA)
    • This docudrama takes its title from sonnet 129 and fills in the blanks regarding Shakespeare’s relationships with the young nobleman and the “dark lady” of his sonnets.  An engaging essay from the film’s writer will give students a glimpse into his research process:
  • Upstart Crow  (BBC sitcom 30 min.  2016 PG)   
    • Set in 1592 this six-part British sitcom follows Shakespeare as he writes Romeo and Juliet.  It features his landlord’s daughter, Kate, who aspires to be an actor and conspires with Shakespeare to do so disguised as a boy. The BBC Two official site for the series offers a sampling of clips from a variety of episodes as well as suggested platforms for viewing complete episodes:
  • Will (TNT drama premiering in 2017)


Extending the Conversation: How Does Viola De Lesseps Foreshadow the Arrival of “Legal” Actresses on the Restoration Stage?

Stage Beauty (2004 120 min. R)  Directed by Richard Eyre

Based on the play Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jefferey Hatcher, this film dramatizes the transition period when men and boys exclusively played the female roles to Charles II making it legal for women to appear on stage.  Charles’ mistress, Nell Gwyn, in no small way encouraged the change to fulfill her theatrical ambitions.  Bringing women to the stage meant that acclaimed male interpreters of Shakespeare’s great ladies found themselves no longer playing their signature roles.  The film follows Ned Kynaston as he enjoys stardom and celebrity in Thomas Betterton’s company through his reversal of fortunes, when his dresser, Maria, replaces him onstage.

The film may be challenging to show in its entirety since it contains situations where Kynaston, dressed as a woman, either is challenged to reveal his manly parts to prove his true gender or is groped by an amorous, unwitting male suitor.  Those moments are not particularly graphic, but the film would require a thorough preview and it is rated R.  The suggested excerpts cut around those moments in the film or an alternative excerpt with suggestive sexual content is placed in parentheses.

The film does break down into several useful sections to facilitate discussion of how women clandestinely and lawfully arrive on the English stage during the reign of Charles II.

Backstage and onstage for Othello          0 – 13:22   (0 – 20:00)*

The film opens with preparations for a performance of Othello starring Ned Kynaston as Desdemona and the company’s actor/manager, Thomas Betterton, as Othello. During post-performance dressing room banter, the viewer learns that the theaters were closed for eighteen years prior to the return of Charles II from exile in France.

Before students view this sequence provide them with the following questions:

  • How is the actual theater vastly different from The Globe in Shakespeare’s time?
  • What do we learn about the status of theatrical performances and theater in the backstage chatter during the period after Shakespeare?
  • What do we learn about the king’s awareness of and interest in the theater?
  • What is the arrangement between Thomas Betterton and his star Ned Kynaston?
  • And, how amicable is that arrangement?
  • How does this opening sequence illustrate the level of celebrity that Kynaston enjoys?
  • Describe Maria’s role in the backstage activities and her relationship with the company’s “leading lady.”
  • How do the circumstances where Maria performs Desdemona compare to those at Betterton’s theater where Kynaston performs?
  • Who attends performances at The Cockpit Tavern?  Do you see anyone who attended Kynaston performance?
  • To what extent is Kynaston a subject of true admiration for the aristocratic ladies who invite out for the evening? What is their interest in him?)*

*This excerpt version contains strong language and sexual situations.

Rehearsing Desdemona’s death scene       20:01–24:26

The viewer learns that Maria has been appearing in an underground performance of Othello at The Cockpit Tavern using Kynaston’s costume, wig, and props, while Kynaston is out on the town with some of his aristocratic admirers. They both return to the theater after Maria’s well-received portrayal of Desdemona and Kynaston’s humiliation of a vengeful nobleman.

  • How does this sequence further define Kynaston and Maria’s relationship?
  • How does the sequence illustrate how Kynaston takes his craft seriously?
  • What is Maria learning from interacting with and observing Kynaston?                                                       
Dining with Charles II and Nell Gwyn   32:00–39:12

Samuel Pepys arranges Mrs. Margaret Hughes, aka Maria, to attend a dinner with the King to make a formal introduction of Pepy’s latest theatrical discovery. Ned Kynaston also attends the dinner to discover Maria dressed in one of his own gowns. The scene focuses on the discussion of Maria’s “illegal” appearance onstage and Charles II’s views of women performing lawfully onstage. The king recalls how his mother performed in court entertainments.  At his court, he allows his mistress, Nell Gwyn to perform for the assembled guests.  

  • How does this scene help the viewer understand why women were not allowed by law to perform on stage?
  • Maria takes on the identity of a married woman in order to perform at The Cockpit Tavern.  Why would be a necessary distinction for actresses (that last well into the early 20th century)?
  • In addition to the aspirations of his mistress, what helps Charles II to decide that women should be permitted lawfully to perform on public stages?
Auditioning for Emilia with Betterton’s company    39:50–49:22

Once the king opens up the theaters to legally engage actresses, Betterton agrees to audition women for the vacated role of Emilia. Kynaston is present since Betterton agreed earlier in the film that Ned would have final approval of future casting choices.

  • What are Kynaston’s objections to Maria, or any woman, portraying female roles?
  • How do Betterton and Kynaston critique Maria’s audition? To what extent is her performance technique similar to Kynaston’s?
  • Who intervenes in the audition process that forces Betterton to cast Maria as Emilia?
Maria and Ned play Desdemona and Othello     1:25:53–1:43:32

Once Maria is able to play the role of Desdemona with Betterton’s company for the king, she suffers a massive episode of stage fright and misgiving about her own natural acting talent.  She claims that she has only been mimicking Kynaston’s “tricks and turns.”  Kynaston is enlisted to coach her out of her fright and doubts.

  • How does Kynaston transfer his understanding of how to interpret the role of Desdemona to Maria?
  • After Charles II “legalizes” women playing the female roles, Kynaston claims that he is unable to play a man onstage.  How does having Maria as his Desdemona help Kynaston tackle playing the male role?
  • How are Maria’s and Kynaston’s performances received by the king and his cronies backstage?
  • Since students are able to get a sense of the film’s narrative arc by screening these select scenes from Stage Beauty, have them discuss which aspects of this film would have critics compare it to Shakespeare in Love?  


MARY T. CHRISTEL taught AP Literature and Composition as well as media and film studies courses at Adlai E. Stevenson High School from 1979 to 2012. She has published several works on media literacy including Seeing and Believing: How to Teach Media Literacy in the English Classroom with Ellen Krueger (Heinemann) as well as contributing articles to Teaching Shakespeare Today with Christine Heckel-Oliver (NCTE), Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century with Anne Legore Christiansen (U of Ohio), For All Time: Critical Issues in Shakespeare Studies (Wakefield Press), and Acting It Out: Using Drama in the Classroom to Improve Student Engagement, Close Reading, and Critical Thinking with Juliet Hart and Mark Onuscheck (Routledge). Ms. Christel has been recognized by the Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for promoting media literacy education

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