SHAKESPEARE AND THE FOLKTALE: An anthology of stories

Ed Charlotte Artese  ISBN 978-0-691-19086-0   Princeton  £16.99

reviewed by Alan Dent


The sources of Shakespeare’s plays are well-researched. Scholarship has been thorough for many years and even commonplace editions contain reliable information. Artese’s undertaking is not to identify specific sources but to range more widely in the search for interesting antecedents. She focuses on eight plays and links each one to folk tales from across the world which adumbrate Shakespeare’s themes and treatments. She isn’t, however, engaged in the rather reductionist effort of claiming a narrow group of themes or plots which form the core of all literature. Rather she is interested in teasing out interesting or surprising links. It may well be, of course, that literature returns to the same territory over and over: questions of relations between the sexes, being  fundamental to human life, would be expected to feature prominently in world literature. In the same way, family relations in general would be likely to appear frequently, if not inevitably (though we have to be careful about what we mean by “family”). Power relations too, questions of how people are governed, how the essentials of life are organised ought to be more or less universal. One interesting feature, however, is work. If we date the birth of literature to Homer, which is a reasonable position, then work has been the way people have maintained themselves and spent much of their time for the entire history of literature ( prior to the invention of agriculture some ten thousand years ago people lived as hunter-gatherers and though hunting and foraging are work they different in character from effort which technologically transforms the earth’s resources to provide the means of life.) Work, however, is absent from much literature: not much poetry deals with it, few plays are set in or refer closely to workplaces and novels are overwhelmingly about people’s lives away from work. In Shakespeare’s time, most people earned their living from the land. If they enter his plays they do so as the “lighter people” and, apart from the gravedigger, are never seen at work. Nor did Shakespeare set his plays in the place and time he knew: none is set in sixteenth century Stratford. He had to watch his back. All the same, he managed plenty of digs at the aspects of his culture he disliked. Perhaps the irreverent aspects of the some the tales Artese has unearthed helped him. 

Her first choice is The Taming of the Shrew, maybe a rather unusual one for a woman, or for a man mindful of the need to resist centuries of sexism. She includes five precursors: The Most Obedient Wife, a Danish tale by Svend Grundtvig; How a Bad Daughter was Made a Good Wife a story from South Uist collected by Angus MacLellan; the anonymous ballad The Frolicksome Duke; Asleep and Awake from The Thousand and One Nights and The Queen and the Tripe Seller, an Italian story collected by Rachel Harriet Busk. None is perfectly replicated in the play, but all have some aspects which relate to the drama. Clearly, the essential matter: quarrelsome women, daughters, wives and what can be done about them has arisen in the literature of different countries over a long span. What’s interesting is the question why. No doubt there ae women who are quarrelsome by nature just as there are others who are gentle, men who are blustering and men who are modest, but why should this particular theme emerge relatively frequently? Are there as many stories about prodigal sons? Perhaps the matter of the quarrelsome wife gains its prominence from male preoccupations. Literature has been a male accomplishment for centuries. Women have had to force their way in, sometimes pretending to be men to do so. Men, of course, don’t like quarrelsome daughters or wives, but it may be that the unruly behaviour and difficult character is a response to the limited potentialities provided by the culture. This is the value of Artese’s book. It isn’t a simple curiosity: it raises vital questions about literary culture functions, how certain themes become ingrained and others are considered unacceptable. As with The Taming of the Shrew so with Cymbeline: the trope of the wager on the wife’s chastity is of ancient date. Of course, there is the question of legitimacy here: all cultures, though they have a very wide variety of sexual arrangements, are concerned about legitimacy because someone has to take responsibility for children. Hence the obsession with female fidelity once monogamous marriage has become the norm. How common are stories about straying husbands?  

The other plays included are The Comedy of Errors; Titus Andronicus; The Merchant of Venice; All’s Well That Ends Well; King Lear and The Tempest. That one of the great tragedies makes it is telling. Artese points up the link between King Lear and Cinderella. Once again, what is notable here is the focus on feminine behaviour: a father seeking proof of his daughters’ love. Male power and female submission.  

Artese has researched her book diligently and her choice of folk tales helps to site the plays but more intriguingly to point to some underlying truths about literary culture and how certain themes come to be repeated while others get left aside.