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Two Popular Kinsmen?

Shakespeare, Stoppard, and the Aesthetics of Film Collaboration

Diana E. Henderson

While the popularity of Shakespeare in Love (1998) has further reminded Hollywood of the Bard’s marketability, at least as a biographical subject, that success may in great part be due to the wit of a late rather than early modern dramatist. From the 1960s when he penned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, through Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (1979), and on to this work as co-screenwriter with Marc Norman, Tom Stoppard has repeatedly called attention to his Shakespearean affiliations. Despite a similar way with words, however, the two Shakespearean film spin-offs to which Stoppard has contributed display vastly different aesthetics. His own direction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (US 1990, UK 1991) uses sweeping panoramas and silences to play against the text’s potential for dazzling verbal comedy, whereas director John Madden exploits Stoppard’s words precisely to that comic end, despite his film’s overarching sentimental romance. Here I address several issues raised by a famous playwright such as Stoppard playing the role of a film collaborator, becoming thereby one whose words mingle and become inextricable from the work of actors, directors and editors, designers, and other writers. I am especially interested in how Stoppard’s evident yet murkily defined contribution echoes–or rather, is reproduced in–Shakespeare In Love’s representation of how Elizabethan playwrights produced theatrical art. As a corollary, I investigate the ways present-day filmmakers present themselves as diachronic collaborators with Shakespeare --that is, as artists working with a long-dead writer in a relationship that is not simply competitive or anxious but generative.

At the same time, however, I want to suggest why "collaboration," understood politically as well as aesthetically, may be just the right word for such retroactive attachments and reformulations. That is, attending to collaboration allows us better to see Shakespeare in Love–a film that asks to be seen as simply and utterly delightful-- as symptomatic of capitalist postmodern art: a smart, politically blinkered celebration of style within a larger cultural context that includes its marketing and critical interpretation. In contrast to Stoppard’s eerie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, shot in Yugoslavia shortly before that territory reminded many Europeans and Americans of the horrors of historical inheritance, Madden’s film, for all its visual and verbal play, ultimately enshrines the Bard and the past, preferring familiar myths to the difficulties of history. But en route, its wit and overdetermined allusiveness capture much of value for understanding how modern artists work with Shakespeare. Beginning with a human-sized Will (Joseph Fiennes),1 the narrative traces his encounters with two very different "star" presences, Marlowe and Viola (aptly played by rising stars in Hollywood’s pantheon, Rupert Everett and Gwyneth Paltrow). The physical sacrifice and transumption of these two figures into Will’s mental material will eventually restore the bardolatrous image of Shakespeare that the film began, hilariously, by parodying–allowing Shakespeare in Love to play it both ways.

Part One: Taking Credit

Stoppard’s role as screenwriter for Shakespeare in Love extends and brings to the fore certain problems in traditional ways of talking about unitary authorship, particularly in discussing writers for inherently collaborative media such as theatre and film. This film aspires to move seamlessly as well as comically between the early and late modern, in dialogue, attitudes, and emphases. Additionally, more than one screenwriter worked with prior texts, actors, and producers, thereby reinforcing its kinship with the dominant practice of early modern playwriting. To attribute particulars in the final product to one man rivals the difficulties of labeling 400-year-old, oft-edited texts as "Shakespeare." Ironically, Joseph Fiennes felt it was remarkably bold to present Shakespeare as an ordinary writer, thinking it would "infuriate the scholars." Perhaps it did upset a few self-proclaiming bardolators. But for historicist-minded scholars, presenting Shakespeare as part of a collaborative business is precisely what the film gets right: for all the obvious anachronisms and comic inversions of the 1590s theatre scene that make the "letter" of the representation a joke, the "spirit" is true. The plot thematizes this resemblance between Elizabethan theatre and modern filmmaking, lauding the group process of creating entertainment in a manner guaranteed to please would-be artists in the audience: indeed, theatre friends of mine believe that the true "heart" and strength of the film is the story of the producer’s conversion, "the money" being won over through the power of words and performance so that show business serves art. Like so much in the film, that theatrical "mystery" is both toyed with and ultimately endorsed.

Despite enjoying this dimension of the film, my cultural critic training forces me to counter that as we watch the film quite the reverse of The Money’s conversion is happening: rather, Shakespeare’s words and theatre are being seductively packaged to sell tickets and the film business itself. Especially in the wake of Miramax’s unprecedented and successful expenditure in pre-Oscars advertising, the film looks less distinct from the crass marketing symbolised within the film by a throwaway visual joke, when Will Shakespeare throws away his doodled signatures into a "Greetings from Stratford Upon Avon" souvenir mug. At the Golden Globe Awards, Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein thanked Shakespeare for "inventing" not only "us" but "our industry." Glossing past exactly what that "industry" refers to–surely Shakespeare did not anticipate Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers as well as the psyche of Harold Bloom–Weinstein cashed in on the caché of Shakespeare’s name to mystify his own filmbiz. Or to put it slightly more charitably, he was hoping to naturalize the idea that money can turn into art, thereby allowing his production company to evade the ugliness associated with competitive capitalism even while engaging in it. By the time of the Academy Awards two months later, the "industry" supplanted the Bard entirely: whereas at the January ceremony Weinstein thanked Shakespeare, now he only thanked Gwyneth Paltrow and other actors, friends, and scriptwriters.

Which brings us back to Stoppard and attribution. Along with Marc Norman he too won awards, for screenwriting. On each occasion, Stoppard played second fiddle to Norman, the person who generated the story idea and has clearly absorbed the self-indulgent style of Hollywood acceptance speeches. Stoppard, by contrast, seized his few moments at the Golden Globes to make a seemingly spontaneous joke about his being asked to "wrap up", calling attention to both the off-color double entendre for British listeners (equivalent to the American "zip up your fly") and to the absurdity of his own belated position. Then, in a final sally, he thanked "the only begettor, Mr. H.W." The line seemed to allude to Shakespeare’s Sonnets–but to the dedicatee of the sonnets, not their author–and yet to Mr. H.W., not Mr. W.H. Was it another joke, despite the absence of any signal in Stoppard’s delivery? Misprision of a sort hearkening back to Bloom’s theory of anxious influence? Or a cynically apt tribute to the only begettor of a big-budget film, the producer: Mr. H[arvey]. W[einstein].? At the Oscars, Stoppard expunged Mr. W.H., H.W., and even, as in Weinstein’s case, Mr. W.S. himself from the list of acknowledgements . The moment nevertheless remains emblematic of the recontextualizing, consciously commercial playfulness of Stoppard’s allusive use of earlier authors, which would seem to be his major contribution to Shakespeare in Love, even if it is hard to pin down. If the film is not postmodern in its politics, it certainly looks close to it in its style: a simulacrum of Hollywood romance close enough to please "the industry" and many viewers who had no clue as to the identity of John Webster, had never heard of Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, and wouldn’t know a city comedy from As You Like It. At the same time, jokes based on all these topical allusions are part of the screenplay and reek of Stoppard’s style of intertextual playwriting. Shakespeare in Love may arrive late in the history of the theatrical and even filmic field of production, but it appears to enjoy more than worry about this belatedness. And Stoppard offhandedly gets to take credit for this attitude without taking himself seriously, sallying in as the bemused British muse, of and yet not of the Hollywood culture and "the business."

In giving Stoppard credit for this attitude within the film, though, perhaps I am selling Marc Norman short. Or, if not Norman, Stephen Greenblatt. Here indeed is a collaborator out of left field. Nevertheless, Greenblatt quickly took credit for two of the more interesting dimensions of Shakespeare in Love– while artfully denying that the finished product’s compulsory heterosexuality has anything to do with him. In an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times (Feb. 6 1999), Greenblatt describes how a young Marc Norman took him to lunch, asking what in Shakespeare’s life would make a good movie (and Greenblatt is indeed thanked among many others in the movies final credits). "It would be best, I told Mr. Norman, to focus on the period of Shakespeare’s life about which we know next to nothing–the late 1580’s and early 1590’s, after he left Stratford and before he became fully established in the London theater world." Greenblatt, then, gave us our setting. Moreover, after having suggested what he says resembled the plot of the year’s other Renaissance blockbuster, "Elizabeth" (to no avail), his imagination turned to Christopher Marlowe: "Why not have Shakespeare," Greenblatt recalls stating, "have an affair with Marlowe and then become involved, in some way or other, with Marlowe’s death?" While the scholar then wisely turns away from himself to make his criticism of the film’s heterosexual contextualization of Sonnet 18, we are left to contemplate his role as a source for the film’s more unconventional strengths: its use of Shakespeare’s respectful, anxious rivalry with Marlowe, and its creation of a fictional answer to the question, "How did Shakespeare become a sharer in Burbage’s company and such an inspired writer?" It seems everybody had a role in authoring this film. And Greenblatt implies that to the extent possible he played the comparable role for Shakespeare in Love that Marlowe played within it, saving Will from the mere conventionality of "Romeo and Ethel, the pirate’s daughter".

Now take, o take away all this, and all the lines and bits filched from Shakespeare’s plays, and for what shall we give Stoppard credit? Within the film, the treatment of playwrights is mocked; when The Money asks "Who’s that?" Henslowe replies "Nobody–the author." Of course, the plot turns against such scorners, as we see that it is "poetry" that Viola wants; indeed, she is enamored precisely with the figure of the author, proclaiming she has kissed not "Will" but "the author of the plays of William Shakespeare." Moreover, Shakespeare is as or more bereft because he thinks he may have silenced the voice of Marlowe than because his beloved Viola ran off upon hearing he was married. Ultimately, compensation for lost love comes in transcendent writing, as the film’s ending makes clear. The author, then, still does matter, at least within this movie. So who is the author of this movie?

The classic film studies answer would be John Madden, the director. But many viewers and even film critics have nevertheless attributed the film’s wit–including not only good lines but its larger narrative shape and logic--to Stoppard. As regards the formal echoes and allusions, they have good reason: Stoppard has made his name by playing with Shakespeare (as well as Wilde, Joyce, Byron, and most recently Houseman). Yet here we fall back on claims based on name and our sense of style–that is, precisely the kinds of evidence historically used to attribute early modern plays to single, singular names such as Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Webster, even though we know they were generated within a lively artistic community of writers and actors. Are we too being nostalgic in this enterprise, mired in Romantic assumptions about the solitary artistic genius? Is it because Hollywood presents itself in terms as crass as those associated within the film with actors such as Burbage, producers such as Henslowe, and functionaries such as Tilney? Or do we thereby slander the collaborative process with less self-consciousness and sense of humor than the play slanders those historical figures? I find myself at a precarious juncture: I want to talk about Stoppard and the film industry, but our ways of talking about them pull in opposite directions. Without care, the discussion of skill and intertextuality will lead back towards the Romantic figure of the solitary artist while the discussion of group interactions will lead to a predictable critique of the money-driven marketplace. That is, we are forced to choose between authorship by the one (and thereby become identified with a conservative aestheticism) or the many (and thereby become identified with a leftist anti-aestheticism). Such theoretical models distort the case: Stoppard has, after all, not only penned his own plays but had a hand in Spielberg films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade–hardly a work making artistic over market claims. Moreover, Stoppard’s own filmic style–in directing his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, for example–is far more brooding and stark than is Shakespeare in Love. The role of a limited number of artistic agents, creating a distinctive yet culturally embedded film and pooling their talents as well as their resources, gets lost in the familiar antitheses. Let us, then, turn anew to the concept of collaboration, both within the film and as a means to talk more fruitfully about Stoppard the screenwriter.

Part Two: Collaborators

Politically speaking, the twentieth century has given collaboration a bad name. From its first negative use during the post-1917 Socialist power struggles in Russia, through Marshall Pétain’s infamous announcement of his Vichy government, and from thence into popular political discourse, to be a "collaborator" or "collaborationist" has been tantamount to being a traitor. But there is an older, happier use of the word still in circulation among scientists and artists, with which the political term often collides. Within Shakespeare in Love, collaboration ultimately works the old-fashioned way, and to the extent that there is any political representation per se, it provides an object lesson in the necessity of artistic alliances in the face of power. When Will Shakespeare is treacherous--and he is--it is not because he collaborates but because he betrays that process: with Henslowe, with Burbage, and most notably with Christopher Marlowe. And in this last case, he heartily repents.

For all the press ink about the film, here is a most telling elision and misprision: Marlowe has been reviewed only as a rival and momentary upstager, not as Will’s collaborator. Indeed, one would only slightly exaggerate to call him Will’s, and the theatre’s, saviour. It is, ironically, The Money who saves Henslowe, of course, with two unexpected last minute assists: one from a collaborating rival in the theatre business, Richard Burbage, who hopes to show that actors are "men of parts" in multiple senses; the other from Queen Elizabeth herself, revealing her own theatrical conversion when she becomes a deus ex machina, or rather, a queen from the machine, after the climactic performance of Romeo and Juliet. But if that play succeeds in sparking such conversion narratives, it is in great part Marlowe’s doing--or rather, the mysterious result of Will’s duplicitous collaborations with Marlowe, on the one hand, and Viola, on the other. In each instance, Will encounters an iconic presence who reanimates his writing. Though the film ultimately suppresses the queer possibilities each encounter fleetingly suggests, nevertheless the figures of Marlowe and Viola, like those of Mercutio and Juliet into which they are transmuted, are the ones who allow Will to be himself reformed from the callow muse-seeking Romeo of act one into the tragically inspired poet of Act V. The inspiration comes, moreover, from the contingencies and material realities, the words and encounters of his immediate world, not from flights of angelic genius.

Will’s mixture of indebtedness to and resentment of Marlowe’s towering talent shapes the film’s narrative, shadowing the more obvious romance plot with its direct quotation of Shakespearean texts both comic and tragic. Will first takes interest in the actor Thomas Kent (the disguised Viola D’Oessops) because (s)he speaks Will’s own lines from Two Gentlemen of Verona, rather than Marlowe’s "Was this the face" speech from Doctor Faustus--lines which Will tries to discount as his rival’s "early work." Not only is this an ego-assuaging moment for Will but a relief for us all, as we have just been confronted with a motley crew of ill-speaking auditioners repeating "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" ad nauseum. The tedious weight of Marlowe’s fame is one of the film’s running jokes; even the boatman who shuttles the lovestruck Will brags, "I had Christopher Marlowe in my boat once." As The Money observes, "There’s no one like Marlowe." Thus it is a fitting sense of parody as well as jealousy that leads Will to assume Marlowe’s name when discovered to be a poet at the equivalent of Capulet’s ball by the Tybalt-cum-Paris figure, Wessex. And it is the belief that this misrepresentation has led to Marlowe’s death that sends Will into a penitent frenzy--far more distressing to him than his infidelity to either wife or mistress. Understandably so; he believes he has killed a man. And not only a man, but a dramatist for whose resurrection, Will claims, he would give up all his plays to come. Only we late moderns know what a loss that would be, and hence the gesture becomes all the more grand for us. At the same time, the film teases us with the parallel loss occasioned by Marlowe’s death, a loss now forgotten by the general public. The screenplay blames the botched printed text of The Massacre at Paris on Burbage’s cheapness: had he given Marlowe his money before the fateful trip down to a Deptford tavern, it posits, we would have Act 5 as the author intended. Having topsy-turvy fun by mismatching playwrights and acting companies, the film nevertheless reserves a mournful sigh for another kind of loss besides the sacrifice of heterosexual amour. For those surprised at Shakespeare’s sadness at Marlowe’s death, such as Viola herself, the screenwriters provide an easy comic answer: Will frankly replies, "He was not dead before." But the narrative also implies that such writerly anxiety and rivalry ultimately aren't as important as the bond among writers, both living and dead. It is left to Henslowe to represent the crassly competitive model, and he is roundly mocked for mishearing the cause of Marlowe’s death as "the billing" rather than the tavern "bill."

And indeed, what we saw earlier revealed a Marlowe far more concerned with his bills than his billing, willing to help Will without talk of getting the credit. Like Mercutio, Marlowe does not survive to get titular billing, but he is presented as equally crucial to the success of Romeo and Juliet. For it is Marlowe alive who provides both plot ideas and signifiers, and who thereby saves Will from writing a 1580s-style romance narrative of Ethel, the pirate’s daughter. At the tavern bar, Marlowe gives Will some of the basic changes needed to convert a would-be Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes into blank verse tragedy, by suggesting two warring Italian families and both the concept and name of Mercutio. For Will, Marlowe does indeed cast a long shadow, his Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine constantly cited admiringly by characters who only belatedly remember Henry VI and Two Gentlemen of Verona (and after all, who can blame them?). But when we actually see Will encounter Marlowe at the tavern bar, the picture changes. In addition to the shadow comes the substance: both the movie-star presence of Rupert Everett and a collaborative authorial presence with suggestions crucial to the play’s subsequent success.

These include, in the instance of Mercutio, an idea historically marked as "Shakespeare’s own." Here--as in Tom Stoppard’s plays--the more one knows about the facts behind the fiction, the more fun it is. For Romeo and Juliet is, of course, one of the Shakespeare plays for which we know much of the genealogy, and it doesn’t lead to Marlowe. Shakespeare’s most obvious extant source was Arthur Brooke’s 1562 The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, itself but one in a long line of adaptations traceable back to Luigi da Porto’s Giuletta e Romeo (c.1530). Shakespeare may have read the intermediaries as well: Matteo Bandello’s 1554 Romeo e Giulietta and Pierre Boaistuau’s version in Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques (1559). Painter’s Palace of Pleasure also translated the story in 1567, and Brooke refers to a stage version in his preface, which was written before Shakespeare’s birth. The story, then, was very much in public circulation. By choosing so well known a play with such evident sources, and then re-creating its fictional origin in the life of Shakespeare, requiring the person of Marlowe to save Romeo from immortality coupled with Ethel, the pirate’s daughter, the screenwriters advertise their own playfulness and truth to the spirit rather than the letter of artistic collaboration.

For who better than the riotous, mellifluous Marlowe to suggest Mercutio–the figure, as well as the name? Historically the name comes from Brooke, but nothing of the elaborated character is there: he is traditionally seen as the distinctive sign of Shakespeare at work. In Shakespeare in Love, Mercutio becomes instead the sign of Marlowe’s savvy both poetic and theatrical, as he thereby creates the perfect part for his own star actor, Ned Alleyn. The historical narrative in which Shakespeare gains from Marlowe–and we do of course know that he learned if not filched much from Marlowe’s plays–is thus represented here, but for those in on the joke it is also inverted: the film filches back the authorial credit for Mercutio from Shakespeare to Marlowe.

This joke carries the reminder that the historical Shakespeare was himself a diachronic collaborator, adapting his plots from what came before rather than creating them out of thin air. He worked by accretion and combination to produce multivalent, overdetermined texts, just as the film draws on multiple plots, figures, and sources. The rejection of Ethel and addition of Mercutio (to whom Will’s first response is tellingly, "good name") also reminds us what’s in a name, and wherefore it matters. The filtering and sound changes that transmute Ethel into Juliet rather than into Viola signify as much as does the plot change, the play between and among contingent signifiers and signifieds becoming the very stuff of mimetic art.

Marlowe, however, is not the only important playwright to intrude into this tongue-in-cheek bio-pic, and the other figure invokes the uglier side of the word "collaborator" that the Marlowe plot finally and idealistically rejects. If I were an adherent of Bloom or of Gilbert and Gubar, I would make the case that the portrayal of young John Webster confirms their theories of the anxiety of influence and the belated author’s feelings of monstrosity. The madwoman in the attic here becomes the urchin in the street, the boy who admires the parts of Titus Andronicus "when they cut heads off" and who likes "plenty of blood, that’s the only writing." Thus the future author of The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil, notorious not only for blood and body parts but for borrowed lines, is reduced to a nasty boy, one moreover who spies for the government, reveals Viola’s secret, and nearly destroys Henslowe’s acting company. Here is indeed the indebted writer as, rather than as experiencing, a nightmare. But of course blood is precisely what our screenwriters disdain, preferring instead the milder pains of foiled desire. Distancing themselves from exploitative film spectacle as descendants of the truer spirit of honey-tongued, gentle Will Shakespeare, Norman, Stoppard, and Madden instead stress the capaciousness of collaboration as a concept, with themselves among the happier and more creative beneficiaries.

Yet lest I leave the impression that this rosy view is the whole picture, or can be generalized as Stoppard’s position as Shakespeare’s diachronic collaborator, I must briefly recall the film in which he had a larger hand, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Whereas Shakespeare in Love defies time by presenting its sixteenth-century characters as motivated by the same desires as modern filmmakers and lovers, Stoppard’s earlier play and film remind us of the gaps between his existentially burdened courtiers and the orderly narrative in which they are ultimately trapped. One of the most inspired scenes in the film occurs when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern complacently view a dumbshow performance of Hamlet’s tragic conclusions. Their inability to understand their own complicity, their ugly responsibility as collaborators with a murderous usurper, is thereby made all the more obvious to us–but not to themselves. Tellingly, too, this most poignant sequence is all visual, reinforcing the film’s general choice to supplement the play’s wit with long silences, sacrificing the kind of verbal dazzle that Shakespeare in Love relies on to keep its comedy afloat--afloat, that is, until its final shipwreck. And even that shipwreck is transmuted into a transcendent ending, a new if perhaps only fictive beginning for Viola and a new play for Will. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have an encounter at sea, by contrast, it is but one more inexplicable stage leading towards their requisite death. For R & G, coming in late and collaborating are fatal actions.

Anxious modernity certainly appears in R&G, and early modern rivalries among writers certainly existed, flaring up in Elizabethan controversies such as the Marprelate tract war and the "War of the Theatres." And even in Shakespeare in Love, Webster remains, the political and artistic destroyer, the voyeur who like Madden’s camera exposes a sexual tryst to the prurient public gaze. But this look at Stoppardian collaboration may lead us to consider a more capacious and creative role for the collaborative process in the production as well as the reception of Shakespearean performance texts--along with, rather than only in opposition or exclusion to, an explicitly political critique.

I have intentionally emphasized words and narrative rather than the cinematic aspects of "Shakespeare in Love" for this reason. To some, at a moment when the study of Shakespeare and film has finally incorporated enough understanding of film techniques, process, and vocabulary to become more than the old literary model of Shakespeare on film–a notoriously unsatisfying project that film scholars disdained–my choice might seem retrograde if not perverse. But it is precisely because we are now well aware of film’s visual properties that we are in a better position to examine the role of words and narrative anew. An analogous situation exists in performance studies, where only after decades of Shakespeare the poet and then Shakespeare the theatrical participant has it become possible (within academic protocols, at least) to discuss the poetic elements as one key aspect within the larger performance context. Similarly, if we can regard the witty words of this co-authored screenplay neither as non-cinematic talk intruding from the medium of theatre, nor as the elite essence of the event, then we can truly regard Stoppard as one among many collaborators creating a form of popular art. This is art that playfully alludes to The Shining and The Young Poisoner’s Handbook just as it does to the plays of Shakespeare and Webster while marketing itself as a mainstream date movie. Nor does the death of a singular author mean the absence of all authorship. If we can see Tom Stoppard as one key player amidst the swirling production, then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to see Shakespearean texts themselves not as Bardic monuments of genius or anxiety but as analogous works of popular if thoroughly commercialized collaboration–works that, despite the occasional barroom flare-up and desire to leave the loathèd stage, came out all the better for that process. "Better" does not mean politically unimplicated or free from criticism; but it would be more useful than simply condemning such facets for us to recognize and explore how they are symptomatic of contradictions within their culture, and how those symptoms do or do not reappear in modern culture, in which we too participate. By so doing, we may in turn better account for the popularity of the particular formulations of old and new, familiar and postmodern, conservative and experimental, characteristic of late twentieth-century Shakespeare on film. As Shakespeare in Love attests, impurity too has its virtues.

[ footnotes here]

Works Cited

Norman, Marc and Tom Stoppard. Shakespeare in Love: A Screenplay. New York: Hyperion/Miramax Books, 1998.

Shakespeare in Love. Miramax Films/Universal Pictures/Bedford Falls Company,. John Madden, director. 1998.