Shakespeare and the Folktale: An Anthology of Stories by Charlotte Artese [editor]

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Professor of English at Agnes Scott College, Charlotte Artese has presented an intriguing delight for the Shakespeare lover. Her book is a comment on the human propensity to never cease to search out new ways of looking at old ideas or common issues that turn out to be anything but common. Who would have thought that Shakespeare’s ideas with their original character and treatment at the deft hand of a master dramatist could have been found in so many different places?  Artese has researched and published more than forty versions of folk tales related to eight Shakespearean plays. These are tales sourced from Europe, the Middle East, India, the Caribbean, and South America. Organised by play, each chapter includes a short discussion of the intriguing connections between the play and the gathered folk tales.

Artese states in her introduction that, “part of the wonder I felt was over stories separated by differences in time, place, culture, language, and genre can nevertheless resemble each other closely…folktales collected in the modern world…can give us insight into the stories Shakespeare and his audiences might have known…[the folktales] are not Shakespeare’s exact sources, but later members of the genus of his source” (2).

Her book is a reminder the Shakespeare’s culture was largely oral just as the theatre was. References to tales in circulation might be very slight in Shakespeare’s plays yet be immediately recognised by the theatre-attending population. Artese instances Ophelia in her madness uttering, ‘They say the owl was a baker’s daughter’ (Hamlet, 4.5, 42-43), the origin of the reference explained in Artese. Furthermore, Professor Artese makes an excellent point when she maintains that Shakespeare’s folktale sources point the way to our understanding how he met his audiences on common ground and kept them there.

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew boasts a folktale of the same name identified as ATU 901. (The standard reference work is Hans-Jorg Uther’s The Types of International Folktales in which a number is preceded by the letters ATU. Think Mozart and the ‘K’ system). Artese calls up a bewildering number of tales that are very like Shakespeare’s play. She identifies a tale, makes some sort of academic commentary on it, and having commented likewise on each, then presents the tale. Folktales associated with The Taming of the Shrew are Svend Grundtvig’s The Most Obedient Wife, Angus MacLellan’s How a Bad Daughter was Made a Good Wife, an anonymous ballad called Lord for a Day, from ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ comes John Payne’s translation Asleep and Awake,  and Story of the Lackpenny and the Cook, and finally, under the heading ‘The Wicked Queen Reformed by Whipping by a Cobbler’ in Rachel Harriette Busk’s story The Queen and the Tripe-Seller.

An extensive folktale literature exists around a play like The Taming of the Shrew, one that I hazard has not occurred to those engaged in teaching Shakespeare. It should be stressed that Shakespeare did not take his ideas from these tales. Rather, Artese is simply drawing attention to the existence of these tales and gives a nod to the comparison of their subject matter, as well as the points of comparison Artese mentions in her Introduction.

The Comedy of Errors, which begins on page 59, has four folktales associated with it, while Titus Andronicus has eight. The remaining plays referenced in the anthology are The Merchant of Venice, All’s Well That Ends Well, King Lear, Cymbeline and The Tempest. Each of these is an important play and each holds a bundle of folktales associated with it. Each play, each folktale provides a stimulus to the further study of Shakespeare. Each play opens a door whose existence had before now been unknown, and each tale supplies us with a key, a methodology that enriches our understanding as it teaches.

In the twenty-first century, we might find it difficult to imagine an oral culture. In fact, we would certainly think ourselves highly technological. We go to see a play or an opera or listen to a small group of musicians. We slump in front of our televisions and watch the same programs that have appeared year after year and consider ourselves satisfied that technology continues to do wonders for us. What we’ve failed to realise is that there are real people, delivering an oral message, one step further removed from that of the time of Shakespeare. The same tales with professional actors are telling folk tales or mysteries or other oral messages, and we’ve just messed with the medium that delivers them.

Artese draws us back to our roots with a wonderful reminder bound up in a motley collection of folktales that have an immediacy and freshness that suggest they were written yesterday.

Shakespeare and the Folktale: an anthology of stories


Charlotte Artese (ed)

Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-19086-0

$USD19.95; 392pp

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