Shakespeare in Love turns 20 this month, and it’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since the gorgeous film graced the cinema and reignited people’s passion for wordsmith William Shakespeare, the man often considered the greatest writer of all time. Romantic, funny and heart-wrenching, it went on to win seven Oscars, including best original screenplay for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, best actress for Gwyneth Paltrow, best supporting actress for Judi Dench and best supporting actor for Geoffrey Rush.
Despite its critical and box office success, you may be surprised to know the film took a decade to get made. After screenwriter Norman set up the film at Universal, the studio dropped out. It would be 10 more years, a new cast and the addition of one of England’s best modern-day playwrights (Stoppard) before cameras would start rolling. Here are some of our favorite behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Shakespeare in Love.
1. Julia Roberts was set to play Viola
Julia Roberts was originally planning to play Viola (the role that would eventually go to Gwyneth Paltrow), but after conducting casting sessions in the U.S. and London, the filmmakers couldn’t find an actor talented enough (or willing) to play Will Shakespeare. Roberts even flew to Ireland to meet with Daniel Day-Lewis in hopes he would play the bard. After their meeting, however, Roberts flew back to Los Angeles and dropped out of the film. Not even the “pretty woman” could convince Day-Lewis to star opposite her. We’d have to wait 10 years before the film would get its dream cast that included Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare.
2. It reportedly ruined Gwyneth Paltrow & Winona Ryder‘s friendship
Paltrow’s casting as Viola forever ruined the friendship between Paltrow and actor Winona Ryder, according to Us Weekly. Paltrow saw the script on Ryder’s desk and called her own agent to get an audition without telling Ryder. Paltrow got the role and the Oscar.
3. Judi Dench appears in the film for a mere eight minutes
Typically, one could make a good argument an actor needs more than an eight-minute performance to earn an Oscar, but Dench is just so good in each small scene we can only applaud her. As Queen Elizabeth I, she appears a total of three times in the film, stealing the scene every single time. Check out this scene in which she tells Lord Wessex (Viola’s betrothed), Viola has been “plucked.”
4. The Downton Abbey butler played Juliet’s nurse
We loved Jim Carter as Carson on Downton Abbey but had no idea he wore drag to portray Juliet’s nurse onstage in the movie. Carter is hilarious in this scene in which Mr. Tilney runs onstage saying, “That woman is a woman!” Check out Carter’s reaction in this clip.
5. Ben Affleck’s character was based on a real person
Ben Affleck plays popular actor Ned Alleyn in the film and even refers to Ned as the “Tom Cruise of Shakespeare’s day” in the interview below, which isn’t far from the truth. Alleyn played many of the leading roles in his day, and historians believe many great roles were written specifically for him. After he retired from acting, Queen Elizabeth I herself requested his return to the stage.
6. Prince Edward’s real-life title was inspired by the film
In real life, when Queen Elizabeth II’s son, Prince Edward, married, she was going to name him Duke of Cambridge. But after watching Shakespeare in Love, Edward asked to be named the Earl of Wessex after Colin Firth’s character, Lord Wessex. The title Duke of Cambridge was later given to Prince William when he married.
7. There was a Shakespeare in the Classroom educational video
If you were lucky enough to be in high school in the year 1999 or later, your English teacher may have shown this 45-minute educational video to your class. Using the actors from the movie, the video is a lesson on Shakespeare’s life and wildly popular plays.
8. The film takes a lot of creative license with the truth
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in the year 1526 and died at the age of 52. Other than that, there’s very little known about the man who would inspire the world with his funny, sometimes tragic plays. He was married with three children, and the film does acknowledge this. But the rest is all made up. But filmmakers generally don’t have an issue with inventing a story. Co-screenwriter Tom Stoppard said, “This film is entertainment, which doesn’t require it to be justified in the light of historical theory,” adding, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” We can’t argue with that.