Romance and the Bard

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You might think that Shakespeare’s plays (surely the epitome of high art) are a world away from romance novels of Mills and Boon (regarded by many as low brow), but they might have more in common than you think.

Janice Radway is an academic who has spent years researching the construction of Mills and Boon romance novels (Harlequin in the USA) and she has condensed their plot structure into 13 elements.  Elements which we can clearly trace in Shakespeare’s most popular romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing.

The typical Mills and Boon heroine is an orphan, or a misfit, in some way estranged from family or society. And the same is true of Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice, not only does she appear to have lost both parents but she is also outspoken ‘thou will never get a husband if thou be so shrewd of they tongue’ she is told.

The first thing that happens in the standard romance plot is that the heroine reacts antagonistically to an aristocratic hero. And so does Beatrice:  ‘I wonder that you be still talking signor Benedick nobody marks you.’ If Benedick is not exactly an aristocrat by today’s standards he is at least of a ‘noble strain’ as Don Pedro tells us.

Faced with the heroin’s antagonism the typical Mills and Boon hero responds ambiguously, and so Benedick’s reply ‘What my dear Lady distain are you yet living?’ is typically ambiguous with its quasi affection mitigating its insulting intent.

The heroine then interprets the hero’s response as one of self interest and certainly Shakespeare hints at some kind of back story and paints Benedick as something of a cad having won Beatrice’s heart with ‘false dice’.

Doubting the hero’s attentions are honest the romance heroine responds to him with coldness and so Beatrice who calls Benedick ‘a very dull fool’. The romance hero generally retaliates by punishing the heroine and so Benedick threatens to do claiming, ‘ well I’ll be revenged as I may’.

After a period of emotional distance comes the romance novel’s climax which precipitates a moment in which the hero treats the heroine with tenderness. Shakespeare gives us the church scene where Benedick is ready with words of kindness in response to Beatrice’s distress.

To the hero’s tenderness the standard Mills and Boon heroine responds warmly, and so Beatrice, ‘I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.’ After the heroine has had time to reconsider the hero in light of this tender exchange, the hero will openly declare his love as does Benedick, ‘I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap and be buried in thy eyes’. The heroine reciprocates this advance and finally the heroine’s social identity is restored through marriage or acceptance. Benedick’s line ‘lets have a dance ere we are married’ reminds the reader of Shakespeare that the ultimate conclusion is the social respectability of marriage. Beatrice has found a home and a husband.

So next time you are trying to decide whether to read a ‘trashy’ romance or a ‘literary’ play text, remind your self that they may have many things in common.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    What sets apart ‘good’ and ‘bad’ literature is a complex question. It is partly determined by ideology – for instance Jonathan Bate here claims that Mills and Boon is bad literature because of it’s use of formulaic plots but the desire for intellectual uniqueness is quite modern, some Renaissance writers for instance were praised for not being too original. And Shakespeare himself re-writes well known plots and plays. Interesting to that you refer to Shakespeare as being more ‘readable’ – when of course a lot of Mills and Boon readers would say Shakespeare was pretty unreadable and pretty unrelated to anything that is important in their own lives. Now I might debate that but you cannot deny that ‘relevance’ ‘readability’ ‘depth’ and ‘feeling’ are very subjective judgements one persons trash is another’s treasure.

    If we were to judge literature on volume of sales I think Mills and Boon would probably be considered ‘good’. In truth of course Mills and Boon novels vary hugely in writing quality being written by a great diversity of authors. The novels reflect changing social values and have a loyal and voracious readership and certainly have inspired some interesting academic comment.

    Thanks for your thought provoking comment! ^liz

  • Christian Smith

    Consider Jonathan Bate’s words in his recently published VSI English Literature: “Rather than saying ‘Mills and Boon novels are not literature’, it might be better to say ‘Jane Austen is good literature but Mills and Boon is bad literature’. Jane Austen wrote tautly constructed sentences, created complicated characters, and wove ingenious plots. Mills and Boon authors write corny sentences, create two-dimensional characters and rattle through formulaic plots.” (p29).

    It is true that we can find similar plots to Shakespeare’s in ‘low brow’ literature, but what we cannot find is a writing style that makes the work readable over and over again and relevant for ages after it was written.

    I have recently discovered the poems of Wilfred Owen, the soldier poet. I am sure that many soldiers wrote poetry as a way to handle the horrors of war. However, few could make words sing with such a depth of feeling and relevance as Owen could.

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  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    What a co-incidence! Though I am not sure you should thank me for that image, though a sketch show could do a nice job with it! ^liz

  • Duncan

    On last night’s Radio 3 Free Thinking debate on comedy versus tragedy, the writer Julian Gough described Shakespeare’s plays as “existential Mills and Boons”. Also on the panel was Carol Rutter: (Mills and Boon reference is at 22:40)

    That remark together with your article has now gifted me with a mental image of Shakespeare sitting on a chaise longue cosseting a lapdog, dictating his plays to a typist and asking “How many words is that?” at annoyingly regular intervals.

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