Shakespeare in Love is one of the rare romantic comedies that I actually enjoyed. The movie is a portrayal of how William Shakespeare, as a young and struggling poet and playwright in London, comes up with his famous play Romeo and Juliet while in the midst of a love affair (and suffering from writer's block).
The plot is self-referential: as Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) falls in love with Viola De Lesseps (Gwenyth Paltrow) who prefers his plays over those of Christopher Marlowe's (Shakespeare's already successful contemporary) the play he is working on, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter, turns into Romeo and Juliet. In part prompted by his own emotional involvement with Viola, and in part prompted by a wager that Shakespeare makes (incognito) that the theatre could indeed be instructional about the true nature of love.
Like the couple in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare and Viola are separated by a huge chasm: she is from wealth and her father has just "sold her" in marriage to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) in exchange for a part of his plantations in Virginia, and he is barely managing to eke out a living. As Shakespeare begins work on his pirate-adventure-comedy, Viola assumes the guise of Thomas Kent (as female actors were not allowed) and takes on the role of Romeo. Shakespeare soon learns the real identity of Viola/Kent and they carry on their tryst until events that test their relationship come to a head.
The performances are all excellent, particularly those by Fiennes and Paltrow. Judi Dench is notably amusing as the bitingly sarcastic Queen Elizabeth. The use of Shakespearean dialogue, both in normal conversation and in the play being rehearsed, is done quite well and doesn't seem forced at all, a common malady in movies of the bard's work (Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, for example). The chemistry between Fiennes and Paltrow is convincing. The script is incredibly witty, laced with references to Shakespeare's works, peppered with half-truths, and with tongue-in-cheek references about how theatre four hundred years ago relates to the entertainment industry today.
The argument that Shakespeare couldn't have written a play like Romeo and Juliet without being in touch with his emotional side and experiencing similar events in life at that point deserves some consideration. But I feel (mostly ignorant of Shakespeare's life) that a person with such a talent and genius and most importantly, a passion for his writing, would have been more lonely than not. In other words, Shakespeare might have well yearned for the sort of love he wrote about in Romeo and Juliet, and for whatever reasons, chose to express himself through his writing. But that's the cynical side of me speaking.
For the record, I will point out that when he was eighteen, Shakespeare married 26-year old Anne Hathaway and they had three children. It was almost thirty years after his birth that he began to be recognised as an actor and playwright. For the conspiracy theorists, I also want to point out to the authorship issue, where the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, is argued as being the author of the works by William Shakespeare. And then there are some who claim that Christopher Marlowe didn't really die in a bar-room brawl and assumed the identity of William Shakespeare. Perhaps reality in this case is more interesting than fiction.