in Love

April 15

June 11, 2017

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

based on the screenplay by Marc Norman + Tom Stoppard
adapted for the stage by Lee Hall
directed by Rachel Rockwell

A Scholar's Perspective

by Stuart Sherman

We know more details of Shakespeare's actual life than we do about almost any other playwright of his time. Even so, his life-record leaves whole swaths of terrain wide open for guesswork.

Over the past four centuries, his barely numerable biographers have filled the gaps, for better and for worse, with bold (and at times preposterous) acts of imagination, sometimes openly acknowledged—"We can only speculate …"—but more often awkwardly fudged: "Shakespeare must have felt …." As one of the best of them, Samuel Schoenbaum, once admitted, biographies of Shakespeare, in their very openness to obsessive guesswork, tend to reveal more about the biographer than the subject.

This time round, that peculiar truth will work to our advantage. Shakespeare in Love is, after all, the creation not of a scholar-biographer but of three playwrights, and of one among them in particular. Marc Norman hatched the notion and wrote the first draft of a screen comedy tracking Shakespeare near the outset of his career. Lee Hall has since reworked the filmscript for the stage. But it was Tom Stoppard who, by his own account, filled in the "vessel" of Norman's concept, "chang[ing] the plot quite a lot," writing "virtually all of the dialogue," and making the thing a masterpiece of wildly playful, strangely persuasive guesswork. As passionate, practicing, and preeminent playwright, Stoppard can claim, better than most biographers, an experiential credential for imagining what Shakespeare's working days were like.

In Shakespeare in Love, as in so many of Stoppard's comic histories (Travesties, Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia), the playwright sets real, regally important figures (James Joyce, Lord Byron, Ivan Turgenev) in their real historical times and places—and then proceeds to treat reality less as lynchpin than as launchpad. The characters talk and interact not at our ground level, but at the speed and altitude of Quidditch, their words careening and caroming off each other at a pitch of wit we ordinary mortals could never muster.

That's of course what happens here. Will and his wide circle of theatricals—his friend and rival Christopher Marlowe; his manager Philip Henslowe; his present star player Ned Alleyn and his future superstar Richard Burbage—all wield their words at precisely that pitch of fun and wonder we might expect of Shakespeare himself, eternity's most antic wordsmith, and of Stoppard, his thriving kindred spirit, who after all launched his own astonishing career by reworking Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

In that play, Stoppard made his mark by fusing one play with another: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, live, linger, joke, and die on a template cheerfully swiped from Beckett's Waiting for Godot. In Shakespeare in Love, Stoppard and company compound that gamesmanship several-fold. Though we are ostensibly tracking Shakespeare at the anxious commencement of his career, he is already inhabiting, with varying degrees of awareness, the plots of several of his own plays to come. His beloved Viola, for example, by virtue of her name and her self-disguise, figures in part as emissary from a tender, melancholy future comedy, Twelfth Night. Ghosts—or seeming ghosts—stalk and startle as they will in Caesar, Hamlet, and Macbeth.

And while we watch Shakespeare gradually learn to craft Romeo and Juliet out of his own fresh experience in love and loss, Stoppard suffuses his script with a matching parallelism—a third echo chamber—which we can savor though the characters can't. Virtually every element of Stoppard's plot corresponds to some component of Will's emerging tragedy: London's rival playhouses for Verona's feuding families; Lord Wessex for Tybalt; Marlowe for Mercutio; and Britain's Queen Elizabeth for Verona's plot-resolving Prince.

By patterning things so playfully, Stoppard, Hall, and Norman make of their layered story a rich and resonant game, in which not only does art mirror life (as Shakespeare's love becomes Romeo's) but life mirrors art: orchestrated by a "higher" craftsperson, the rivalries, tensions, and transactions engulfing these theater people, as they work on a play, weirdly replicate the play they're working on.

And this is where Shakespeare in Love works its best, most mysterious alchemy. Dealing in such patterned, patent fictions, how does the show manage to make us feel that it is also telling compelling truths?

The answer has to do with the secret vector of that Love. As one of the movie's first commentator's (the Chicago Tribune's Gary Dretzka) pointed out, this is not so much a love story as it is "a love letter to the theater" itself, and "to the people who labor in it." When Stoppard and company tell the play's romantic love story, they are mainly making it up, and mostly tailoring it to Romeo and Juliet's long-set specifications. But when they show Shakespeare and company striving sweatily to hatch a new production, they are transmitting truths about theatrical life that they know on their own pulses: the daily, ever-fretful labors of love; the ceaseless re-tweaking of local details and overall design; the inexorable combat, collisions, and communions entailed by collaboration; the unpredictable oscillation of hits and flops—love's labors won; love's labors lost—that hovers like a question mark over every fresh instance of another opening, another show.

And so Stoppard and company's guesswork, deeply grounded in their long theatrical experience, prompts us almost automatically into guesswork of our own. Shakespeare after all really did work with many of the people he works with here, and he must have grabbed at anything in his own life—a phrase overheard, an intense encounter, a profound experience—for use in the plays that he turned out at such a heady rate. Shakespeare's theatrical life can't have been exactly like this (it's all too neat, hilarious, and over-the-top). But it must have been something like this. And that something is spellbinding to contemplate.

For as long as the lovely spell lasts, Stoppard, Hall, and Norman outdo the biographers. Mingling arrant fiction with pleasing truth, they prove that guesswork can produce a profoundly gratifying form of play.

Back to Shakespeare
in Love

Additional Pages