It is interesting to me that a film about this time of great change would set the crux of performance history to the fate of Desdemona, though there were certainly more popular playwrights of the time whose plays were actually at the center of the storm.
Ned Kynestan has spent his life performing women's roles, and is incredibly popular with audiences. His dresser, Mariah, secretly yearns to be an actor herself, and pays a tavern stage for the chance, taking the name Margaret Hughes. The novelty of a woman onstage makes her an overnight sensation, and Ned does not handle it well . His reaction leads to men no longer being allowed to play women's roles as it perforce must lead to unnatural behavior. As women storm the stages of England, Mariah discovers that she is, in fact, talentless and has been copying Ned's performance tricks. She cannot play the role of Desdemona without his help, but will he offer it?
Kynestan and Hughes are historical figures - he was a famous actor and she is decidedly one of the first (if not the very first) women to take the stage (and her first role was Desdemona). However, as with historically "inspired" movies, they did not rely on each other to perform - and Kynestan was not put out by women acting, his career playing men was just as illustrious. But what a story.
Having recently participated in a poetry reading on the topic of Gender Identity, this film spoke volumes to me about that. In the film, Kynestan says he was raised by a man who taught him "and all the other pretty little boys" to perform women's roles. The gestures, the movements, the style - but there was abuse in his training, too. They weren't allowed to wear dresses or wigs until they could prove they could be women. Obviously that would be confusing for young men, and Kynestan leads a long life of bisexuality - unsure of which side he comes down on, but enjoying the attentions of both. I was actually rather disturbed by the scene where Hughes asks him how a man and a man are together (sexually) and they proceed to simulate sexual positions - asserting that one or the other is the woman or the man. It struck me as perversely psychotic - in the way that doctors seek to "cure" homosexuals by teaching them the "right" way to have sex.
Anyway, the scene I really watch the movie for is the rehearsal and subsequent performance of Othello (or, at least, the death scene). One of Mariah's big problems with Ned's feminine portrayal of Desdemona is that she doesn't fight - she just dies. 400 years later, high school students are expressing the same distaste with Desdemona. However, it's all in how it's performed, and in this movie it is truly emotionally stirring. Not in the least because Claire Danes is one of those actresses who is just never afraid to be ugly - and the panicked desperation her final Desdemona exudes is just... it always brings tears to my eyes.
This is definitely a film with many layers, but one of the things I take away from it is that it's not in how you read Shakespeare or speak Shakespeare's words - but in how you perform them that really makes the work endure.