Acclaimed "Shakespeare in Love" doesn't accurately depict Elizabethan era, says UC Berkeley professor

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--The movie "Shakespeare in Love" was the toast of Tinseltown last week, winning seven Academy Awards including best movie, best screenplay and best actress.

But according to a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the film is not worthy of any awards for historical accuracy, especially with regard to its depiction of Elizabethan times.

"'Shakespeare in Love' is great theater, but it's not history," said Thomas Barnes, a history professor and expert in early modern British history. "The problem is with the overall portrait of the age: the queen, her courtiers, the London scene. The portrait is that of the 20th century, not the 16th century."

Barnes will present a more accurate portrait of Queen Elizabeth and her time during an upcoming lecture on "The Use and Abuse of History in 'Shakespeare in Love.'" The address is part of the UC Berkeley history department's "History and the Movies" seminar and discussion, which runs on Saturday, April 3, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the campus's Alumni House.

In "Shakespeare in Love," Barnes said, the actors' accents are wrong ("not broad enough"); their demeanor too restrained ("not country enough"); and the director's eye, not accurate enough.

Barnes points out that, during the 16th century, no one would have been drinking from a glass beaker. It would have been pewter or wooden. And the queen would never have ventured out to a makeshift playhouse to view a performance. "They went to her," said Barnes.

But he said the screenwriters did get one scene historically right, capturing the essence of Queen Elizabeth's constant dilemma - being a woman in a man's world.

In one scene, the queen watches a rehearsal of "Romeo and Juliet." In Elizabethan times, women were forbidden from being actors and, when the queen discovers a woman is playing Romeo's part, she identifies with her, declaring, "I know something about being a woman in a man's world."

Indeed she did, Barnes said of the real Queen Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth had plenty of experience being a woman in a man's world," he said. "So much experience that she became a man in a man's world."

Barnes explained that the queen, for example, often referred to herself as a prince, once telling members of Parliament that, while they would have "many princes," they "never had or shall have any that will be more careful and loving."

Alas, despite the historical inaccuracies, the dreaded glass beakers and such, Barnes fully endorses the film for sheer fun. The film makers were not trying to write a historical piece, the professor said, so he does not fault them too much.

Barnes has fewer kind words, however, for the makers of the film "Elizabeth," which he also will discuss during Saturday's forum.

He noted that, in "Elizabeth," some scenes include characters acting as people who, in truth, "are long dead by then or are not yet born." Barnes criticized two other scenes - the queen would never have been harangued in Parliament, he said, nor would she have lived in ostentatious Durham Cathedral.

In the end, whether the movie is "Shakespeare in Love," "Elizabeth" or "Saving Private Ryan," the history professor said, it's Hollywood.

"These are films," he said. " I never expect too much."

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