In the 1980's and 90's, two major acting nominations at the Academy Awards went to gender-bending performers. Linda Hunt (the awesome woman from NCIS: Los Angeles) won a Best Support Actress for playing a man in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982). And Jaye Davidson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing a woman (who was really a man) in The Crying Game (1992). These roles seemed like novelties.
But they weren't. Only a few (hundred) years before, men played all the roles on stage, including the female ones. Juliet: a man. Her nurse: a man. Her mom: a man. Romeo: a woman.
Wait, what? That was definitely unusual for that time, and that's why Shakespeare in Love does it. It combines 16th Century gender-bending performances with a more modern sensibility, and shows us that a woman is the only one who has what it takes to play one of the most famous male roles in theatre.
Questions About Gender
Is Viola convincing as a man?
Why does society at the time forbid women from acting? Do you think Viola would change public perception? What can Viola do as a woman that a male actor cannot?
What are the advantages to having a man play a female role? What are the drawbacks?
Both Will and Viola dress as the opposite gender during the film. How does each actor play the part? Which role is for dramatic reasons, and which is comical, and why?
Chew on This
Viola won't let a silly thing like her gender get in the way of her becoming an actor. And since plays often employ feminine-looking men to play women, she is able to blend in, pretending to be a feminine-looking man to play a man.
The play is a success because a woman is able to take the stage as a woman. No more deception. Viola lets her authentic emotions flow as Juliet, and she brings the house down in a way no man could. (Sorry, Sam.)