Shakespeare sneaks into a ball at the house where Viola’s parents are arranging her betrothal to an impoverished aristocrat, Lord Wessex. While dancing with Viola, Shakespeare is speechless and banished by Wessex, who threatens to kill him, causing Shakespeare to say he is Christopher Marlowe. He finds Viola on her balcony, where they confess their mutual attraction before being discovered by a nurse and he escapes.
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Inspired by Viola, Shakespeare quickly turns the play into what would become Romeo and Juliet. Rehearsals begin with “Thomas Kent” as Romeo, lead tragedian Ned Alleyn as Mercutio, and Fenniman the bachelor party in a small role. Shakespeare discovers Viola’s true identity and they begin a secret romance.
Viola is summoned to court to get approval for her proposed marriage to Wessex. Shakespeare accompanies her, disguised as her cousin, and convinces Wessex to bet £50 that the play can convey the true nature of love, the amount Shakespeare demands to buy a stake in Chamberlain’s Men. Queen Elizabeth I says she will adjudicate the case.
Burbage finds out that Shakespeare seduced Rosaline and tricked him into not paying for the play, and starts a fight at Rose’s with his company. Rose’s players push Burbage and his men away and celebrate in a pub, where a drunken Henslow informs Viola that Shakespeare is married, though separated from his wife. News arrives that Marlowe has been killed, and Shakespeare, wracked with guilt, assumes that Wessex killed Marlowe, believing he was Viola’s lover. Viola believes that Shakespeare has been murdered, but he shows up at her church, scaring Wessex, who believes him to be a ghost. Viola confesses her love for Shakespeare, but both admit that she cannot escape her duty to marry Wessex.
John Webster, an obnoxious boy who hangs around the theater spying on Shakespeare and Viola making love and informs Tilney, who shuts down Rose for violating the ban on female actors. Viola’s identity is revealed and they are left without a stage or lead actor until Burbage offers his theater and a heartbroken Shakespeare takes over the role of Romeo. After the wedding, Viola learns that a play will be performed that day and runs away to the Curtain. She overhears that the boy playing Juliet cannot act, his voice is broken, and Henslow asks her to fill in for him. She plays Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo to an admiring audience.
Tilney arrives to arrest everyone for obscenity due to Viola’s presence, but the queen reveals herself and restrains him, instead claiming that Kent’s resemblance to a woman is “remarkable”. Unable to end her legal marriage, she orders Kent to “deliver” Viola to sail with Wessex to the Virginia Colony. The Queen informs Wessex, who has followed Viola to the theater, that Romeo and Juliet have won a bet on Shakespeare and asks Kent to hand over his £50 with instructions to write something “a little more fun next time, for Twelfth Night”.
Viola and Shakespeare say goodbye, and he vows to immortalize her, as he imagines the beginning of Twelfth Night, in character as being rejected by a disguised as a human, after traveling to a foreign land.