Shakespeare and Love / Shakespeare in Love

Dr Caroline Gonda, lecturer in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, writes about our modern interpretations and misinterpretations of love and the theatre in Shakespearean England.

When you’re one of the greatest poets the world has ever known, a cultural icon and a National Treasure and all the rest, people feel free to invent their own versions of you even if the facts don’t fit. If there aren’t that many facts available to begin with, as there aren’t in Shakespeare’s case, so much the better.

Sometimes the versions people invent are political: in the First World War, both sides quoted Shakespeare to prove that they were in the right; in the 1980s, a Conservative Cabinet Minister said that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be voting Conservative.

Criticism and biography present us with hundreds if not thousands of different Shakespeares, with different religious and political beliefs, different motives for writing, different lives and loves. Nobody knows for sure exactly what Shakespeare’s own political views were, but on the basis of his works he’s been seen as anti-semitic and as criticising anti-semitism; as misogynistic and as pro-feminist; as glorifying and as attacking war, social hierarchy, monarchy and colonialism. Nobody knows for sure about Shakespeare’s private life, either: how do you weigh up the evidence of marriage and fatherhood found in legal documents against the evidence of the Sonnets, love poems addressed to both sexes?

Novelists and dramatists, who don’t have to be bound by the same rules as critics and biographers, can feel even freer than most to make up their own versions of Shakespeare.

This essay explores two very different ways of writing about Shakespeare and the meaning of love in his life and works: Oscar Wilde’s short story, ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ (1889) and the screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman for the film Shakespeare in Love (1998).

The difference between the two is not just a question of what they assume about Shakespeare’s sexuality, important though that is; it’s also about how they see the relationship between life and art, why they think Shakespeare matters and what they think his work means. In each case, these differences become clearer when you look at what they do with the theatrical convention of Shakespeare’s time that women’s parts were played by young male actors.

The young male actor is central to Wilde’s story, and his identity apparently holds the key to Shakespeare’s Sonnets; he is the mysterious ‘Mr. W.H.’ who appears as the dedicatee in the first edition of the Sonnets and who is described as their ‘onlie begetter’.

For the characters in Wilde’s story, what Shakespeare’s Sonnets reveal is his passionate love for the beautiful boy actor, the original performer for whom he creates his great heroines.

But Wilde’s story has more than one boy player in it: not just the sixteenth-century Mr. W.H. (or Willie Hughes, as the story calls him) but also, and crucially, the nineteenth-century Cyril Graham, who formulates this theory of the Sonnets and claims to have discovered the true identity of Mr. W.H. from clues in the Sonnets themselves. Cyril seems to be what Mr. W.H. would have become in late Victorian England: an amateur actor in early manhood, playing female roles in productions mounted by Cambridge University’s (then all-male) Amateur Dramatic Club. His friend and contemporary, Erskine, describes Cyril’s performance in As You Like It as ‘the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen’. In some ways it might seem that Cyril creates Mr. W.H. in his own image, yet the boy-actor theory of the Sonnets in Wilde’s story is a worked out and serious piece of criticism.

In the 1880s, a period of unusual sexual anxiety and the decade in which male homosexuality had been recriminalized, it was a dangerous theory to put forward, and Wilde’s usual publisher refused to touch the story so he had to publish it elsewhere.

Wilde’s story isn’t just daring for its time; with its gender fluidity and erotic possibilities it also gets much closer to the realities of Elizabethan drama than Shakespeare in Love is able to do in the late 1990s. In the Norman/Stoppard screenplay, boy actors are an embarrassment and a hindrance. As Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) fumes, ‘Stage love will never be true love while the law of the land has our heroines played by pipsqueak boys in petticoats!’ True love, the film suggests, can only be played by true (heterosexual) lovers, so that Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) ends up playing Romeo while Viola herself plays Juliet, in the first performance of the play which only their love affair has inspired and enabled him to write in the first place. (The fact that Shakespeare didn’t play leading roles – he tended to do character parts, ghosts, old men and so forth – is not allowed to get in the way here.) It’s part of the film’s joke that – unlike her namesake in Twelfth Night, which Shakespeare is writing at the end of Shakespeare in Love – Viola makes such an implausible boy (as the Boatman says, ‘Wouldn’t deceive a child’). But it’s also important that she shouldn’t be too believable as a boy, so that no homoerotic possibilities upset the Hollywood apple-cart.

Viola de Lesseps has a nerve, we might think, talking about pipsqueak boys in petticoats. But her outburst echoes one of the most famous remarks about acting in all of Shakespeare. In Act V, Scene 2 of Antony and Cleopatra, the defeated Cleopatra grimly imagines what life will be like if she is taken to Rome as a prisoner, including the prospect of seeing herself (mis)represented on stage by a boy actor: ‘I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness’. It’s a moment which could easily provoke jeers and laughter if the actor playing Cleopatra isn’t fully convincing himself, and the comment shows Shakespeare’s confidence: in his own use of conventions, in the audience’s acceptance of them, and in the skills of his performer.

For Shakespeare in Love, there’s a straightforward correlation between life and art: Shakespeare falls in love, writes a play about being in love, and stars in it opposite the woman he loves. Romeo and Juliet, the film implies, is his greatest achievement, because it’s (all about) true love. (It’s also – even more so since Baz Luhrmann’s film – the Shakespeare play most likely to be familiar to a wide audience.)

In ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’, the Sonnets may be ‘the key that unlocks the mystery of the poet’s heart’, but Shakespeare the lover takes second place to Shakespeare the writer and writing is, and has to be, far more than ‘self-expression’. The beloved boy actor doesn’t just play Juliet, but a whole range of Shakespearean heroines, ‘Viola and Imogen, Juliet and Rosalind, Portia and Desdemona, and Cleopatra herself’.If one play is singled out by implication more than others in Wilde’s story, it’s As You Like It – the work in which, almost more than any other, Shakespeare plays with theatrical conventions and gender fluidity.

Its heroine, Rosalind, acted so perfectly by Cyril Graham, in the course of the play disguises herself as a young man called Ganymede (the name of Zeus/Jupiter’s beloved page-boy in classical mythology); is fallen in love with by a shepherdess, Phebe, who thinks ‘Ganymede’ really is a man; pretends to be Ganymede imitating Rosalind in order to conduct a mock love-scene with the man she really does love, Orlando; and finally reappears as herself so that she and Orlando can be married. In the Epilogue, ‘Rosalind’ seems to speak both in her own character and as boy player, or perhaps as something between the two, promising the men in the audience, ‘If I were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I defied not’. It’s a wonderfully disorientating moment which loses part of its effect when Rosalind is played by an actress.

I don’t think Shakespeare would share Viola de Lesseps’ discontent at seeing his heroines played by boys: for him, the theatrical conventions of his time are not a maddening straitjacket but a glorious opportunity.

How I wrote this essay

The most difficult thing about writing the essay was how much I found I had to leave out. Originally I had wanted to talk about lots of other fictional treatments of Shakespeare, some for adults and some for younger readers, but in the end there wasn’t room for any of them; this is part of a larger piece which will have more of that material in it.

The original impetus for writing about this subject came from two novels by the children’s writer Antonia Forest. Forest’s books, The Player’s Boy (1970) and The Players and the Rebels (1971), set in Shakespeare’s company at the time of Lord Essex’s rebellion against Queen Elizabeth, are surprisingly matter-of-fact about the importance of relationships between men, between boys, and sometimes between men and boys, in a way that reminded me of Wilde’s ‘Portrait of Mr. W.H.’ Her books also made me think about what a good focus the boy actor could be if you wanted to write fiction about Shakespeare, getting you close to Shakespeare without having to pretend to get inside his head.

When I was reading Forest’s books I was also remembering and rereading another children’s book, Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason (1940), which seemed to me much closer to the view taken by Norman and Stoppard in Shakespeare in Love; not because Shakespeare falls in love with anyone in the story, but because it takes the view that only girls and women can really play female parts properly and that boy actors are a poor second best.

Again, it seemed to me significant that the play which really shows this in Trease’s book is Romeo and Juliet; by contrast, the play which most shows the quality of the boy actor in Forest’s books is Twelfth Night, in which he plays Viola. It also interests me that the most recent work of fiction of this kind, Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows (1999), doesn’t engage with the question at all, though the boy actor who works with Shakespeare is a central figure. (The boy is playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so it’s less surprising than it might seem.)Amongst the books written for adults which I’d have liked to include is the wonderfully funny No Bed for Bacon (1941) by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon, a book with some family resemblance to the central plot of Shakespeare in Love (aristocratic young lady called Viola decides she wants to go on the stage, disguises herself as a boy for the purpose and becomes emotionally entangled with Shakespeare) as well as to some of its jokes (Shakespeare’s persistent indecision about the best way to spell his name, for example).

I’d also have liked to discuss Robert Nye’s energetic, irreverent and frequently bawdy novel, The Late Mr. Shakespeare (1998), a thoroughly unauthorized biography of the great man supposedly written by a former boy actor called Pickleherring. One of the best things about Nye’s book is the way it refuses to settle for one version of Shakespeare’s life and gives you lots of different variants, using everything from fact to critical speculation to folk tales.

The other thing I found difficult about this essay was the picture research. I wanted a picture which could give an idea of Cyril Graham playing Rosalind for the Amateur Dramatic Club at Cambridge, but found when I went through the ADC photograph albums from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that there were hardly any Shakespeare productions and certainly not As You Like It.

The picture I eventually found comes from a production of an eighteenth-century comedy, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic (1779), which has a play within a play set at the court of Queen Elizabeth the First.

I discovered quite early in my search that it wouldn’t be any use looking for photographs from the undergraduate drama society which Wilde himself would have known, the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS); unlike the ADC, which went on being exclusively male until the mid-1930s, the OUDS quite early on started using professional actresses to play women’s parts. Whereas Cambridge was worrying about the immorality of having professional actresses around the place, Oxford was more concerned about the effects of having women’s parts played by male undergraduates. At any rate, it was clear that Wilde’s fictional Cyril Graham would have had to be at Cambridge rather than Oxford, but Wilde’s idea of Cyril Graham as the perfect Rosalind almost certainly had no real-life Cambridge counterpart.

I didn’t have the space to engage with secondary literature in the essay, but I’d recommend Stephen Orgel’s book, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), as a good place to start.