Review of Shakespeare and the Folktale: An Anthology of Stories edited by Charlotte Artese
Folktales have been seen as an inspiration for many modern-day authors and film makers, and the inspiration obtained from these tales can also be seen in the works of William Shakespeare, as Charlotte Artese describes in her book Shakespeare and the Folktale. Artese provides valuable and interesting connections between a selection of Shakespeare’s plays and certain folktales, and uses this correlation to show how folktales all over the world are related. She skillfully explains the importance folklore study has in relation to the study of Shakespeare’s works, focusing on influential folktales that could have impacted eight of Shakespeare’s plays: 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.
The most impressive aspect of this extensive study is the range of sources Artese discusses. She draws on a diverse collection of tales from Europe, the Middle East, India, the Caribbean, and South America that all relate to Shakespeare’s works. This range weaves worlds together and creates a remarkable and charming experience for both academic and general readers. This collection draws on popular folklorists like Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Giambattista Basile, and more. It discusses the similarities each play has with the folklore Artese selects for the collection, and the way that Shakespeare used these popular folktales to appeal to his audience.
Artese begins by discussing the need within her field to show the importance of folktales as cultural and universal touchstones that writers such as Shakespeare freely exploit. She aims to fill a gap in Shakespeare scholarship, that “his folktale sources remain largely neglected.” This, Artese argues, is due in part to the inability to prove the influence of precise tales as “folktales in this volume are not Shakespeare’s exact sources,” but a collection of theoretically similar sources (2). This book is different from others as it brings to the surface the qualities Shakespeare’s works share with various folktales. Shakespeare and the Folktale provides a compelling argument for the need to study the connection Shakespeare’s work has with folktales and how the use of folktales aided in his ability to connect with his audience as “folktales often served as common ground in Shakespeare’s theater,” thus creating an undying collection of works (3). Readers who are looking for a relaxing experience can simply open up the anthology to one of the folktales within; however, those who desire for a more intellectual read can peruse the introductory materials of each chapter and see Artese’s arguments about in the select grouping of tales and how they relate to the current play. Artese splits the selection of Shakespeare’s plays into individual chapters with the collection of folktales divided into each appropriate chapter. Artese’s collection proves that there is a relationship shared between Shakespeare’s works and folktales, and one that needs to be further explored.
The anthology is organized into sections that collect together tales related to a specific play, each with a scholarly introduction, providing some context and positioning the tales in relation to the play. This structure allows for the reader to choose whether to enjoy this scholarly reflection or to leisurely read a folk tale. Artese notes at the start of each chapter how the play relates to the folklore using a brief summary of the folktale, or she discusses the plays’ outright relation to a literary source. Within the first chapter, “The Taming of the Shrew,” Artese provides a summary of the Danish folktale “The Most Obedient Wife” and a discussion of how this tale relates back to the play. She continues this method throughout her argument with various other tales. In the third chapter, “Titus Andronicus,” she draws on Shakespeare’s own declaration of the connection between the play and the story of Philomela from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She backs up her claims of Titus Andronicus being “explicitly Ovidian, and implicitly folkloric” with textual evidence and analysis. She then moves on to showing the resemblance Titus Andronicus has with the Brothers Grimm’s tale “The Maiden without Hands,” using the tragic character of Lavinia to express the relationship between the two works. If not obvious, my favorite section of the anthology is the chapter on Titus Andronicus.
This anthology can be perused by the general reader for sheer amusement, or by the academic who wishes to delve into the world of Shakespeare and the folktale. The links Artese derives between Shakespeare’s plays and the folktales she draws on are fascinating and well-explained. She sets out a clear and convincing argument for the further examination of these tales within the field of Shakespeare scholarship in an easily accessible and compelling format. These tales, Artese argues, not only provide insight into the construction of Shakespeare’s plays, but also speak to the relationship Shakespeare had with his audience whose familiarity with some of these tales would have provided important touchstones for their enjoyment and understanding. An awareness of these interconnections, therefore, can further illuminate our appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays and their contemporary reception.
Shakespeare and the Folktale: An Anthology of Stories edited by Charlotte Artese. Princeton University Press. 2019. 377 pp.