By Merritt Denman
Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute the giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of paris.
– Mark Twain, “Is Shakespeare Dead?”
What is actually known about the person of William Shakespeare is surprisingly little. So the notion of staging a play about the life of a man about whom we know so little might seem a bit odd. We cannot speak with any authority as to the nature of Shakespeare’s relationships with his wife or his friends. We cannot state with certainty who he loved and lost. We cannot even be sure about his exact date of birth. And while logical inferences and educated guesses can give us a much fuller portrait of the Bard, it is not such facts and figures with which Shakespeare in Love concerns itself. This text instead treats history as play. With the original screenplay, Tom Stoppard (who is also a playwright) took the myths and legends which surround the colossal figure of Shakespeare as well as the facts which are known about him and created a snapshot of life in Shakespeare’s world. Stoppard populated the world with actual historical figures like Richard Burbage, Christopher Marlowe, and Philip Henslowe. In so doing he breathes life into history. By taking the facts which can seem lifeless and dead in a history book and bringing them to life onstage, we are reminded that those who lived before us were just as human as we are. They worked, they built families, they had debts, they fought, they lived. In Shakespeare in Love we are reminded that those who preceded us are not mere lines in a text book, but that they are human. So even if we cannot say much for certain about the lives of the Elizabethan theatre makers we can imagine what their lives might have been like and in so doing let them live on through us.
It seems to me that as a man of the theatre, William Shakespeare would have loved this play because he understood something about the nature of theatre itself: the theatre does not point us to facts, but to truths. One of the many purposes of the theatre is to teach us something about ourselves and the world, and despite the dearth of facts about Shakespeare’s life, this play illustrates larger truths about art, life, and love. Ultimately this play is a theatrical love letter to the art of theatre and what it can accomplish in our lives.