Study Guide

Shakespeare in Love Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow)

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Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow)

Roses are Red, Viola is Blue

Viola de Lesseps has the 16th Century equivalent of #firstworldproblems. She can't find love because men only see her money. And she can't be an actor because women aren't allowed on the stage. What's a girl to do? Why, complain to her Nurse who feeds her, dresses her, and practically brushes her teeth for her. That's what.

Things start looking up for Viola when she meets Will Shakespeare. Not only is he a hot guy to love, but he's also a poet and a playwright. For Viola, it's the best of both worlds.

Like many young women raised in restrictive households, Viola wants to rebel. She rebels against her parents—and society at large—by dressing as a man and acting in one of Shakespeare's plays. And she rebels against her arranged engagement to Lord Wessex by having an affair with Shakespeare. She wants "Love like there has never been in a play," and with Shakespeare she gets that and a really great play on top of it. And she gets to be a woman in bed with Will and a man on stage.

It's the best of both worlds.

And the Award for Best Actor Goes To…

Viola is a great actor on many levels. She has to pass as a man, which she does—at least in the context of the movie, even if, to us, she looks like Gwyneth with a goatee. And as Thomas Kent, she must perform as Romeo.

The reason Viola's so good at Romeo is because it's her romance with Will being lightly fictionalized for the stage. The balcony scene is a variation on her chat with Will on her own balcony. The tragic ending to Romeo and Juliet's relationship is Will's pain at being separated from Viola translated onto the page.

But what makes Viola-as-Thomas's performance so amazing is the gender reversal. Viola isn't playing Juliet (at least not until the end.) She is playing Romeo. It's all about Romeo's pain, not Juliet's, as it is written by a man. But with the gender reversal, Viola gets to make Romeo's pain her own.

Also, she lets her own emotions loose on stage, wowing the crowd. After all, she's reading words that Will wrote about her. "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun!" No, it's Viola who is the sun.

With the role reversal, it's like Viola is pretending to be Shakespeare in love with herself. And there's another layer of irony in the gender reversal: the more passionate Viola and Will's lovemaking becomes, the more masculine Viola's alter ego, Thomas Kent, becomes on stage. After having sex, Thomas's voice is huskier and his acting more forceful. After being with a man, Viola better knows how to act like one.

Seasons Change

Viola describes her forbidden romance with Will as "a stolen season." She's just as poetic as he is. Maybe in the Virginia colony she can write poetry, instead of just being a reluctant wife to greasy Lord Wessex.

Sadly, although Shakespeare transforms tragedy into Tragedy—and begins a legendary career—Viola's shipped off to the New World. with a man she doesn't want to marry. She's the victim of simply being a woman in a male-dominated society. It's almost like she is dying, like Juliet, except that Will, her Romeo, chooses to live instead.

But before she dies, metaphorically, at least she gets to experience two true loves—a love for Will, and a love for acting.

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