Monday, January 9, 2012

Getting My (Literature) Nerd On

I'm one of those annoying people who can't just sit still and watch TV. Normally, I'm doing something else at the same time - catching up on my blog reading, or checking Twitter, or (confession time here) grading papers. Today I sat down to watch Shakespeare in Love with intentions of working on the syllabi for my spring classes, which start next week (yikes!). But I didn't get a thing done. For two hours I sat and was completely entranced by this movie.

This movie has some of the same glaring errors as Elizabeth (which I watched last week, see previous post), most notably disregard for historical fact when it got in the way of the story.  The biggest error was having tobacco plantations in Virginia as a major point in the plot. The movie is set in 1594; I know from our family's vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina this past summer that the English were struggling to get a colony established in the New World at that time. Actually, 1594 would be only a few years after John White found the English colony at Roanoke deserted. It would be another 10 years before the Jamestown colony was established. So the threat of having the heroine of the story about to be married off and shipped to Viriginia was completely bogus.

But I don't care. I also don't care that the whole "Shakespeare was inspired by love to write Romeo and Juliet" plot was made up. (For the record, the notes on Romeo and Juliet in my good old Complete Works of William Shakespeare text from college say that the play was based on a poem written by Arthur Brooke called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, printed in 1562.) I liked the story. I know from my own writing how events that have happened to me find their way into my story, so it was fun to see the "what if": how events from the life around the play could have, in Shakespeare's fertile imagination, found their way into the play. I'm going to have to go back and look for them specifically - the main one I can think of right now is the balcony scene when Shakespeare first meets Viola. I'm sure there are plenty of others. (But I can't watch this movie when the kids are home; there were a couple of scenes with Richard Burbage and his mistress that were bawdy in a Shakespeare-worthy manner, ha ha.)

I also liked having flesh put on Shakespeare and his times. All the years I studied literature, I had a mental image of Shakespeare based on the famous portrait to the left. The association was with someone rather formal and "artsy," an untouchable genius who should be the object of the literary equivalent of worship. When I was young and reading Shakespeare, I didn't appreciate it much; I guess I got so bogged down in the unfamiliar language and the large casts of characters with strange, difficult-to-pronounce names and by the need to find "Important Themes" such as "nature vs. nurture" or "order vs. chaos" that I forgot Shakespeare was a living person who made his livelihood in the entertainment business.

And Will Shakespeare is definitely a living person in the movie. The character is a playwright arrogantly assured of his brilliance yet insecure because writer's block is keeping him from starting on the plays he's promised to two different theater owners (I was amused by that financial part, by the way). He's jealous of fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, yet he sponges ideas off Marlowe. He is a rake who is looking for a soulmate to inspire him - even though he's got a wife and family 100 miles away. He can't seem to help himself from going into speaking in passages of poetic language, like he's always trying out bits for his plays. The picture is of a passionate, flawed, gifted man - which is probably closer to the truth than my former mental image. A person would have to be passionate and gifted to write Shakespeare's plays.

Here's where the really nerdy part comes in. My favorite scene in the movie? When Shakespeare has gone into a writing frenzy. The scene shows him making his quills and scratching the play out word by word. I loved the extreme close-up shots of the tip of the quill that also include his thumbnail and finger, stained with ink (you can barely see what I'm talking about in the picture). I don't know why. I'm just weird, I guess.

I'm not totally weird. I did like the love story, too. I'm not a huge Gwyneth Paltrow fan, but I thought she played the role well - she seemed "natural," if that makes any sense. I also enjoyed seeing the difference in Joseph Fiennes between this movie and Elizabeth (in which he didn't seem to get to do much); he is what really put the flesh on the bones the writers gave Shakespeare. And I liked Ben Affleck's role in this movie. In some ways, it was the perfect role for him - the big star coming in to play the big star, ha ha.

But I keep going back to that image of the ink-stained fingers. To be perfectly honest, this movie had me from the moment it did the visual sweep of the theater. Sure, I've read descriptions of the Globe Theater, but there's just something about seeing it in wood, with its dirt floor for the commoners, that makes it live for me. This movie did that throughout for me, like the scene when Geoffrey Rush was walking through the streets of London and someone poured a yellow liquid (bet we know what that was!) from the upper story of a building just before he walked by, and he didn't bat an eye. I like being able to get that view of what life in late 16th-century London must have been like, before sanitation and 32-inch LCD TVs and word processors. I wouldn't want to live there, but this movie made for a fun visit.

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