Our story opens in 1590s London, where the “theater wars” are at fever pitch: Phillip Henslowe manages a theater called the Rose, and Richard Burbage, the Curtain theater. Caught between these two rivals is a struggling young playwright who suffers from writer’s block and, at the moment, owes both men a play. Meet Will Shakespeare, poet for hire, hopeless romantic, and penniless player, who longs for a muse to inspire him as he struggles to deliver his new comedy, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. After a long day of abysmal auditions, in walks “Thomas Kent,” a young man who delivers the performance Shakespeare has been waiting for. But Kent, wanting nothing more than to escape detection, flees the theater following his audition, leaving Will to chase him across the River Thames—to a great estate where the household is preparing to host a grand ball that night. It is there that Will comes face-to-face with the young lady of the house, Lady Viola de Lesseps. It is love at first sight, and Shakespeare at last discovers his muse.
Will casts the man and woos the woman—not yet grasping the essential fact that his actor is his lady, who has donned a man’s attire so that she might, just once, speak Shakespeare’s words onstage, where English women were strictly forbidden. When Will discovers Viola’s identity as both highborn lady and lowly player, their love affair delivers the inspiration he has been searching for, and his daily encounters—a nosy nurse, a backroom brawl, a dawn departure—become woven seamlessly into the story performed on stage by Henslowe’s company.
But Viola, like Juliet, is promised to another, the titled aristocrat Lord Wessex. No match for Will, Wessex intends to resettle with his newly acquired bride across a vast ocean to make his fortune in the Virginia colony—where Viola would be forever separated from her two great loves, William Shakespeare and the theater. And as these star-crossed lovers wrestle with their fate, Will’s comedy of the Pirate’s Daughter becomes the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, a play that will show us “the very truth and nature of love,” just as Viola promised it would.