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23 February 1999

Comedy of errors

Shakespeare In Love is not a film about Shakespeare, argues Sandy Starr. It's a film about Will, a comic figure of no cultural or historical importance

Shakespeare In Love has rapidly become an outstanding critical and commercial success. While the general public flock to the cinema in droves to see it, the critics heave sighs of relief that what initially sounded like it would be a dumbed-down travesty has transpired to be a wised-up comedy. The tale of a fictional romance between William Shakespeare and a lady of propriety in disguise as a common actor has warmed the hearts of many and brought wry smiles to the faces of cultural commentators.

It would be pedantic to criticise the film on the grounds of historical accuracy; it professes to be nothing more than a comedy and is self-consciously anachronistic. However, the accolades being heaped upon Shakespeare In Love (a hot tip for this year's Oscars) far exceed the recognition one would expect to see granted to a comedy starring familiar British character actors and television comedians. Regardless of its superficiality, the film tells us much about the way that Shakespeare is valued today.

In truth, Shakespeare In Love is little more than an above-average romantic comedy with disparate elements of Shakespeare's life and work woven into it. Many of its more subtle jokes are extremely amusing, and they are skilfully distributed so as to get a chuckle from those in the know without detracting from the sickly-sweet romance that the plebs enjoy so much. One could accuse the film of a patronising attitude towards the majority of its paying audience, but this is the least of its faults.

There is something better than plays says Viola in the film, pleasantly surprised after losing her virginity to Shakespeare (or Will, as we so disarmingly come to know him). The statement summarises what is most crass about Shakespeare In Love: the central premise of a romance which inspired the writing of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and some of the sonnets. It is Wills subscription to that most universal of conditions, love, that has made the film so popular: good old Shakespeare it seems to say to us, he may have written all those difficult plays but he fell in love like we all do.

Of course, there can be little doubt that Shakespeare's work, like that of any other writer, was influenced by his day-to-day experiences. And there can also be little doubt that these experiences at some point encompassed romance. One could even go so far as to argue that some of Shakespeare's work irrefutably paints a picture of a man who had loved and lost with the best of them.

But it is the fact that Shakespeare's writing transcended the mundane circumstances of his personal experience that resulted in its lasting appeal. Humanity has found some of its most profound concerns reflected in Shakespeare precisely because his work transcends the age in which it was written, so much so that it still seems a miracle that one man could have composed what Shakespeare did. It may be amusing to imagine Shakespeare as an average man who wrote his masterpieces in response to petty personal matters, but this attitude also expresses a disdain for the value that has been invested in Shakespeare since his humble death.

Shakespeare In Love is not a film about Shakespeare, but about Will. Will is an above-average comic figure, more amusing than much of today's bland cinema fare, but he is a man of no historical or cultural importance. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is the greatest playwright in the English language. He is free from the banal constraints of the period in which Shakespeare In Love is set, and he is the common cultural property of every generation. Until now. Having enjoyed almost four centuries of repute, let us bequeath Shakespeare to a new millennium: Will would be a poor substitute.

Sandy Starr is producing the session 'Modernising Shakespeare' at the forthcoming conference 'Culture Wars: Dumbing Down, Wising Up?'

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