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...