Shakespeare and Shakespearean references appear frequently in that most vilified form of popular culture, the romance novel. Often tied to two particular subgenres, the regency and the historical, Shakespearean references on one level affirm the literary range of professional novelists whose much derided lavish language draws on "the layers of meaning that certain words, phrases, and plot elements that have accumulated through the years ... meanings [that] have been shaped and refined for the romance" (Krentz and Barlow 21). However, Shakespeare and his plays also contribute to the production of accessible historical escapism and to the construction of the character-driven obstacles to the inevitable comic union of the romance. The results are sometimes fascinating rewritings of the plays to reconstruct them as part of a predominantly female genre, predominantly read by women.

Shakespeare's noticeable presence in the romance probably originates in Georgette Heyer's novels which in many ways founded the regency romance subgenre. However, if Heyer's Shakespearean allusions nestle unobtrusively in her novels along side numerous references to popular early nineteenth-century texts, later novelists who take up regency and romance do not hide their Shakespeare. References range from dedicatory verses and titles in Janis Laden's and Patricia Veryan's work, to the appearance of "Uncle Will" himself in Christina Dodd's The Greatest Lover in England. Shakespeare and his works show up most regularly in historical romances, especially those which feature acting and actresses (for example, Deanna James's Acts of Love or Margaret Evans Porter's The Toast of the Town or Dodd's novel in which Rosencrantz is the disguised girl/boyactress/lost heir/bereaved daughter). These references fall into several categories: epigrams/titles, Shakespeare-quoting characters, Shakespeare himself, and Incidental Shakespeare and full reworkings of Shakespeare's plays through active plot incorporation or Shakespeare-as-solution/resolution. Often these patterns appear together in a range of combinations.

There are a large number of romances which incorporate Shakespeare's works in largely pragmatic ways, almost as if Shakespeare constituted historical context. For example, almost all of the novels which make use of the actress as heroine invoke Shakespeare as a playwright from the Renaissance up to the Regency whom contemporary readers will identify with historical difference yet recognize as well. As a result, many of the actress-novels are content just to 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, Joan Wolf's His Lordship's Mistress, and Cindy Holbrook's The Actress and the Marquis are just a few examples. These novels most frequently balance the sexual titillation of an actress's assumed sexual availability against the chastity of the heroine; that focus supersedes any serious consideration of the context of the plays invoked.

However, the several novels which feature professional actresses become more deeply involved in their representations of Shakespeare's plays. These romances-- and Christina Dodd's The Greatest Lover in England, and Deanna James's Acts of Passion and Acts of Love, and Mary Balogh's Christmas Belle--often not only use Shakespearean language but also offer narratives which adopt and revise Shakespeare's plays in order to transform Shakespearean language and plots into the necessary "telling" of emotion in romance. The transformations in the plots of Hamlet and Othello undo the tragedies of mistimed or mistaken romantic dilemmas in affirming the generic demands of the romance over plots drawn from other genres.

Amateur theatricals also often seem to move Shakespeare beyond a mere historical marker. In Susan Carroll's The Lady who Hated Shakespeare, our heroine lives in Stratford and despises the nascent Shakespeare industry in part because of her father's obsession with the bard (she is even named Cordelia). The novel incorporates multiple Shakespearean plots and allusions and concludes with an amateur production of Othello which the patroness in charge has bowdlerized in appropriate 19th century fashion. This novel, and a couple of others like and Michelle Martin's Hampshire Hoyden, take on Shakespeare's plays in more extensive fashion and ultimately draw together various kinds of Shakespearean appropriation throughout the romance genre. Another dominant type of appropriation involves the actual representation of Shakespeare as a character. Dodd's novel, Ericka Jong's Shylock's Daughter (titled Serenissima when it was a marketed as a bestseller rather than a paperback romance), Faye Kellerman's The Quality of Mercy (not marketed as romance), and, most recently, Stephanie Cowell's The Players. Of these, only Dodd's appears self-consciously identified as a romance novel. Since the others actually fall into slightly different categories (Jong's would be considered a time-travel romance) and concentrate more on Shakespeare's personal life than his work, this essay concentrates more thoroughly the substantial number of romance novels which use Shakespearean references rather than Shakespeare literally.

In my attention to the ways that romance novelists incorporate Shakespearean texts into their generic requirements, I am implicitly agreeing with recent arguments about the significance of romance novel. Critics like Janice Radway and Carol Thurston cite romance's predominantly female authorship and readership, as well as its economic clout in the book industry as some reasons that cultural critics should attend more closely to its generic features and constructed fantasies. Examining the incorporation of the "patriarchal bard" into these popular novels potentially contributes to the ongoing arguments about whether the romance constitutes a reincorporation of dangerous patriarchal ideologies (as most academic critics seems to argue) or feminine empowerment (as Krentz, Barlow, et. al. have argued in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance).