Folkdays: Reviewing Shakespeare and The Folktale


When I stumbled across a copy of Charlotte Artese’s book while Christmas shopping in Bath, I was compelled to buy it as a gift to myself. In the title alone, my two favourite topics for research were brought together: Shakespeare and the Folktale.

I had, somewhat on the margins on my mind over the winter break, wondered what I should choose for my MA dissertation topic. I knew I wanted to build upon my undergraduate dissertation in some way; however, I was registered on the wrong course to write my dissertation as poetry. What Artese’s book showed me was that I could combine a study of Shakespeare with the themes I like to explore in my poetry: namely folklore.

The book is a pleasantly surprising mix of academic study and easy-to-read fiction. It is chiefly an anthology of folktales that adhere to the folktale types that can also be found in Shakespeare’s plays.

Folktale types are the repeated narrative ideas that can be found in numerous stories, and have been compiled, categorised and indexed, most comprehensively, in The Types of International Folktales by Hans-Jörg Uther. This text categorises folktale types like ‘Snow White’ (ATU709), ‘The Sister of Nine Brothers’ (ATU 709a), and ‘The Wager on the Wife’s Chastity’ (ATU 882) with specific reference (ATU) numbers. All of the folktale types mentioned above are drawn upon in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: a heroine sent into a drugged sleep by an evil step-mother; a heroine who finds her long-lost brothers in a forest and becomes their housekeeper; a man who falsely ‘proves’ the infidelity of another man’s wife by obtaining ‘evidence’ through illicit means.

Artese studies one Shakespeare play per chapter; the book examines The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, All’s Well That Ends Well, King Lear, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. Short prefaces to each chapter outline the folktale types that bear resemblance to elements of the Shakespearean play, sometimes with a speculative analyses of the authorial expectations and performance conditions of the time. For example, Artese notes how in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare borrows aspects of the Scottish folktale ‘How a Bad Daughter Was Made a Good Wife’, but also alters elements too. The folktale ends with the tamed wife undressing before the room, but for The Taming of the Shrew, the boy actor playing Katherine would be unable to do this without ruining the gender illusion. This presumably led Shakespeare to alter this moment and have Katherine throw her hat to the floor instead.

In these chapter prefaces, Artese also touches upon the various folktale motifs that appear in Shakespeare’s plays.

Folktale motifs are the smaller details, or building-blocks, of a narrative, which have been categorised and indexed in the Motif-Index of Folk Literature by Stith Thompson. Often used in tandem with Uther’s index of folktale types, the motifs are categorised in a lettered and numbered systems; eg: the ‘three caskets’ motif which appears in many folktales, but is perhaps most familiar to us in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is given the designation L211 when a modest choice is required for success, or H511.1 when a princess is the prize.

Yet, take away the academic study into folktale types and motifs, and the book can still be enjoyed simply as an anthology of great stories. The tales can be used as gentle gateways into Shakespeare’s storytelling, or the connection can be ignored entirely and the stories just appreciated for what they are. The folktales Artese has selected are not immediately familiar, although some are chosen from Grimms’ Fairy Tales and One Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights).

Artese also highlights how the study of folktales is one of the only areas of Shakespearean scholarly research where connections can be made to countries and cultures across the globe. Her selection includes stories from Arabia to Chile, Ireland to Persia, Russia to Antigua. Though the study of Shakespeare is what has brought these folktales together in this volume, the outcome is far from what readers might expect from the world of scholarship – the stories are diverse and universal, entertaining and interesting, immediate and timeless.

For me, the volume connects the two areas of research I am interested in. Yet, if your interest lies only in folklore, not Shakespeare, this book is nonetheless valuable, simply as a collection of wonderfully diverse folktales.

This was a review of Charlotte Artese, Shakespeare and the Folktale (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019). The book can be bought here or in bookshops. An excerpt of the introduction can be read here. Other books mentioned are

  • Hans-Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales. A. Classification and Bibliography (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum, 2004).
  • Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends (Indiana: Bloomington, 1955-1958), which can be read here.
  • Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1812), published and made available widely.
  • One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights (1704), published and made available widely.

For more ‘Folkdays’ content, see my blog.

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