Shakespeare in Love (1998) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • The world's greatest ever playwright, William Shakespeare, is young, out of ideas and short of cash, but meets his ideal woman and is inspired to write one of his most famous plays.

  • William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is a known but struggling poet, playwright, and actor, who not only has sold his next play to both Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) and Richard Burbage (Martin Clunes), but now faces a far more difficult problem: he is bereft of ideas and has yet to begin writing. He is in search of his muse, the woman who will inspire him but all attempts fail him until he meets the beautiful Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow). She loves the theatre and would like nothing more than to take to the stage, but is forbidden from doing so as only men can be actors. She is also a great admirer of Shakespeare's works. Dressing as a man, and going by the name of "Thomas Kent", she auditions and is ideal for a part in his next play. Shakespeare soon sees through her disguise and they begin a love affair, one they know cannot end happily for them as he is already married and she has been promised to the dour Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). As the company rehearses his new play, William and Viola's love is transferred to the written page leading to the masterpiece that is Romeo and Juliet.

  • 1593 London. Master William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), an up-and-coming playwright and sonneteer, is not nearly as well known as his counterpart, Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett). So William's current writer's block does not help matters for him or for the owner of the Rose Theatre, Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), for whom Will generally writes his plays, that is when the theater is not closed due to the plague or Henslowe's financial problems. That current unwritten play commissioned is a comedy tentatively titled "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter". Will's block is partly due to the loss of his muse, his mistress, who he caught in bed with another man, he having a mistress as he would otherwise be alone with his wife back in Stratford. Will begins to write again and passionately when he falls in love with Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), who comes from a well respected well-off family. Shakespeare also learns that Viola and Thomas Kent, the young man who recently joined the company of the Rose, are one and the same, Viola masquerading as a man to infiltrate the theater world, a domain purely for the male sex, as she is in love with the written word, especially Shakespeare's. As such, she too falls in love with Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the writer. Without telling Henslowe or Ned Alleyn (Ben Affleck), an egotistical actor, the play is neither the comedy "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter" nor one called "Mercutio" - the name of Alleyn's character - but is rather morphing into a love story called "Romeo and Juliet", the love based on his mutual feelings for Viola. Beyond her continuing to masquerade as Thomas Kent, their own love story has a major obstacle in that she is betrothed to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), a man she detests and a union sanctioned by her merchant father and Queen Elizabeth (Dame Judi Dench) primarily for financial and business purposes. The mounting of the play, Viola and Will's personal love affair, and their professional collaboration as playwright Will Shakespeare and actor "Thomas Kent" are set against the cutthroat business side of sixteenth century English show business.

  • Romantic comedy set in London in the late sixteenth century: Young playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) struggles with his latest work "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter". A great fan of Shakespeare's plays is young, wealthy Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is about to be married to the cold-hearted Lord Wessex (Colin Firth), but constantly dreams of becoming an actress. Women were not allowed to act on stage at that time (female roles were played by men, too), but dressed up as a boy, Viola successfully auditions for the part of Romeo. Soon she and William are caught in a forbidden romance that provides rich inspiration for his play.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The film centres around the forbidden love of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) and a noble woman, Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow).

    As the film begins, Shakepeare's patron Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) finds himself in debt to loan shark Hugh Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson). Henslowe offers Fennyman a partnership in the upcoming production of Shakespeare's newest comedy, Romeo and Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter promising that it will be a hit. This play will later be renamed Romeo and Juliet and be reworked into a tragedy (but with some comical undertones with a few characters, like the Nurse).

    Will Shakespeare is suffering from writer's block and has not completed the play, but begins auditions for Romeo. A boy named Thomas Kent is cast in the role after impressing Shakespeare with his performance and his love of Shakespeare's previous work. Unbeknownst to Shakespeare and the rest of the theater company, Kent is young noblewoman Viola de Lesseps. Viola de Lesseps's dream is to act, but as women were barred from the stage, she must disguise herself as a young man in order to fulfill her dream.

    After Shakespeare discovers his star's true identity, he and Viola begin a passionate secret affair. There are strong parallels between the pair's romance and the romance in Romeo and Juliet, including the ballroom scene from act 2 and the balcony scene immediately following it. The element of forbidden love forms the basis of Shakespeare's inspiration, and many of their conversations later show up as some of the most famous quotes in the play.

    Inspired by Viola, Shakespeare begins writing feverishly. His work in progress also benefits from the off-hand advice of playwright and friendly rival Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett). Yet Shakespeare and de Lesseps know that their romance is doomed. Shakespeare is married, albeit long separated from his wife, and Viola is a noblewoman whose parents would never permit her to marry a commoner such as Shakespeare. In fact, Viola's father has privately arranged a betrothal for her to Lord Wessex (Colin Firth).

    Viola is called to the court of Queen Elizabeth I (Judi Dench), and Shakespeare dons a woman's disguise to accompany her. At court, Shakespeare manages to goad Wessex into betting the grand sum of fifty pounds that a play cannot capture the nature of true love. If Romeo and Juliet is a success, Shakespeare as playwright will win the money. The Queen, who enjoys Shakespeare's plays, agrees to be a witness to the wager. The true purpose of the meeting is revealed when Wessex announces his intent to marry Viola.

    The Lord of Revels, an official of the Queen, learns that there is a woman in the theater company at the Rose playhouse. He orders the theater closed for this violation of morality and the law. Left without a stage or lead actor, it seems that Romeo and Juliet must close before it even opened. Shakespeare is offered one last chance by the owner of a competing theater, the Curtain, who offers his own theater to Shakespeare. Shakespeare will take the role of Romeo himself, with a boy actor playing Juliet.

    Viola learns that the play will be performed on the very day of her wedding. After the ceremony, Viola's loyal nurse (Imelda Staunton) helps her slip away to the theater. In one final twist, mere moments before the play begins, the boy playing Juliet starts experiencing the voice change of puberty. Viola takes the stage to replace him and plays Juliet to Shakespeare's Romeo. Their passionate portrayal of two lovers inspires the entire audience.

    The Lord of Revels arrives at the theater with Wessex, who has deduced his new bride's whereabouts. The Lord invokes the name of the Queen to arrest all there for indecency. Suddenly, Elizabeth I's voice rings out from the back of the theater: "Have a care with my name - you will wear it out!" The Queen had decided to attend the play, and says that she will handle this matter herself. Although she recognizes Viola in her guise as Thomas Kent, the Queen does not unmask Viola, instead declaring that the role of Juliet is being performed by the boy Thomas Kent.

    However, even a Queen is powerless to break an official marriage of the Church. Queen Elizabeth orders "Thomas Kent" to fetch Viola so that she may sail to America. She also states that Romeo and Juliet has accurately portrayed true love and Wessex is forced to pay Shakespeare the fifty pounds. This is enough to allow Shakespeare become a shareholder in a new theater. The Queen then commissions Shakespeare to write something "a little more cheerful next time." Viola and Shakespeare part, never to meet again. She must accompany Wessex to a colonial settlement in Virginia. Shakespeare immortalizes her by making the main character of his new play, Twelfth Night, a strong young woman named Viola who also disguises herself as a boy.

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