Boccaccio in bikinis: the appeal of ITV’s Love Island

Some claim it’s Shakespearean, some Chaucerian – but in reality it’s more like the Decameron, a 14th-century collection of often bawdy tales

Over the last fortnight, brainy authors with columns have been explaining the appeal of Love Island. The novelist Rachel Johnson perhaps initiated the fad, justifying her addiction to the titillating Majorca-based dating showbecause it enables her to bond with her student-age son, and because it is “actually about relationships”.

In the Times, Ben Macintyre took time out from promoting SAS: Rogue Heroes and recommended the series as a “quite remarkable ... anthropological experiment” (an argument others deployed in relation to Big Brother when it made its UK debut 17 years ago): it reflects how “isolated communities swiftly evolve unique forms of behaviour”, such as the contestants’ distinctive language – mug off, sack off, melt and so on – and mating rituals. His colleague Caitlin Moran, meanwhile, saw it as a parenting resource, since what she expected to be “shallow, exploitative and pornographic” is simply the “gamification” of how love works “in real life”, and “all the people your kids are going to meet are here”, from the alpha male to the love-them-and-leave-them flirt.

The most tabloid and online follow-up, however, was generated by Elizabeth Day’s piece this week in Radio Times comparing the ITV2 hit to Shakespeare. Yet, despite its headline “The Bard in bikinis”, the article itself was terse and tentative in suggesting the link, citing just the islanders’ linguistic inventiveness and the fact that Shakespeare wrote rom-coms. Day was more forthcoming about parallels when interviewed by the Mirror. “Shakespeare, like ITV2, sought to entertain the masses, not highbrow, pretentious types,” said the literary novelist (in denial?).

Noting that he “loved a bit of bawdiness”, she drew comparisons between Kem and Marcel in the series and Romeo and Juliet’s Nurse and Friar Laurence, and pointed out that “Shakespeare even invented the original holiday island in The Tempest, ruled over by Prospero”, whom she likened to Kevin Lygo, ITV’s head of television; while Ferdinand fell for Miranda (a couple she saw as foreshadowing the show’s Jamie and Camilla) “so quickly he asks her to be his queen before he even knows her name ... the most Love Island thing I’ve ever heard”.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Il Decameron (1971).
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Il Decameron (1971). Photograph: Ronald Grant

One response, by the Daily Mail’s Sarah Vine, was to question the “Shakespearean” analogy and promisingly argue instead that Love Island is “more Chaucerian, both in tone and content”. Perhaps she was constrained, though, by the Mail’s apoplectic hostility to filth on screen and reality TV in general. She weakly offered only that the islanders, like the pilgrims, speak “vulgar English”, before bafflingly claiming that the show’s “entire premise” somehow “brings to mind” the Wife of Bath’s tale (in response to the “vulgar English”, lexicographers at Collins Dictionary have joined in to the Love Island love fest by defining terms including “pied” – verb, to be rejected – and “melt” – noun, to describe a soppy person).

While it’s good to see the Mirror and Mail battling over which long-dead literary giant underpins trash telly, both writers seem mistaken. The Shakespeare play closest to the Balearic snogathon is Love’s Labour’s Lost, where the pairing off of couples is the main business and (like the Majorcan millennials) the youngish leading characters are all the same age; also similar is Mozart’s Così fan tutte, subtitled The School for Lovers, which may have been borrowed from when Love Island recently removed the men from the villa and introduced some new hunks in trunks to tempt their girlfriends.

As for the series’ “entire premise” – its conceptual origins, as it happens, are intriguingly murky – neither Chaucer nor Shakespeare appears the likeliest model. In The Decameron, a 14th-century collection of tales by Giovanni Boccaccio (who influenced both later authors), a group of young men and women flee Florence for a finite period together in a villa. They are preoccupied with love and are often bawdy, yet – just like ITV2’s islanders – spend most of their time talking, talking, talking. Boccaccio in bikinis, then, not the Bard.


John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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