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Shakespeare & Beyond

How William Shakespeare invented the holiday romcom

’Tis the season when we turn to familiar tried-and-true tales that bring us, as the song says, comfort and joy. For many, this means the made-for-TV Christmas movie: the frequently cheesy but heartfelt holiday romance that dominates so much programming at this time of year. But hold thy mockery and dismiss these formulaic and ubiquitous romcoms at your peril, for they bear the distinguished and unmistakable quill marks of William Shakespeare.

For who loved a trope more than Shakespeare? As many have pointed out, he established the familiar beats of today’s romantic comedies 400 years ago in such comedies as Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night. Mistaken or disguised identities, relationships plagued by scandal, star-crossed lovers, and squabbling-turned-loving partners are recognizable in dozens of modern romantic comedies from Bringing Up Baby to While You Were Sleeping to Notting Hill. And that’s not even counting the teenage romcoms from the late 90s and early 2000s that successfully turned Taming of the Shrew into 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Twelfth Night into Who’s The Man (2006).

But add the holiday element and suddenly a larger range of recognizably Shakespearean motifs becomes apparent. The number one conceit of any respectable Christmas movie is the big-city gal who returns to her small-town roots and discovers What’s Really Important (usually in the form of a “Canadian handsome” guy who has a Christmas-related job or hobby). Escaping the troubles and responsibilities of urban life by fleeing to a more rural setting is a feature of Shakespeare’s comedies Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as well as his romance Cymbeline, in which Imogen must travel in disguise to the wilds of Wales. But don’t let’s overlook Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV, Part One, in which the future King Henry V also runs away from the burdens of his royal duties into the figurative woods of Eastcheap as well as the literal woods of Gad’s Hill.

Another prominent feature of the Christmas movie is the story’s climax at a huge public event such as a contest or festival or performance, echoing Shakespeare’s frequent use of a play within a play device in Hamlet, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and The Tempest. In Jingle Belle, one of the ten best Christmas movies made for the Lifetime network, a songwriter named Belle must return to her hometown to compose music for the town’s annual Christmas pageant, culminating in a reconnection with her ex-boyfriend and a musical climax. Plays in Shakespeare’s time almost always ended in some kind of dance, and performances at Shakespeare’s Globe in London today still end in a jig performed by the actors. Stories that end in a musical or comedy performance are almost foolproof, and if you don’t embrace the cheese of a children’s choir singing Christmas carols at the end of such feature films as Love, Actually and About a Boy, or Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals performing “Pyramus and Thisbe” at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

Of course, the central hallmark of any self-respecting romantic comedy is a comic misunderstanding between potential lovers who exchange witty banter with an affection that’s clear to everyone except them. It’s obvious these holiday couples are made for each other, and as author Jessica Martin, who wrote the modern Shakespeare-inspired “Bard’s Rest” romance novels For the Love of the Bard and The Dane of My Existence, explains, “Holiday romcoms hinge on the idea of two people coming together at exactly the right time. I mean, really, who did fated mates better than the Bard? I do actually believe Shakespeare invented the holiday romcom.”

It must stand to reason, therefore, that made-for-TV Christmas movies based on actual Shakespeare plays would be the finest examples of what we’re discussing, right? Not so fast. Much Ado About Christmas (2021), A Star-Crossed Christmas (2017), and Rodeo & Juliet (2015) all comprise a not-terribly-promising subgenre that critic Gemma Allred has dubbed “ShaXmas Movies,” where Shakespeare’s plots and titles are repurposed with a Christmas setting but with diminished results. Nonetheless, Allred embraces the attempt and applauds “the audacity of a cookies-and-cocoa Christmasification of” Shakespeare’s plays, making them “essential festive viewing for any Bardophile.”

As for that other alleged Christmas movie inspired by a Shakespeare play, I refuse to be drawn into any debate that suggests Die Hard is a holiday version of King John (McClane).