A large number of romances incorporate Shakespeare's works in more thorough and more pragmatic ways than merely epigrams or titles, almost as if Shakespeare constituted historical context. Susan Carroll's The Lady Who Hated Shakespeare, for example, quite interestingly records the nineteenth-century alterations to and obsession with Shakespeare in an amateur theatrical production. In fact, the bard is a consistent feature in the novels which take the Regency stage as their context. Many of the actress-novels just use Shakespeare as an historical marker within the exploration of a naive and virginal young woman forced/persuaded into taking the role of an 19th century actress--Monette Cummings's Scarlet Lady, Mary Jo Putney's A Perfect Rose, and Eileen Putman's A Passionate Performance all refer to Shakespeare's plays and their performances but those references do not necessarily impinge on the plots or characters in the novels. These novels most frequently balance the sexual titillation of an actress's assumed sexual availability against the chastity of the heroine; that focus usually supercedes any serious consideration of the context of the plays invoked.

The more interesting of these actress novels use the theatrical context more thoroughly. Margaret Evans Porter's The Toast of the Town, Joan Wolf's His Lordship's Mistress, and Carla Kelly's Miss Billings Treads the Boards take up the actual life in the theater. Porter's novel offers frequent references to Twelfth Night as it follows the career of Flora Campion, a professional actress who finds that talent is not enough to distinguish her from her more profligate fellow professionals. Playing Olivia opposite a flirtacious actress who makes the most of her physical charms playing Viola and acquiring protectors, Flora, too, draws the attention of an ardent, mistress-seeking nobleman. His pursuit of her moves through the perils and stresses of a very realistically portrayed Regency theater world. Both Joan Wolf's His Lordship's Mistress and Carla Kelly's Miss Billings Treads the Boards feature nonprofessionals who briefly join the ranks of actresses. Wolf's heroine Jessica coolly plans her career as a means to acquiring a protector and gathering enough funds to save her family's one remaining profitable property--a stud farm. She performs Shakespeare to considerable acclaim but retires from the stage after a triumphant turn as Lady Macbeth in order to live with her lover--who ultimately turns out to be far more than merely a source of funds. Kelly's Kate Billings accidentally falls in with a touring company undergoing financial problems and plays the widow in Taming only to help them out. All three of these novels take the theater seriously as the historical context for their narratives, but none of the three except perhaps Porter's Toast actually incorporates the Shakespearean texts being performed thoroughly into the plot of the novel.

However, a few of the romances which feature professional actresses become more deeply involved in their representations of Shakespeare's plays. Christina Dodd's The Greatest Lover in England, Deanna James's Acts of Passion and Acts of Love, Mary Balogh's Christmas Belle not only use Shakespearean language but also offer narratives which adopt and revise Shakespeare's plays, translating them into the conventions of the romance novel. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say that these novels underscore the affinities between Shakespearean drama and contemporary romance literature.

By using Shakespeare's language for the necessary "telling" of emotion in romance, these novels stage their characters in ways that reveal what Shakespeare can offer to the traditional blocking strategies of romance and reworking the plots to achieve the equally conventional resolution of romance. The actress-character's involvement with a particular Shakespearean play opens that plot to the reworkings which the novel as a whole enacts.

Both Christina Dodd's The Greatest Lover in England and Deanna James's Acts of Passion and Acts of Love cast the female character in the Hamlet role of the fatherless child seeking revenge/knowledge about the father's death. Although ghosts are in short supply and the endings produce resolution rather than bodies stacked on stage, the play-within-the-play proves important to both. In Dodd's novel, the revised stage production signals the complete triumph of our heroine over her troubles with the lost inheritance and dead father(s); in James's Acts of Passion, Miranda explicitly restages with actorly ghosts the slaughter in battle which her stepfather arranged in order to woo her mother. Unlike many romance novels where the hero's lust for revenge blocks his ability to unite with the heroine, James offers us a heroine with Hamlet's blocked psyche. Mary Balogh's Christmas Belle uses Othello as a mechanism to explore the jealousy which divided the two lovers; Isabella Gellee's career as an actress and arrival to join the amateur theatrical at her former lover's family home gives both characters the chance to rework their relationship by reunderstanding how it was destroyed by excessive jealousy founded in insecurity.

The novels I have just mentioned are historicals or regencies, but Shakespearean actresses also show up from time to time in traditional Harlequins like Kay Thorpe's Curtain Call. In that romance, Kerry West is trying out for the part of Charmian in Antony and Cleopatra. A large section of the plot has to do with interpreting the play, and Cleopatra in particular, in ways that resonate with Linda Charnes's invocation of the ideology of romantic love that pervades criticism of that play.

See also Margaret Summerville's The Improper Playwright, Marlene Suson's The Fair Imposter, Joan Smith's Lovers' Vows and Elizabeth Kidd's My Lord Guardian.


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