Shakespeare in Love: What Not to Watch

Despite its R rating, you can still teach with this film. Here’s how.

If you need a good movie for your British Literature classes, but have always shied away from Shakespeare in Love due to its sexual content, shy away no longer. At the bottom of this post I’ve outlined the exact scenes to skip (timestamps and dialogue included). If you’re already a fan of the movie and just want the timestamps, scroll to the bottom of this post. If you need to learn more about the movie, read on.

I love so many things about using Shakespeare in Love for juniors and seniors in high school. Directed by John Madden and released in 1998, the movie won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Writing, Best Art & Set Decoration, Best Costume Design and Best Music.

A star-studded cast

Starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, the movie is two hours and there minutes long and is classified as both a comedy and a drama. It tells the story of Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), a struggling, up-and-coming playwright suffering from writer’s block. His lover, Rosaline, serves as his muse. However, Rosaline is unfaithful with Tilney, the Master of the Revels, who has the power to censor the local playhouses (and is based on a historical figure explained here). As a result, Will sinks into despair and burns his barely begun script of his newest comedy, the ridiculously titled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.

It’s a shame to miss a movie this good due to a few scenes that you can easily skip over.

But then Will meets Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young woman in love with theatre and poetry — especially Shakespeare’s. However, because women could not perform in the theater, she disguises herself as a young man named Thomas Kent so she can audition for Shakespeare’s new comedy. She aces the audition and earns the role of Romeo. Shakespeare eventually discovers Thomas Kent is actually Viola De Lesseps, falls in love, and determines that she is his new muse. He can now write with abandon and the show goes on.

Further help from Shakespeare’s colleague Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett), the actor Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck), and Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) further propel the production of Romeo and Ethel, which at Marlowe’s suggestion is renamed Romeo and Juliet.

Elizabethan theater
A replica of a typical theater of the Elizabethan Age, similar to that used in Shakespeare in Love. | Image by David Mark from Pixabay

The movie’s narrative continues amidst an arranged marriage between Viola and Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), which obviously causes tension between Will and Viola, and eventually determines the movie’s denouement where Viola’s future life inspires the plot of Shakespeare’s tragicomedy The Tempest.

Despite being grounded in historical figures, the movie takes many liberties. The movie’s mix of historical figures and creative license shows how fiction and fact can intermingle to great effect in cinema. As Sarene Leeds writes on Mental Floss, “Shakespeare in Love will likely never win any accolades for its historical accuracy, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most romantic movies of all time.”

But it’s so much more than a love story.

Besides offering literary value and fun, the movie does have some historical value as well, especially when you provide plenty of prior knowledge and background (read my next post for some resources). By watching Shakespeare in Love, your students will learn…

  • what a production at the round house theaters looked and sounded like
  • Elizabethan theater tricks (for example, red silk mimicked spurting blood)
  • the behind-the-scenes business of the Elizabethan theater industry
  • social expectations for men and women during the Elizabethan era
  • that Shakespeare may have been, like many writers, insecure about his abilities
  • the collaboration possibilities between Marlowe and Shakespeare

Literary allusions galore

Students will also enjoy catching some allusions to other Shakespearean plays, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Henry the Fourth Part 1, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and doubtless others that I didn’t notice. For example, your students will notice a line from R & J when a priest condemns the competing theatres The Curtain and The Rose by roaring into a crowd of theatre-goers, “A plague on both your houses!”

Still, despite all the positive aspects of Shakespeare in Love, there are still those problematic parts that are simply not appropriate for high school. In fact, here’s what Common Sense Media has to say about Shakespeare in Love:

Parents need to know that this movie has numerous racy moments, including graphic sexual scenes and partial female nudity. Much of the dialogue carries a crass sexual undertone. However, the violence, consisting mostly of sword and dagger battles, is relatively benign for a teenage audience.

Common sense media on shakespeare in love

With all this being said, I’ve provided a very detailed breakdown of the five raciest and most crass moments of Shakespeare in Love so you can easily skip over them. Just freeze the image on your screen, move to the next appropriate timestamp and continue.

Note: Yes, it is a little disruptive to stop and start the film at five points. So, if five interruptions seems too much for you, consider eliminating one interruption by stopping at 47:37 and skipping straight to 49:34. (I did try that once, and while students missed a little, I felt the benefit of one less interruption outweighed what was missed.) But, it’s your call.

What Not to Watch: Shakespeare in Love

  • Stop at 17:44 (Will shouts “Burbage!”); then skip to 17:58.
  • Stop at 47:37 (Will extends arm for Viola); then skip to 47:46.
  • Stop at 48:53 (Will says “I must…”); then skip to 49:34.
  • Stop at 54:00 (Viola disguised as Thomas Kent says, “Tear the word…”); then skip to 55:29.
  • Stop at 1:04:35 (Marlowe shouts “Burbage!”); then skip to 1:05:37.

If you’d like a PDF of “what not to watch,” download it by clicking below.

Marilyn Yung

Yes, I wish I didn’t have to skip over so many parts of this movie. It’s a good resource for British Literature curricula, which as many teachers know, lack quality films (like The Dig on Netflix) to complement difficult texts.

Plus, students enjoy this Shakespeare in Love. My poetry class was captivated and watched it intently. In the past, I had always hesitated to view it, but decided to finally go for it by making a few adjustments and skipping over the objectionable parts.

Tell me how it goes should you decide to watch this movie with your students. Leave a comment below or on my Contact Page.

My next post will feature some additional resources to consider prior to watching Shakespeare in Love. This movie contains lots of historical information about Elizabethan theater and society, and the resources I’ll discuss will help your students get the most out of the movie. Find out about that upcoming post by becoming a follower or by adding your email to the Treasured Object Poetry sign-up below.

I’ve also included some links further below to some of my most popular British Literature posts. I hope you’ll check those out as well. Thanks for reading!

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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