10 Statements ‘Shakespeare In Love’ Makes About Women’s Rights

Shakespeare In Love Poster
Shakespeare In Love is one of those films that gets a lot of hate from critics and movie buffs. Its crime? Beating Saving Private Ryan for the Best Picture Academy Award. Funny, I didn’t know that when the Academy makes a decision you disagree with, it somehow instantly makes the winning film terrible. The Academy makes terrible decisions all the time – but that’s a problem with the voters, not the films they choose. At any rate, I think another reason why this film gets an enormous amount of hate is because it’s a romantic comedy. A CHICK FLICK, OH MY GOD! And yet, this supposed ‘Chick Flick’ was directed by a man, written by men (including Tom Stoppard, a playwright most famous for Rozencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead) and with a cast (for historical reasons) mostly populated by men. 

And yet, oddly enough, this film is pretty feminist. The rights and roles of women have come a very, very long way since the 1590s, and yet this film shows us the major societal problems that occur when women are denied agency. The lack of rights given to the film’s heroine, Viola DeLesseps, seem needlessly cruel and puritanical to modern standards. However, Queen Elizabeth I’s reign should be seen as an important time in feminist history. Not only did she prove to England, and the world, that a woman could rule and be a highly capable leader on her own without a husband, she brought England into a Golden Age. Elizabeth I is thus used in this film as a symbol of the kinds of heights women can achieve if they are only given the opportunity.

What this shows me is that if feminists keep fighting for women’s (and LGBTQ, and POC) rights, future generations will also look back on our era and see our as of yet denied rights the same way we view the rights denied women in the Renaissance era. The things we have been fighting for will be considered a given. Progress is only a future away.

By showing the major societal flaws that occur when women are denied agency, here are 10 statements that Shakespeare In Love makes on Women’s Rights:
Shakespeare kisses Viola as Thomas Kent
1. Women were not allowed to be actors: The first major conflict of the film is Viola’s longing to be an actor. She adores Shakespeare’s plays and reveres poetry above all. But it was the law that only men can appear on stage as actors in plays; it was seen as lewd and obscene for women to act. This is one of those aspects of Elizabethan society that seem positively absurd by modern standards. Could you imagine our movie industry today if every female character was played by crossdressing men and prepubescent boys? And yet, some vestiges of this type of law still remain – women are still seen as the gatekeepers of morality. It is still a fact that some things are seen as okay for men to do, but obscene and disgusting for women to emulate. Slut vs. stud, anyone? At any rate, there is a blatant women’s rights violation here in that Viola’s true ambition – just to act – is seen as illegal and immoral.

2. Fathers control their daughters’ destinies. As the beautiful daughter of a social climbing merchant, Viola DeLesseps is seen by her father as a mere asset, not his child. He does not even ask her if she desires to be married, nor does he tell her that he has decided her future for her behind her back. He is even contemptuous of her when speaking to her future husband, and blatantly bribes the Earl of Wessex to marry her: “Is she obedient?” “As any mule in Christendom. But if you are the man to ride her, there are rubies in the saddlebag.” Marriage at this time, at least for nobility/aristocracy was seen more as a business or political transaction, and love is never considered.
3. Husbands control their wives even before they’re married. Lord Wessex is not a nice guy. At the DeLesseps’ party, Wessex refers to Viola as “my property” before their engagement is even official. He threatens Shakespeare’s life for admiring Viola – he is extremely possessive of her, and Viola does not even know yet that she is to marry him. He later starts ordering Viola around, throwing screaming fits if she dares to be late. Viola’s unguarded contempt of Wessex, and her later escape from their wedding carriage to see the play, show that she is strong-willed, and not at all likely to be the submissive bride he was hoping for. Viola is thus pushing the limits of freedom that are available to her in defiance of the arranged marriage.
4. Women are not allowed to make their own choices of marriage. The pain that Viola’s arranged marriage causes serves as the other major conflict of the film. Viola can never marry Shakespeare. Even if he were not married with children, he is poor, and playwrights/actors are seen as the amongst the lowest class people in London. As the daughter of a rich merchant, she would never be allowed to marry so far beneath her station. Her father has bought the Earl of Wessex so his grandchildren will be nobility – she is not even given the choice as to whether she may have children or not. It is Viola’s duty to follow her father’s wishes – she does not get any choice at all. She also knows that were she to defy Wessex, Queen Elizabeth would know the cause, and execute Shakespeare for it, as Elizabeth has given her official consent to the marriage. 
5. Women are expected to be submissive and humble. The Earl of Wessex must get the Queen’s consent to marry, so Viola is to appear at court before her. Wessex thus demands that she be “submissive, modest, grateful and brief” when she is presented to the Queen. He is in effect asking Viola to defy everything that she feels inside just so Lord Wessex can increase his personal fortune. Because she is an actor, she initially behaves as he requests, but when she impulsively defends the ability of plays/poetry to represent the truth and nature of love, she actually impresses Elizabeth enough for her to officiate a wager between Lord Wessex (who denies that plays have this power) and a disguised Shakespeare. The ironic subtext of Wessex’s demands is that he is expecting Viola to behave as would please a man of that time, forgetting that Elizabeth is first and foremost a woman.
Viola and Shakespeare as Romeo & Juliet
6. Women are seen as possessions. As mentioned earlier, Lord Wessex refers to Viola as “my property” before their engagement has even become official. Her father compares her to a mule, and vulgarly makes a double entendre about “riding” her to Lord Wessex. Lord Wessex also goes into a murderous rage and is intensely jealous that William Shakespeare has won Viola’s love. The only thing that he shows pleasure in is when he believes that Shakespeare (who he thinks is Christopher Marlowe) has died. His power is such that he can threaten Shakespeare’s life, in public, in front of multiple witnesses who are friends of his, without fear of repercussion – Shakespeare covets that which belongs to Wessex. But the women in this story know better. On Viola’s wedding day, both her Nurse and her mother are weeping – not for joy, but for knowing that the men of the age control Viola’s destiny.
7. Consent is seen as optional. There is a very strong contrast between Lord Wessex and William Shakespeare in how they approach Viola as a lover. When Wessex informs Viola that they are to be married, he tells her, “You are allowed to show your pleasure.” He then informs her that he chose her because he was attracted to her lips, and then forces a kiss on her. When she slaps him, he reminds her that she cannot defy her father nor her Queen. In contrast, when Shakespeare and Viola prepare to make love for the first time, he interrupts her to make sure that she truly does consent to sex with him: “Wait! You’re still a maid, and perhaps as mistook in me as I was mistook in Thomas Kent.” “Are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?” “I am.” “Then kiss me again, for I am not mistook.” The true and ideal nature of love is for both parties to enthusiastically consent to physical pleasure – it is quite telling that the poor playwright respects the agency of women far more than the rich Earl does.
8. Virginity is seen as a prize to be won. When Viola is presented to Queen Elizabeth, she detects that something is different about her, and correctly surmises that she has fallen in love and lost her virginity since the last time she saw her. She tells Lord Wessex: “Have her, then. But you are a lordly fool. She’s been plucked since I saw her last, and not by you. It takes a woman to know it.” Notably, she is not implying that Wessex is a fool for marrying a non-virgin, but for marrying a woman that will never love him. This above all makes Wessex murderously jealous. And yet, Viola too sees her lost virginity as something that was precious: “I loved the writer and gave up the prize for a sonnet.” She has no regrets about her love affair with Shakespeare, but also knows that Lord Wessex is not likely to forgive her for emotionally and physically loving anyone but him.
9. Elizabeth I is sympathetic to Viola’s situation. Viola was recruited to play Juliet when the teenage boy actor’s voice had suddenly broken, and the Master of the Revels was intending to arrest all of the actors for knowingly allowing a woman to act onstage. Elizabeth I was watching the play in disguise. She comes to Viola’s rescue, and decides to pass her off as her pseudonym, Thomas Kent: “The Queen of England does not attend exhibitions of public lewdness. So something is out of joint. Come here, Master Kent. Let me look at you. … Yes, the illusion is remarkable. And your error, Mr. Tilney, is easily forgiven. But I know something of a woman in a man’s profession. Yes, by God, I do know about that.” Her last statement is incredibly powerful when related to how this film interprets women’s rights. She, more than anyone else in that era, knows what it is like to be someone who has all the power in the world, and yet none of it at the same time. She later reflects on the powers she does not have: “Why, Lord Wessex. Lost your wife so soon?” “Indeed, I am a bride short, and my ship sails for the new world on the evening tide. How is this to end?” “As stories must when love’s denied — with tears, and a journey. Those whom God has joined in marriage, not even I can put asunder. Master Kent. Lord Wessex, as I foretold, has lost his wife in the playhouse. Go make your farewells, and send her out. It’s time to settle accounts.”

10. Gender is but a performance. One of the more interesting subtextual elements of this film is how it chooses to approach gender. Most obviously, Viola convincingly played two male parts at the same time – that of her pseudonym, Thomas Kent, and as Romeo Montague. She would never have been discovered if she had not made love with Shakespeare in a place where they could be spied on. She binds her breasts when playing Thomas, which is a common practice used by transgender men. The laws requiring that only men can be actors cause another layer of representation of gender – older men must play older women, and prepubescent boys play young women. They do not show shame or discomfort at being made to crossdress – it is a just part to play, just like all gender is an instinctive societal role that is played. In the end, when Shakespeare immortalizes Viola as the heroine of his next play, Twelfth Night, that play eventually becomes famous for its metacommentary on the nature of gender and theatre itself: Viola is a female character who masquerades as a man, but is played by a young man masquerading as a woman. A man plays a woman playing a man. The lines of gender are blurred – even in Shakespeare’s time he knew that there’s no such thing as the gender binary.
This film deserves to be loved again. Its producers may have bought its many Academy Awards (though I don’t think anyone is going to argue about Judi Dench’s win) but that does not invalidate the film’s greatness. It is one of the few comedies to win Best Picture, and though it is bittersweet, it is a film that fills me with joy every time I watch it. And anyway, I’m an English major. Loving Shakespeare comes with the territory.

Myrna Waldron is a feminist writer/blogger with a particular emphasis on all things nerdy. She lives in Toronto and has studied English and Film at York University. Myrna has a particular interest in the animation medium, having written extensively on American, Canadian and Japanese animation. She also has a passion for Sci-Fi & Fantasy literature, pop culture literature such as cartoons/comics, and the gaming subculture. She maintains a personal collection of blog posts, rants, essays and musings at The Soapboxing Geek, and tweets with reckless pottymouthed abandon at @SoapboxingGeek