April 23, 2014, will mark the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare, and Shakespeare lovers around the globe will be celebrating the occasion throughout the month of April with lectures, conferences, readings, and parties. The most famous celebration is probably the one in Stratford-on-Avon where they will be serving birthday cake to visitors April 25-26. Now I’m no Shakespeare expert, but I am an English major with four courses in Shakespeare on my transcript and a generalist who spent a portion of each year for more than three decades teaching one of a dozen of his plays. (Twelfth Night was my favorite to teach, and I blush to confess that the last time I taught Hamlet to a class of general studies high school students we had a party to celebrate not Shakespeare’s birth but Hamlet’s death.) I think my experience with Shakespeare is sufficient for me to hold my own celebration: a rereading of my top five Shakespeare-influenced romance novels.
1. The Game of Love by Edith Layton
Layton used Shakespearean elements frequently in her books, from passing allusions in various novels to a significant plot thread in False Angel, but I think her cleverest use of the Bard is in The Game of Love in which she names her hero Arden Lyons. “Arden” is rich in Shakespearean connotations. The Forest of Arden serves as sanctuary from the deceit, hypocrisy, and malice of court in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It. It is the setting of redemption, reconciliation, and four weddings blessed by the god of marriage. Arden was also the maiden name of Shakespeare’s mother, and one of the most prestigious scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s work is the Arden Shakespeare. Arden’s surname takes the reader back to the novel’s epigram: “a lion among ladies is a most dreadful thing” (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 1, Scene 2). Arden may see himself with his rough edges as “beastly” and in his former role among London’s underworld, he may have been king of the beasts, but the heroine and the reader recognize that he is truly noble, offering the heroine the safety, happiness, and romance associated with the Forest of Arden. He is also a Shakespeare-quoting hero who can use the Bard’s words to compliment his lady (Romeo and Juliet) and challenge a villain (I Henry IV).
2. Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career by Carla Kelly
Another Shakespeare-quoting character, Ellen Grimsley is an intellectually ambitious heroine who longs to study the plays of Shakespeare and other forbidden subjects at Oxford University but instead is relegated to the study of needlework and other appropriate feminine accomplishments at a girls’ school in the same town. Like many of Shakespeare’s heroines, she assumes a male disguise. In Ellen’s case, she wears her brother’s clothes in order to help him, a most unenthusiastic student at Oxford, by attending her brother’s Shakespeare tutorials and writing his essays on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure for Measure, and The Tempest. She has to borrow a copy of Measure for Measure from James Gatewood, a poor student who befriends her, since it was considered unfit reading for females. The acumen and insight of her interpretations win her brother high praise, but Ellen wins something more valuable than praise in the friendship of Mr. Gatewood with whom she discusses Shakespeare’s plays among other things in conversations that “nourish each other’s minds,” conversations Ellen thinks of as an “equal exchange of thoughts and views.” He addresses her as “fair Hermia,” the disobedient daughter in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who is wise and loving and troubled by her slight stature, all characteristics Ellen shares. James too is in disguise, a fact that almost derails the HEA, but as Lysander says to his Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (Act 1, Scene 1).
3. Christmas Belle by Mary Balogh
Isabella Gellee, the widowed Comtesse de Vacheron, “the greatest actress of her time,” and her two young children have been invited to a Christmas houseparty at the home of the Duke and Duchess of Portland to celebrate the season and to perform for their guests, most of them members of her hosts’ extended family. Isabella chooses excerpts from three of Shakespeare’s plays: The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Othello. So great is her talent that she “became the confident, intelligent, clever Portia and the angry, sullen, tart-tongued shrew.” But she finds it more difficult than usual to lose herself in Desdemona. Various members of the middle generation of the Portland family have been assigned the roles of characters who feed Isabella her lines, including Jack Frazer, one of the duke and duchess’s grandsons—and also, nine years earlier, Isabella’s first, and except for her husband, her only lover. She fled to France when Jack’s consuming jealousy of her talent and of the men who admired her and his accusations of infidelity made it impossible for her to stay. As Jack plays Othello to Isabella’s Desdemona, the parallel between life and play grows heartrending. Their audience weeps “for the innocent and sweet Desdemona and for the guilty and misguided Othello” and “for the world beyond innocence, where love did not always bring happiness, where there could be so many misunderstandings and tragedies because people would not talk openly with each other—even with those they loved.” But Christmas Belle is romance, not tragedy, and Jack and Isabella’s story ends far more happily than does Othello.
4. The Greatest Lover in All England by Christina Dodd
The heroine of The Greatest Lover in All England is also an actress, or actor, rather, since Rosencrantz “Rosie” Plympton has for years disguised herself as the son of actor Danny Plympton and played women’s roles in the plays performed by her foster father’s acting troupe. Unfortunately, although Sir Danny is a gifted actor, Rosie is at best a mediocre one. When a friend declares Rosencrantz’s acting talent “less than magnificent,” her foster father insists “Rosencrantz has his magnificent moments.” To which the friend responds, “Followed by some terrible half hours.” That is the evaluation of the playwright and actor whom Rosie addresses as “Uncle Will.” Yes, Dodd makes William Shakespeare himself a secondary character in this comic romantic suspense historical. Uncle Will borrows Rosie’s name for a minor character in his latest play, Hamlet, and remarks that Rosie could play Rosencrantz “very well.” But when Hamlet is first staged at the estate of Sir Anthony Rycliffe, Rosie plays Ophelia brilliantly, finding it all too easy to identify with Ophelia’s grief over her dead father. Then, Shakespeare’s tragedy is transformed into comedy when Rosie as the dead Ophelia is unexpectedly restored to life when Sir Danny, who has been charged with treason and imprisoned, is reunited with his “son” and Rosie and Sir Anthony, master of the Queen’s guard and the greatest lover in all England, are given the queen’s reluctant permission to wed. “All sense of
tragedy had vanished, and nothing would restore it now.”
5. Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James
Although Once Upon a Tower is part of Eloisa James’s Happily Ever After fairy tale series, James, a Shakespeare professor in her academic life, has described it as “a Romeo meets Rapunzel mash-up,” adding that the idea for the novel came from her pondering “what Romeo and Juliet’s marriage would look like if their parents hadn't been so grumpy.” The novel’s hero and heroine, Gowan Stoughton of Craigievar, Duke of Kinross, Chief of Clan MacAulay and Lady Edith Gilchrist, are older than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but they are still very young: he is twenty-two, and she is nineteen when they meet. Like Romeo, Gowan falls in love at first sight.
“Who would have thought that all the romantic tripe about being burned by a lover’s touch was true?
“As they danced, Gowan was vaguely aware that the entire assembly was watching them. The Duke of Kinross was dancing twice in a row with Gilchrist’s daughter. The news would be all over London by morning.
“He didn’t care. His heart was thudding in time with the music as he studied her minutely, feature by feature. She was utterly delicious. Her lips held a natural curve, as if she had a kiss or a smile in reserve, one that she had never given away.”
Shakespeare helps Gowan express himself on another occasion. When Gowan and Edie, by this time engaged, attend the wedding of Honoria Smythe-Smith and the Earl of Chatteris, they have a lengthy conversation about Romeo and Juliet, which he has read and she has not. They focus on the balcony scene in their discussion, and Gowan says, “Romeo leapt that wall because he wanted to kiss Juliet more than he wanted to live.”
Edie’s response? “She should have read the damned play. She should have spent hours reading Shakespeare. The duke was making literature sound a lot more interesting than her governess had ever done.” Later they have their own balcony scene during which Gowan quotes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act I, Scene I), borrowing Lysander’s words to sound a cautionary note about the intensity of the feelings that flare between them: “So quick bright things come to confusion.” Both intensity and confusion await these two, but unlike Romeo and Juliet, Gowan and Edie live and grow and earn their HEA.
I still haven’t touched upon other favorite examples of Shakespeare in romance novels such as Venetia and Damerel’s banter in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia and Sabrina Jeffries’s A Dangerous Love with its generous use of Shakespeare quotations and Taming-of-the-Shrew exchanges. And of course, there is Loretta Chase . . .But I did say top five, and so I’ll stop.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.