Excerpt: Shakespeare and the Folktale

What are the connections between traditional folktales and Shakespeare’s plays? Charlotte Artese, an English professor at Agnes Scott College in Georgia, sets out to explore these folktale sources in a new anthology of stories, Shakespeare and the Folktale, published October 22.

“Both folktales and Shakespeare’s plays are cultural survivors, thriving in scores of languages and cultures through the ages,” writes Artese. “Just as modern writers, playwrights, and filmmakers endlessly adapt Shakespeare’s plays, so Shakespeare drew from the tales in the culture of the time.”

Artese gathers these folktales, organizing them by play and commenting on their connections; the excerpt below comes from the anthology’s introduction.

In 1898, the writer J. M. Synge visited the Aran Islands, seeking to improve his Irish. In a cottage kitchen, an old man seated in the chimney- corner told a story to Synge and the others who crowded around while dinner was cooking. In this tale, a young farmer named O’Conor borrows money from a strange little man who demands five pounds of O’Conor’s flesh should he fail to repay the loan in a year’s time. Later, O’Conor enters into an ill- advised wager with a ship’s captain who claims he can seduce O’Conor’s wife.

Those who know their Shakespeare will find this story familiar, with its clear resemblances to The Merchant of Venice, in which a man uses a pound of his flesh as collateral for a loan, and Cymbeline, in which a man bets on his wife’s fidelity. Synge relates, “It gave me a strange feeling of wonder to hear this illiterate native of a wet rock in the Atlantic telling a story that is so full of European associations.”1 I was similarly struck when I first read the Chilean folktale “White Onion,” a story about a young man who faces the prospect of having a kilogram of flesh cut from his rump when he fails to repay a loan on time. The story bears a marked resemblance to The Merchant of Venice, and yet the folktale—which features such earthy details as a grubby old man and woman as helpers and the identifying mark of three golden hairs growing from the heroine’s waist—does not seem to be an adaptation of the play. We can recognize a connection between “White Onion” and Merchant just as we can recognize both a literary seventeenth-century French tale involving glass slippers and a pumpkin coach and a Chinese story about an abused young girl and her pet fish as “Cinderella.”

Part of the wonder I felt was over how stories separated by differences in time, place, culture, language, and genre can nevertheless resemble each other closely. I feel something of the birdwatcher’s joy when she identifies a bird well-known or rare when I find “The Maiden without Hands,” which I know from the Brothers Grimm, in a collection of Russian or Italian folktales. When I encountered “White Onion,” I saw The Merchant of Venice, even though the antagonist is the feckless young man’s godfather, not a Jewish moneylender. The Chilean folktale and the play resemble each other because both descend from earlier “Pound of Flesh” tales. We know such stories predate Shakespeare because medieval versions survive. Generations of Shakespeare scholars have examined his literary sources, but his folktale sources remain largely neglected. Yet just as birds and alligators help us to imagine their ancestors the dinosaurs, so folktales collected in the modern world (the nineteenth century and after) can give us insight into the stories Shakespeare and his audiences might have known. But just as a chicken is not an archaeopteryx, so the folktales in this volume are not Shakespeare’s exact sources, but later members of the genus of his sources. Shakespeare may have known multiple versions of the story he then used as material for his plays, and so each folktale type is here represented by several examples.

In the case of The Merchant of Venice, we can be virtually certain that Shakespeare knew a version of the “Pound of Flesh” folktale published in a fourteenth-century Italian collection of stories by Giovanni Fiorentino, The Dunce (Il Pecorone). I have not included this story, although I have included an earlier medieval “Pound of Flesh” tale, because Ser Giovanni’s story is generally accepted as Shakespeare’s source and so is readily available in Geoffrey Bullough’s indispensable eight-volume Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare and elsewhere.2 This anthology aims to augment our knowledge of Shakespeare’s sources and influences by supplying examples of his folktale sources rather than revisiting his acknowledged literary ones.

The larger question one might ask about The Merchant of Venice’s sources is, if we are nearly certain that Shakespeare knew the story in The Dunce, why should we interest ourselves in other versions of the same story? In what sense is “White Onion,” a Chilean folktale collected in 1951, a “source” for a play written and performed in London around 1597? One answer focuses on Shakespeare: he might have known a number of versions of the “Pound of Flesh” folktale, some of them from oral tradition. Attending to the folktale in its many guises can give us a clearer sense of the story tradition available to Shakespeare, although we cannot reconstruct it exactly. Shakespeare’s audience, moreover, may have also known the story in many forms, and unlike the playwright, many of them were illiterate, and so the oral tradition may have been all they knew.

Folktales often served as common ground in Shakespeare’s theater. The playwright and some members of his audience would have read literary versions of a play’s folktale source, and those who could not read might have heard those tales told. In our own culture, when a movie or television show (or short story or novel) adapts a fairy tale, the creator knows the expectations the audience will bring, and the audience knows that the creator knows. The audience waits to see how this version of a well-known story will conform to tradition and how it will vary. Will Red Riding Hood fall in love with the wolf? Will the evil fairy repent and rescue Sleeping Beauty? When we learn the folktale traditions that Shakespeare adapts, we can join this interplay between playwright and audience.

Both folktales and Shakespeare’s plays are cultural survivors, thriving in scores of languages and cultures through the ages. Just as modern writers, playwrights, and filmmakers endlessly adapt Shakespeare’s plays, so Shakespeare drew from the tales in the culture of the time. Macbeth becomes a samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood; Snow White becomes a bullfighter in Pablo Berger’s film Blancanieves. The title of Catherine Belsey’s 2007 book poses an essential question: Why Shakespeare? Why have Shakespeare’s plays been so durably successful? Belsey concludes that the resemblances between Shakespeare’s plays and folk narratives help to explain Shakespeare’s place at the center of the Western literary canon. By absorbing the narrative traditions on which Shakespeare drew, we may peer into the heart of what makes him great: a profound connection to his audiences through the centuries and around the world.

Excerpted from SHAKESPEARE AND THE FOLKTALE: An Anthology of Stories edited by Charlotte Artese. Copyright © 2019 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

  1. Synge, Aran Islands, 24. For some background on Synge’s travels in the Aran Islands, see Skelton, Four Plays, viii–ix.
  2. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 1.463–76.