Shakespeare and the Regency Romance

When I teach Shakespeare to high school students, one of the first things we establish is the difference between a tragedy and a comedy. At the end of a tragedy, the characters end up dead. At the end of a comedy, the characters end up married.

Romance is intimately connected with comedy because romance is the stuff of absurdity, farce, hilarity, mirth, and joy. The process of human courtship is paradoxically the inspiration for the world’s greatest poetry and deeds of chivalry, and yet also the instigation of belly-shaking laughter as we see poor fools like Bottom making asses of themselves in the pursuit of love.

Although Shakespeare’s plays fall into a different genre than the Regency romances developed by Georgette Heyer three and a half centuries later, in many ways, the genre of the Regency romance is indebted to the Bard for the tropes and comedic situations that make the path to love such a vale of laughter.

Consider some of these situations in Shakespeare’s plays that show up in Georgette Heyer’s seminal Regency books:

Male identical twins mistaken for each other, causing all sorts of romantic confusion? (Comedy of Errors)

✔ Uh-huh. (False Colours)

Fraternal boy/girl twins mistaken for each other, causing all sorts of romantic confusion? (Twelfth Night)

✔ Indeed. (The Masqueraders)

Heroine must disappear so that hero can realize he’s actually in the wrong and is head over heels in love with her? (Much Ado About Nothing)

✔ Yep. (Friday’s Child)

A merry chase of different couples all falling in love with the wrong person? (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

✔ Oh, the hilarity! (The Grand Sophy)

Witty, insulting, and eventually mushy banter between the hero and heroine? (Much Ado About Nothing; The Taming of the Shrew)

✔ In every Regency romance worth its salt.

The list could go on and on, but without belaboring the point, one can safely say that the spirit of the Shakespearean comedy is safely enshrined in the Regency romance.

Many of the cleverest Regencies acknowledge this debt to Shakespeare by incorporating quotations and allusions into their stories. Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series is replete with clever Shakespearean references. Heidi Ashworth’s Miss Delacourt series is as much a love letter to the Bard as it is a love story between the characters.

And all Regency romances, no matter their stripe, abide by this maxim from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The course of true love never did run smooth.” And like Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing, they know in their bones what the cure for melancholy must be: “Prince, thou art sad. Get thee a wife. Get thee a wife!”

— ROSANNE E. LORTZ


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