Columbia Forum
James Schapiro '77 on Shakespeare in Love
Max Frankel '52 on his years at Columbia
The inventive hand of Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Sean Wilentz '72 on impeachment and the rule of law
Patricia Grieve on the value of storytelling.

Like softest music to attending ears
Professor James Shapiro '77 on Shakespeare in Love

Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes

 When the romantic comedy Shakespeare In Love garnered seven Oscars at this year's Academy Awards, it only confirmed the recent boom of Shakespeare in popular culture. But how much of the film holds true historically? To find out, Columbia College Today asked actress Rita Pietropinto '93, who has conducted a series of film interviews for Moviefone, to talk with Professor of English and Comparative Literature James Shapiro '77, author of Shakespeare and the Jews (1995), about this newest cinematic portrayal of the famous playwright.

CCT: How did you enjoy the movie?
James Shapiro: I thought it was a terrific film. Even better than what I was led to expect.

Coming from your background as a Shakespeare professor, did the screenwriters adhere closely to what we know factually about Shakespeare's life?

This film did a brilliant job re-conceiving something that was going on 400 years ago and making it into a terrific romantic comedy. A couple things were really intelligent about this movie. The writers use the year 1593, a very complicated and interesting time in Shakespeare's life, about which we know surprisingly little.

This is as good as any biography of Shakespeare.

So it was a deliberate choice to pick that year in which to set the film?

Yes. This was at the tail end of the "lost years." The writing of the script is great, because it fills in the blanks. We know historically, at this point, he has to get a large sum of money in order to become a shareholder in his acting company; the plague is still a problem in London in 1593; and around this time, he's writing Romeo and Juliet.

In the film, Shakespeare, suffering from a terrible case of writer's block, gets the inspiration to finish his play from his love, Viola. Did Shakespeare have a muse?

There is a consensus that Shakespeare got a lot better around the time he wrote Romeo and Juliet. What inspired him? We don't know. A great love affair is as good a theory as any.

What about Christopher Marlowe? Were they rivals?

Shakespeare acted in Marlowe's plays. They knew each other, and they knew each other's work extremely well.

In the film, Shakespeare "borrows" several of Marlowe's ideas for his play. Does this historically hold true?

Yes, he was always borrowing. The great thing is that in this movie you have Shakespeare walking through the streets catching snatches of conversation that go right into his plays.

Did Marlowe really die at this point?

He died in 1593, at the age of 29. He and Shakespeare were born the same year. He was killed under mysterious circumstances, probably assassinated.

So, do you think if Marlowe hadn't died, he would have been more famous than Shakespeare?

Well, in 1593, Marlowe is the better dramatist, hands down -- there is no question about it. Fame is something else, however.

Did Shakespeare ever act in his own plays?

Not leads. He played minor roles. Perhaps he would have played the gravedigger in Hamlet.

He never played Romeo?

No, he never would have played Romeo.



In the film, Viola wants to be an actor so badly that she disguised herself as a man in order to secure a part in Shakespeare's play. When were women finally allowed to act?

Aristocratic women were acting in courtly masques a decade later. As a general rule, not until 1660, after the Restoration [of Charles II], did women act on the popular stage.

Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar for her portrayal of Viola, and Joseph Fiennes received terrific reviews for his portrayal of the famous bard. What did you think of their performances?

Some of their scenes from Romeo and Juliet in this movie were better than anything I've seen on stage. The intensity of these actors is better than anything I've recently seen in the theater.

Dame Judi Dench also won an Oscar for her eight minutes of screen-time as Queen Elizabeth. What did you think of her performance?

Judi Dench was perfect. Her portrayal was a snapshot of what I imagine Elizabeth was like. She had the shrewdest personality. I loved when she says, "I know what it's like to be a woman in a man's profession." It added a vital political dimension to this movie.

Another Oscar went to Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman for the screenplay. Did you like their script?

Very much. There is a big challenge is writing a movie in which Shakespeare's own words make up a large part of the script. How do the screenwriters' own words not appear dead compared to Shakespeare's? Norman and Stoppard really held their own. Stoppard had already demonstrated his capability to do this in his early play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He does it again in Shakespeare in Love.

So do you think the film portrayed a plausible portrait of Shakespeare, the man?

Even having spent decades of my life teaching and writing about his career, especially his early work, I can't say. But for me, this is as good as any biography of Shakespeare. He must have had an emotional life, but how do you give a sense of that emotional life when no trace of it survives except for what we imagine we find in the words he puts in his characters' mouths? You have to make it up a little bit. Biographers don't like to do that, and, like most scholars, I don't like it when they do. This movie did it in a very intelligent way.

Julie Taymor has just directed a film version of Titus Andronicus, and Kevin Klein and Michelle Pfeiffer are starring in the film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream opening this summer. Why is Hollywood suddenly so interested in Shakespeare?

They're not paying for the rights, and, in truth, he's a better storyteller than anyone in Hollywood today.

The immense success of Shakespeare in Love has propelled Shakespeare back into the mainstream of popular culture. How has the "Shakespeare boom" affected you as a historian and professor?

The "Shakespeare boom" in the classroom has been occurring probably for at least the last decade. I've been teaching at Columbia since 1984 and the number of students who want to study Shakespeare has been rising steadily.


Colin Firth and Dame Judi Dench


I remember the crunch to get into one of your classes. If you didn't get to class 15 minutes early, you didn't get a seat.

When Ted Taylor or David Kastan or Jean Howard or I teach Shakespeare, we usually have two or three times the students who want to take it than can fit in the classroom. This year, for the first time, we tried teaching two lectures in the same semester, and they were both filled. I think we're very fortunate as an institution given the number of first-rate Shakespeareans that we have teaching here, and the interest among our students is very exciting.

You also teach a John Jay Colloquium for alumni on Shakespeare. How does teaching alumni compare with teaching undergraduates?

I have been teaching an alumni course on and off for the past five or six years, which is as pleasurable as teaching undergrads at Columbia. In some ways, it's more so, because I get to teach a half dozen plays in the course of a semester to alumni who have seen the world and have helped shaped it. Alumni have a hunger for Shakespeare, and they bring a unique perspective and intelligence to the work. I am in an unusually privileged position to teach both terrific undergrads and alumni.

It must be exciting to teach so many generations of Columbia students. Do you find that young alumni bring a different perspective to the work than more mature alumni?

You know, I've never taught a colloquium specifically for young alumni, but I think it's a terrific idea. I was always told, and I'm beginning to believe, that Shakespeare is wasted on the young, but maybe the recent graduates are in an ideal position, having been out a few years in the real world, to appreciate these plays and re-connect with their Columbia education. We offer a tremendous intellectual experience at Columbia, and I think a lot of people only recognize the nature of that experience after they graduate. As an alumnus myself, I know this. Shakespeare in film is exciting, but there is no substitute for sitting down with a lot of smart people and reading Shakespeare. I think this Shakespeare boom could provide a wonderful opportunity for more alumni and professors to sit down and share in this kind of intellectual exchange. It's what Columbia does best.