Stage love will never be true love while the law of the land has our heroines played by pipsqueak boys in petticoats!Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Desiring to equate “stage love” with “true love,” Viola, the heroine of Shakespeare in Love, alludes to the corporeal conundrum that weaves through Shakespeare's “transvestite” comedies – Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It – where boy actors playing women cross-dress as men in dazzling doubles acts that offer up a spectrum of flexible sex-gender identities, confounding the body's “truth.” Viola herself performs an equally provocative doubles act: fulfilling her wish to be “Valentine and Silvia too,” she breaks and remakes the gender conventions of the all-male Elizabethan stage, and does it twice. Disguised as “Thomas Kent,” she auditions for Shakespeare's company by reading Two Gentleman of Verona's Valentine (3.1.174-81), wins the part of Romeo and becomes Will Shakespeare's “true love” as well as his authorial muse; for their “real-life” story, in which Viola's romance with Will and the theatre momentarily postpones an arranged marriage with Lord Wessex, grounds Romeo and Juliet's fictional one. The film articulates the connection between the two by cross-cutting between bedroom and stage and, as pillow-talk transforms into theatrical poetry, by linguistic “cross-dressing”: Will's lines are revoiced by the “real” boy actor playing Juliet, Viola's by “Thomas Kent” as Romeo. When Will, in bed, slyly asks, “Will thou leave me so unsatisfied?” and Viola responds, “That's my line,” prompting Will's “It's my line, too,” textual mischief heightens their sexual pleasure, foreshadowing another transformation. For when the real boy actor's voice changes, Viola plays Juliet to Will's Romeo – a performative transgression protected by none other than a fairy-godmother-like Queen Elizabeth, who affirms Shakespeare as the poet of true love, enabling his commercial success. Finally, both stories of lost love again are transformed through the film's fantasy ending, which rhymes two images: Will, in his study, writing Viola's name and her first line in Twelfth Night (“What country, friends, is this?”) on a blank parchment page; and Viola herself, walking on an expansive sandy shore.