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Did you know there were romantic fiction publications in Shakespeare’s lifetime? Of course they weren’t romance novels, because the novel as a format was not invented, but the romance genre was a live and well. You may recognize chivalric romances, which include knights in shining armor, fighting dragons, overcoming giants, and other quest-worthy elements. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, there were romantic tales as well, but as you might expect from the Renaissance era, 16-17th century romance stories had their own unique spin on things. Surprisingly, Shakespeare never uses the word itself, “romance,” in his plays despite featuring a myriad of love stories. To help us sort out what “romance” meant for the 16th century, and exactly what we should know about the romance genre when it comes to prose fiction in Shakespeare’s lifetime, is our guest, and expert in 16-17th century literature, Helen Hackett.

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Helen Hackett is Professor of English Literature at University College London, with particular expertise in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century literature. Her most recent book, The Elizabethan Mind (Yale UP, 2022), is a study of how Shakespeare and his contemporaries thought about the mind in relation to the body, the soul, and the self, and how their turbulent debates on this subject shaped their radical literary innovations. Her many other publications cover fields including Shakespeare studies, literary images of Elizabeth I, and writings by and about early modern women. InWomen and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance(Cambridge UP, 2000) she explored the presence of women in early modern romance as imagined readers, as characters, and, eventually, as writers.

I’ll be asking Helen Hackett about:

  • While the novel as we know it today didn’t exist as a printed format forShakespeare’s lifetime, prose fiction was available and one popular topic was romance.Helen, define this genre for us as it existed for Shakespeare’s lifetime.
  • Who were the primary readership for this genre of fiction?
  • Helen’s work cites some examples of romance prose fiction where the work is dedicated to a woman. Helen, my first inclination would be to think a work dedicated to a woman was a romantic nod fitting the genre, but tell us about the women associated with this genre, both as dedicatees, but also as influential figures in the development of this genre.
  • …and more!

Helen Hackett, Women and Romance Fiction in the English Renaissance, (Cambridge UP, 2000) 📚 

Lori Humphrey Newcomb, Reading Popular Romance in Early Modern England (Columbia UP,2002) 📚 

Paul Salzman, English Prose Fiction 1558-1700: A Critical History (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985) 📚 

Chaucer’s influence on Shakespeare

Our guest this week, Dr. Helen Cooper, argues that Shakespeare’s London really ought to be called “Medieval London in the age of Shakespeare” and we are delighted to have her here to share with us how she came to this conclusion. 

Foreign Marriages with Mira Kafantaris

Today, our guest Mira Kafantaris is here to share with us the history of James “Spanish Match”,what the cultural reception to all of the marriage for peace was in the common realm of England during and just after Shakespeare’s lifetime, and whether we can see echoes of this cultural reality show up in the plays of the bard.

Cool Shakespeare History Items From Our Shop

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  • Chivalry painting from 1941
  • Painting c. 1259 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • Painting of King Oberon and Titania
  • Where to read Mary Wroth’s Urania online
  • 1598 publication by Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene
  • 1587 printing of John Lyly’s romance prose
  • 1566 title page of William Painter’s romance prose
  • Archival picture of Sidney’s Arcadia
  • Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth
  • Example of a 16th century chapbook
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!