Confession Time: Why I Love Shakespeare in Love


For some reason, Shakespeare in Love (1998) doesn’t get a lot of love in among fans of historical costume movies. Despite the fact that the costumes by the great Sandy Powell are quite high quality, this romantic comedy gets written off by a lot of folks, including the rest of our Frock Flicks staff here. Is it simply because this is a romantic comedy? Well, hello, most of Jane Austen’s oeuvre is romantic comedy, but ya’ll go nuts for her. Or is it something else? Let’s go through the pros and cons of Shakespeare in Love, and I bet we’ll realize in the end that this is a fine film, well worth your reconsideration.


Pro: The costumes are fabulous

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Hello, Sandy Powell! She knows her stuff, and we loves her. She justifiably won the Best Costume Academy Award for this movie. The look is generally accurate to the 1590s setting with a few exceptions (we’ll get to it, promise). The silhouettes are great, and in various dressing and undressing scenes, we see late 16th-century stays, smocks, farthingales, and such. The trimming is lush and gorgeous. There are a range of characters, from scummy lower-class actors and ruffians to middling-class bankers to Queen Elizabeth’s court, and everybody wears garb appropriate to their station and that helps tell the story and build a world within the film.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

For the most formal court occasion, Paltrow gets a sparkly wired ruff.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Martin Clunes as theater owner Richard Burbage is decked out in embroidery, but check out his girlfriend’s spiral-laced kirtle with not a metal grommet to be seen!

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) is literally covered in pearls.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Master of the Revels (Simon Callow) is a super-flashy jerk.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

The actors are less flashy but they mostly have hats, ruffs, and appropriate layers, even touches of embroidery and trim.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Paltrow also has some fabulous dressing gowns.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

And while the embroidery on her stays is very faux-Elizabethan, the shape works for the period.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

For a kind of throwaway costume that’s on screen for a hot second, the wedding outfits are just as elaborate as anything else worn by these characters.


Con: Leading-character syndrome, this film has it

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

OK everyone, vent your spleen about Gwyneth Paltrow’s hair and Joseph Fiennes’ open shirt. UGH. WE GET IT. They’re the leads. They’re modern and relatable. cue massive eye rolling from everyone who writes and reads this site But hey, it could have been a lot worse, so even when I watch it now, this doesn’t bother me too much. I’ll forgive her hair mostly because the main times when she wears it down are in states of undress or in the final stage scene as Juliet, so it’s literally a theatrical choice. OK, there’s that other time too… Obviously, YMMV.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Great dress! But what, we’re wearing our hair down because it’s at home? Uh, no.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Nope, no excuse.


Pro: Great minor characters

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Colin Firth plays a super well-dressed super baddie who wants to marry Gwynnie for her money. He’s the jerkiest jerk who ever got jerked over without realizing it. Judi Dench as a smart-ass ballsy Queen Elizabeth I, who’s not going to wait for your damned cloak.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Then there’s the theater people, which anyone who’s worked behind the scenes will recognize as beloved tropes. Geoffrey Rush is the always hustling theater manager who is convinced the show will go on, how?, it’s a mystery! (as someone who’s spent decades running costumed events, I deeply identify with that character). Tom Wilkinson as the banker who starts out holding Rush’s feet literally to the fire but then gets sucked into the theater magic.  The Oscar-winning screenwriter was Tom Stoppard here, and you just know he pulled these characters from all his own memories of working in the drama world.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) has a small role, cross-dressing as Juliet’s nurse. And note how Paltrow’s boy clothes are complete down to the under-doublet.


Con: Some casting flubs

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

I dunno, Ben Affleck? Is that the best they could do? I read they had to cast him, and he’s not the worst, but he always sticks out a little as super-modern to me. But other people complain about Geoffrey Rush, some dislike Paltrow. No film is perfect.



Pro: Cross-dressing gender-play romance

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

The major conceit of the film is that Gwyneth Paltrow’s character cross-dresses as a boy to play the male lead, Romeo, in Shakespeare’s new play. Of course, at the time, boys played female roles, so a male actor is playing Juliet during the many rehearsal scenes in the movie. And then Paltrow’s character is talking over the boy-in-drag to an actual male, Fiennes, who she’s in love with. Cute, no?

Shakespeare in Love (1998)


Con: It’s pretty cis-gender, hetero after all

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Yeah, yeah, I know. The scenes play with all the crosswise romance, but the only “real” approved OK love is between the heteronormative leads. C’mon, it’s a big-budget Hollywood movie from 1998, you can’t expect too much boundary pushing.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)


Pro: Shakespeare!

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

As the resident English literature geek here, I adore how Tom Stoppard wove actual Shakespearean text from different plays and a few poems throughout the film, either direct words or references. It’s clever and feels fun, instead of just being a straight-up Shakespeare play.


Con: Not really Shakespeare

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Well, sure, it’s not traditional Shakespeare, and the story is almost total fiction other than some of the characters names and the basic setting. But for historical fiction, this is the way to do it (I’m looking at you, Phillipa Gregory).


Pro: Romance! Poetry! C’mon, have a heart!

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

If you want a date movie for history nerds, this does what it says on the label. It’s got Shakespeare, it’s got love, there’s sweet poetry-in-bed scenes, there’s fancy dress balls, you get multiple versions of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, and the ending isn’t ‘happily ever after’ a la Disney either.For all my dark, bitter exterior, I’m a romantic at heart (deep, deep at heart, underneath a really cold, crusty layer), so this flick speaks to me.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)


Con: You’re dead inside?

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

People who aren’t in the mood for a romance just aren’t gonna be swayed at this point. Oh well.



Where do you stand on Shakespeare in Love?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

47 Responses

  1. picasso Manu

    Shakespeare isn’t something sacred for me (we Frog eating Frenchies are horrible that way…), so I guess I view any potential blasphemy with much more cool than English natives.

    If I remember right, I quite liked it at the time. Mostly for the more minors characters… Judy Dench as Elizabeth is jaw dropping.
    And yes, looking at the pics now, EXCELLENT costuming on almost everybody appart from lead actors *insert eye roll here*… I’m especially impressed by the exaggerated foreheads on the court ladies!

  2. bshaurette

    I’m with you, Trystan – I love this film. The costumes are amaze-balls, so many of the performances are so good. But if I had to guess the biggest reason why people write this one off, I would have to say Paltrow. She just never seemed like a good fit for costume dramas. Maybe it’s the terrible fake British accent?

    (Or maybe my tastes are just all wrong, because I actually like Ben Affleck in this. :) It was a small part, and at that point in his career he had just the right amount of swagger. And him as Ned Alleyn was such an unexpected choice.)

  3. Susan Pola

    I love it too. And Dame Judi copped an Oscar for less than 15 minutes screen time. Also Ms Powell’s costumes are TDF.
    Romeo & Gertrude, kinda catchy? N’est pas.
    ‘I don’t know, Will. It’s a puzzlement.’

  4. LizaJane

    I love that Tom Stoppard wrote a script about a gorgeous woman falling for a scriptwriter.

  5. Jill

    Yes, the Ben Affleck casting confused me, as well, but he does have that great scene and line when he complains about being cast as Mercutio, likes having the Queen Mab speech, “but then he disappears for the length of a Bible.” The first time I heard that the popcorn nearly snorted out my nose. A perfect Ben line.

  6. Jill

    I agree that it was a little odd to see Ben Affleck in a bit part, but he gets one of the best lines, when he complains about his character Mercutio delivering the brilliant Queen Mab speech “but then he disappears for the length of a Bible.” LOVE

  7. Stephani

    I LOVE this movie. In my mind, a few weird casting and costuming choices don’t negate its overall brilliance. It is brilliant in every way. I roll my eyes a few times, and I don’t heart Gwyneth, but taken as a whole this film has literally everything. It is magic and magic defies reason or logic.

  8. phlegmfatale

    I will own that I had a love/hate reaction to the film. The costumes are superb, but La Paltrow can be grating. Geoffrey Rush with manky teefs? Yes, please! Judi Dench? Say no more. Affleck? Meh. There was something almost too slick and pat about the production that was underscored by the inclusion then-“It girl” Paltrow. What finally dragged me– halfheartedly kicking– onto the lurve side of the fence was the superb script. Since my first pre-teen viewing of “The Lion In Winter,” I’ve been entranced by tart, masterfully engineered dialogue. Stoppard blew my tiny little mind with “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead,” so it follows that his wry script to SIL would win me over. Shortcomings notwithstanding, this film is a fond-ish memory for me, but one which I’d only revisit on rare occasions.

  9. Charity

    I love this movie so much (it’s so FUN, and HILARIOUS, and the visual gags are stupendous!) that I have a hard time understanding people who hate it. How can you hate it? Isn’t it GORGEOUS??? Isn’t the score marvelous??? Aren’t the costumes fabulous??? I just can’t even.

    • Judy P

      The job I had at the time had a voicemail system that connected to a CD player for the hold music. I convinced them to use the SiL score CD and callers would always ask what it was. We used it for like, a year.

  10. Sara L.

    I also love this movie, and have never understood the backlash it has withstood in recent years. Helps that I am a Tom Stoppard fan girl, ever since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (the movie that also sparked my love for both Gary Oldman and Tim Roth). The script is fantastic, the costumes are lovely, and I quite like the leads. Ben Affleck is a bit of a headscratcher, to be sure, but I just roll with it, just like I did with Keanu in Much Ado About Nothing.

  11. Karen K.

    I love this movie as much now as I did when it first came out 20 years ago. I saw it on the big screen again last year (special screening at the Alamo Drafthouse WITH SPECIAL MENU) — I was delighted by how well it has held up. You can’t beat the script, the costumes and sets are fab, and how hunky is Joseph Fiennes?

    • Trystan L. Bass

      It really does hold up. I watch it every few years, thinking, oh this is going to suck now, but nope, it’s still magical fun, such a witty script carries me away, every damn time.

  12. Dianne

    I love this movie. Like almost everyone else, I’m drawn by the attention to detail of the minor characters, and I can forgive a few noticeable blips in hair and shirt styling. Plus, of course, the never less than fabulous Judi Dench.

    May have to pop into the DVD player later on.

  13. Emma Bull

    Ben Affleck just needed a big ol’ earring. Maybe two. But I freakin’ love this movie. Saw it in a theater in L.A. during pre-Oscar screenings, which was an unfair advantage: the audience got every theater joke and howled with laughter. (I was the only one who guffawed at John Webster and the rat, though. Needed more English majors in the house.)

    • Linda Davies

      Emma Bull, yeah, the old lady in front of me actually turned around to SHUSH me for laughing at the Webster bits. I think she thought I was having a private joke with my husband. And I was a finance major who is a closet history, literature and costume geek. I LOVE Stoppard’s writing. (Oh, and throw in Rupert Everett in slops? Yeah, I’m down with that…)

  14. CatnipTARDIS

    This is one of the movies or shows with which we themed each of our wedding tables (the others being Doctor Who, Galaxy Quest, Hot Fuzz, Ever After, and Star Trek: First Contact). Each table had four placards each with a line or dialog we love or quote often amongst ourselves and an accompanying screenshot. For Shakespeare in Love, we had drunk Fennyman boasting about being the “apothrecree”, one of the many “it’s a mystery”, Ralph’s pirate-king-to-nurse “that’s funny”, and Ned’s “length of a bible”.

    I actually think Ben Affleck is great as Ned. He was still high up on the new-star radar after Good Will Hunting’s success, so the meta of him playing the small part of a stars-in-everything egomaniacal actor given a much smaller part was hilarious genius.

    One of the things that makes Powell one of my absolute favorites is her attention to texture. (Although Atwood wins for my favorite single costume piece–the Hessian’s cloak in Sleepy Hollow. O. M. G. I swear I spent 15min at the Burton exhibit just staring at that thing. Anyway…) The leatherwork in particular on this film is amazeballs. I got to see a few costumes at LACMA a couple years back, including Shakespeare’s teal doublet, and it does not disappoint.

    The script is so much fun, whether a seasoned Shakespeare nerd or not. Including bit from his work made the story more fun. Throwing in John Webster liking the violence in Titus Andronicus (who IRL was a playwright known for gory tragedies) and Marlowe himself brainstorming Romeo and Juliet’s title, characters, and setting (one of the theoretical writers of Shakespeare’s work) made for some fantastic in-jokes.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yes, the texture of the costumes, it’s really amazing. The depth & layering, the embroidery / trims / detailing, even on the most minor character who’s onscreen for the shortest scenes. Each & every costume helps build the world. Powell is truly a master of her art!

  15. Alys Mackyntoich

    I suspect that much of the hate for Shakespeare in Love is due to its having beaten Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture.

  16. Valerie

    I adore this movie! The costumes- the dialogue- and even Ben Affleck (this movie is his first performance with a strong director who forced him to be something other than Ben affleck). I love Shakespeare, and I though Stoppard’s script was terrific. My only complaint was the super crappy facial hair on Paltrow- a good actor would have noticed how fake that was!

  17. Maggie

    This is easily in my top five fav costume movies. Everything is exquisite and if I could snap my fingers and own Viola’s wardrobe, I would. I was even obsessed with the long princessy hair when this came out. I loved Gwenyth in it at the time – I can’t stand her now, but this was pre-GOOP. And ditto Ben. This was before they both picked up a lot of the baggage they have now. I actually liked Ben. And his “you will find me a grave man” delivery was good too. I love the ending, the play with a play, Stoppard’s script… Two thumbs up!

  18. Frannie Germeshausen

    I’m so glad to find I’m not alone in enjoying this movie. I need to track it down now!

  19. Kate D

    One of my all-time favorite movies! Tom Stoppard’s great writing, Shakespeare’s lines cropping up everywhere, the amazing soundtrack, the gorgeous costumes, and Joseph Fiennes? Yes, please.

  20. themodernmantuamaker

    I should probably give it another chance. I’m now much better acquainted with more of the supporting cast (Martin Clunes!) and would probably appreciate them even more now. I was ok with Paltrow at the time but find her super annoying now, so that may be a challenge.

    I actually really enjoyed this movie when it came it out. What turned me against it were the Oscars. I was firmly camp Elizabeth/Cate Blanchett. That SIL beat Elizabeth for nearly (if not actually) every award in which they were competing made me so angry I literally stopped watching the Oscars from then on, convinced it was all rigged. Historical and costume inaccuracies aside I just thought it was an overall better, more sophisticated production – maybe that’s because I can’t get all the inside theatrical jokes of SIL, I dunno. I still can’t believe Paltrow got the award over Blanchett and secretly believe she must have been shagging or bribing someone for it.

    Over the years my bitterness towards it simply became habitual. But I am willing to concede that it may not be entirely justified and you’ve made me curious to see how I’d like it now.

    • Trystan L. Bass

      I didn’t even remember that Shakespeare in Love came out the same year as Elizabeth! Funny bec. Elizabeth doesn’t hold up IMO with the exception of Cate Blanchett’s performance. In Elizabeth, the plot & characterizations are terrible & the historical inaccuracies drive me batty. Plus the costumes are stripped-down 16th-c. w/a dash of Bollywood fabrics. It’s only got Cate to recommend it.

      • phlegmfatale

        The bumbling of The History in Elizabeth sent me ’round the bend, but the film is nonetheless cemented in my affections by the vision of Christopher Eccleston in mad rut with one of the maids. Can one wear out a digital file with repeated rewind/watch/rewind events? One aspires.

      • Frannie Germeshausen

        I seem to remember yelling at the screen because the writers of Elizabeth played so fast and loose with history. The real story is better than what they cooked up!

          • Gill

            I cannot bear the use of my beloved Romanesque Durham Cathedral as a Tudor palace, and I’m a Stoppard and a Shakespeare fan, so SIL won hands down for me.

      • themodernmantuamaker

        I didn’t know the history at the time the movie came out but it actually inspired me to learn. SIL didn’t inspire me that way and I was unimpressed with someone, yet again, acting like Romeo & Juliet is Shakespeare’s greatest masterpiece when it isn’t really one of his best – unless, perhaps, you take it as a satirical comedy.

        Of course, these movies are also close contemporaries with Dangerous Beauty, which I loved when I first saw it at approx. 20 yrs old, and as we all know: YMMV.

    • Sara M

      This is me too!!!! I remember yelling at the screen that Cate was robbed. I forever associate it with it stealing Elizabeth’s awards. How funny, I’m not alone!

  21. Chiara

    SIL is one of my favourite movies ever. I don’t particularly like the lead actors, but I love all the secondary characters (nobody mentioned Rupert Everett as Marlowe??). Everytime I watch it, I seem to find another juicy literary reference. And speaking about that, the whole sex/disguise thing is typical of the elizabethan theatre and Shakespeare played with the ambiguity in more than one comedy. It’s just delicious.

  22. ladylavinia1932

    I never understood this hostility toward Gwyneth Paltrow. Then again, I never understood why so many seem willing to castigate other successful actresses between the ages of 25 to 45 . . . especially when they win an Oscar at a young age. Paltrow, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence . . . it seem as if society is hostile toward actresses when they are young and successful.

    • tiamatfire

      I wasn’t wild about her but not for any particular reasons until she went off the deep end with that GOOP crap. She disgusts me now, so many of her so-called treatments and beliefs are extremely harmful, and her anti-vaxx stance is appalling.

      I loved this movie but struggle to watch it now because of her. All I can see is the harm she’s causing. I have no problem with celebrity but it needs to be used for good, not ill.

  23. Aleko

    Agree that the costumes and sets are amazing (I read that the theatre set was entirely made in wood by carpenters using traditional techniques, and when Judi Dench heard it was just going to be broken up after filming she bought it, to be re-built as a training facility for drama students), the performances are great and the script peerlessly witty. And almost more than all of these I love it because it is blatantly a practical joke played on Paltrow, who clearly believed she was in a romantic movie about Tru Lerve and Going for your Dreams, whereas everyone else involved (with the possible exception of Affleck) knew they were in a comedy about the impossibility of getting a play put on.

  24. Erin

    Yeah, I’m just going to have to see this again.

  25. Kelly

    I love this film so much–and the stage version is a total delight, too–and how great to see a comedy win Best Picture. There’s never enough respect for the laughs in life.
    But please remember that Tom Stoppard, genius though he is, was one of the two writers of this script: Marc Norman was the other writer, and he never gets the attention.
    The first time I saw this in the movie theatre, I was so utterly distracted by the beautifully-detailed costumes that I sort of missed the Romeo and Juliet parallel–and I have a master’s degree in Shakespeare! But the outfits are that good. Her jonquil yellow Greenwich gown is my favorite–I did a copy of it, but couldn’t begin to match the beauty of the ruff in Powell’s original.
    And has anyone figured out why she’s in that wonderful green and gold riding habit when she goes to church and realizes that Will isn’t dead after all, and then they’re sitting by the river, and suddenly her hair is down and she’s in a completely different, pale aqua and gold, outfit? Please enlighten!