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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Shakespeare and Folktales

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 138

You probably know where Shakespeare got the ideas for his plays. His Histories come from Holinshed’s Chronicles. Caesar and other Roman plays depend on Plutarch’s Lives. The Comedy of Errors is based on Plautus’s Menaechmi. But what if we told you that a number of his plays draw inspiration from folktales, and that versions of those tales exist not only in England, but all over the world?

Charlotte Artese’s new book, Shakespeare and the Folktale, anthologizes some of those folktales. For example, Lear includes elements of a story sometimes called “Love Like Salt,” part of a larger tradition of Cinderella stories. The Merchant of Venice plays out much like a Chilean folktale called “White Onion.” Wacky tales of twins predate not only Shakespeare, but also Plautus. We talk to Artese about some of these stories and about how she became interested in folklore’s influence on Shakespeare (it involves Led Zeppelin). Artese is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Spotify, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Artese is Chair of the English Department at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. Shakespeare and the Folktale was published by Princeton University Press in 2019. From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published February 18, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “The Strangest Tale That Ever I Heard,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer.  We had technical helped from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Kevin Rinker at public radio station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Read | Excerpt: Shakespeare and the Folktale


MICHAEL WITMORE: If you’re someone who studies Shakespeare, I’d bet your confident about where Shakespeare got the idea for King Lear. But what if I said this instead: You can draw a straight line between the story of King Lear and… Cinderella. Do I have your attention?

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Plutarch, Ovid, Holinshed’s Chronicles… Those are the widely accepted sources of many of Shakespeare’s plays and characters. But they’re not the only ones.

There are researchers who, over the years, have found another source for Shakespeare’s plays. And that source is folktales. Stories passed along, mostly by word of mouth over the centuries. The parallels these scholars find are remarkable; between Cymbeline and a folktale called The Wager on the Wife’s Chastity, between All’s Well That Ends Well and The Sultan’s Camp Follower, and—as we said—between King Lear and Cinderella.

Charlotte Artese, Chair of the English Department at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, is one of these folktale researchers. Her new book, Shakespeare and the Folktale, is an anthology that draws these parallels as vividly as you could want. We invited her in to talk in a podcast episode we call “The Strangest Tale That Ever I Heard.” Charlotte Artese is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: What do we know about fairytales in Shakespeare’s time? How commonly they were told, and what ones he was likely familiar with?

CHARLOTTE ARTESE: There’s some interesting clues in Shakespeare’s plays. So, in Hamlet, for example, Ophelia, in her madness, says:

[CLIP from Hamlet.]

They say the owl is a baker’s daughter.

ARTESE: And this doesn’t mean much to us now, but there was a folktale in which Jesus and Saint Peter went walking around on Earth disguised. They asked the baker’s daughter for some bread. Either she said no or she gave them a kind of scanty portion, and so Jesus turned her into an owl. And so, Shakespeare seems to have expected his audience to have picked up on just a really quick reference like that to a story. There’s some other ones too. Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, at one point says:

[CLIP from Much Ado About Nothing.]

Like the old tale, my lord: “It is not so, nor ‘twas not so, but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.”

ARTESE: And that’s kind of a refrain in the English folktale, Mr. Fox.

[Clip continues]

Amen, if you love her.

ARTESE: We have no idea what fairytales or folktales Shakespeare might have known that no one was recording them as told orally by people—that doesn’t start until the 19th century. So, we’re in the position of triangulating from stories collected in the 19th century and later and then written versions of them that date either from around Shakespeare’s time or even earlier.

BOGAEV: Huh. We know and talk a lot about Plutarch and Holinshed’s Chronicles and the influence of them on Shakespeare, but not so much about folktales. So, why haven’t scholars explored these more or focused on these? What do you think is behind that?

ARTESE: I think there’s a disciplinary divide that exists between literature scholars who are trained to study author’s like Shakespeare and then from folklorists who specialize in the folktales. I mean, there are different professional paths. I think another reason is that now, we think of folktales as something for children and something that Disney movies are based on, not Shakespeare’s plays. They’re not based on folktales. Shakespeare is the very center of the Western canon and is a signifier of elite literary works. And so, folktales and Shakespeare are thought to be, in our culture, miles and miles apart.

BOGAEV: Oh, so it’s like high culture/low culture dichotomy? The two shall not mix?

ARTESE: Yes, I think so. And oral versus literate, that those are often held to be more distinct than they are.

BOGAEV: Which is so ironic, because you’re describing how people… you know, as we do now, they knew these folktales and fairytales, and they would recognize these references that Shakespeare sprinkled his works with. And Shakespeare was like the Law & Order SVU of his time. He was pop culture. It’s like dropping a pop culture reference into anything—a play or a TV showright?

ARTESE: Yes. Mm-hmm. And you think about TV shows and movies that base themselves on the folktales that we still do know. You know, when a story is proven to be successful and long-lived, then, as a good  businessman, it makes sense for Shakespeare to base his plays on, sort of, wildly successful and popular stories. Stories that have survived oral transmission over generations.

BOGAEV: Well, let’s give some people some really concrete examples and take some off. What are some of the most obvious overlaps between these folktales and the plots of the plays? And you talk about one, I think it might be the first one you encountered, The Merchant of Venice.

[CLIP from The Merchant of Venice.]

Let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

ARTESE: So, you have a young man who is trying to woo a woman and he needs money in order to do this. This is in the folktale, and also in Shakespeare’s play. And yet, he has no credit or collateral with which to borrow money. And so one creditor says, “If you don’t repay me, I’m going to repossess a pound of your flesh.”

[Clip continues]

A pound of man’s flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats.

ARTESE: And, of course, he doesn’t pay it back on time. In the meantime, he’s won the woman whom he was after and he is imprisoned—the young man—for not paying back this debt. So his wife disguises herself as a lawyer, comes and rescues him from this dilemma with the same argument that we see Portia used in Shakespeare’s play.  

[Clip continues]

A pound of that same merchant’s flesh is thine:
The court awards it, and the law doth give it.

Most rightful judge!

And you must cut this flesh from off his breast.

ARTESE: You can only cut exactly a pound, and no more and no less, or she says, “You can take your pound of flesh, but no drop of blood.” In the folktale, sometimes it’s both like in Shakespeare’s play, or sometimes it’s one or the other.

[Clip continues]

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But in cutting it, if though dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

ARTESE: That really is a remarkable level of detail for the folktale and the play to correspond.

[Clip continues]

Justice, be assured
Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir’st.

ARTESE: We see that in a Moroccan Jewish folktale and also in, I believe, the Chilean version. But then, when we read the folktales, they’re often so different in the smaller details. The synopsis I gave a moment ago was meant to show the correspondences, but in the Chilean version there’s a mysterious woman named White Onion. And she says that she will marry the man who can go to bed with her and not fall asleep. And it turns out that, you know, many men think they can absolutely do this. They come from far and wide, but they all fall asleep. So, this is a very different beginning than what we had, and a very different tone.

BOGAEV: It’s very dark.

ARTESE: It is, yes.

BOGAEV: It’s dark, and sexy, and menacing.

ARTESE: And I think that’s true for a lot of these stories. I think this is one reason why we’ve forgotten the very folktales that Shakespeare used, is because now we think of folktales as entertainment for children. We don’t give them the ones that involve, especially, sex. I mean, the Grimms’ can get pretty dark and violent, but we don’t give them stories about adultery and courtship, and the problems of marriage.

BOGAEV: Yeah, let’s go through a couple more of these, because it really is fascinating what Shakespeare picks up on and what he doesn’t. And that’s interesting in Taming of the Shrew. You say that there’s a Danish version of a folktale called “The Most Obedient Wife.” What happens in that story that we find in Shakespeare?

[CLIP from The Taming of the Shrew.]

Hortensio, have you told him all her faults?

I hear she is an irksome, brawling scold.
If that be all, masters, I hear no harm.

ARTESE: Well, we’ve got three daughters, and the oldest one is known for being difficult to get along with. And no one wants to marry her, until finally a stranger comes and says that he’ll marry this older daughter, even though her father frankly advises him against it and says, “I wouldn’t marry her to anyone.”

[Clip continues]

But for my daughter Katherine, this I know,
She is not for your turn, the more my grief.

ARTESE: And then he leaves, and he comes back on the day of the wedding. He’s not wearing appropriate clothes. He’s not brought a carriage. He is riding his horse and has his hunting dog with him. And then, the husband refuses to stay for the wedding feast, just as Petruchio takes Katherine away. And they go to the husband’s house and they get along fairly well, but he makes his wife in the folktale agree to patently false statements. Like, he says, “Oh that was a fine flock of storks flying overhead.” His wife says, “No dear, those are ravens.” And he won’t allow her to go visit her family, turns the carriage back around. This happens a few times until she agrees to whatever he says, even though it’s false.

[Clip continues]

How bright and goodly shines the moon!

The moon? The sun! It is not moonlight now.

I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

Now, by my mother’s son, and that myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or e’er I journey to your father’s house.

ARTESE: But in the end, there’s a wager on who is the most obedient wife, out of these three sisters. And the main character, you know, our shrew, she wins that bet. That’s exactly how Shakespeare’s play ends as well.

BOGAEV: This is just an appalling story, this folktale.

ARTESE: It is.

BOGAEV: There’s a whole part towards the end when the husband takes his wife on a trip, and the dog makes him angry so he kills his dog. And then his horse acts up or he doesn’t like what the horse is doing so he kills the horse. And then he makes his new bride—that just got married—he makes her carry the saddle.

ARTESE: Right.

BOGAEV: And she’s just so intimidated, she does what he wants.

ARTESE: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: I mean, all throughout these tales, women are constantly having to take their clothes off too.

ARTESE: Right.

BOGAEV: And be publicly naked and stuff. It’s really fascinating.

ARTESE: It is, and that thing about killing the animals too. And in some of them, one of them—actually the Danish versions—specifies that the wife has the saddle on her back and she’s carrying it. Which makes me think of Petruchio saying that, “Katherine is my ox, my ass, my goods, my household stuff.”

BOGAEV: Right.

ARTESE: So, you know, she’s only figuratively a beast of burden. And there are references—Shakespeare does not have the bits where the husband kills his animals in order intimidate the wife, but there are a couple of allusions. So, we don’t get to see Petruchio and Katherine on the voyage home, but a servant comes in and is telling the other servant about what a dreadful trip it was. And he starts by saying, you know, “And then we set forth.”

[CLIP from The Taming of the Shrew.]

Imprimis, we came down a
foul hill, my master riding behind my mistress—

Both of one horse?

What’s that to thee?

ARTESE: And the second servant interrupts and says, “Both on one horse?” The point of the joke, of course, is that he has anticipated the folktale. And in the folktale, they have to both be riding the same horse, so that when that horse dies, the bride is stuck carrying that saddle. So, the second servant is expecting this story from the folktale about the trip.

BOGAEV: Right, and so, when we know that this is an allusion to a fairytale, there’s a lot of wink, wink going on, right? Shakespeare knows that the audience knows what he’s referring to. And the audience knows that Shakespeare is really drawing on this material. There are so many more layers to the story.

ARTESE: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Do you think that’s what the intention is? With that interchange with the servants? Or is it that they’re tapping into this deep, dark Freudian underbelly of these folktales?

ARTESE: Mm. Oh, I think both and… I definitely think there’s some play with the audience’s expectations that we might expect if we saw a movie that was making a reference to “Red Riding Hood” or something like that. You know, are you going to go along with the audience’s expectations or are you going to thwart them? And so, Shakespeare’s having a joke about thwarting the audience’s expectations.

I think that in some ways Shakespeare’s play starts to seem more light-hearted and comic when you look at the folktales. The Scottish one is more brutal than the Danish one, and it’s… you can almost see the play as a revision of the folktale that cuts out some of the bitterest, most gruesome elements of the folktale.

BOGAEV: So, do you see that as a process of civilization or…?

ARTESE: Or maybe just the demands of genre. King Lear is just devastating to anybody, but especially when you know that the original story ended much more happily, both in the folktale and in the sort of legendary history. I think Shakespeare doesn’t always civilize his material. Certainly, in the case of King Lear, he makes it tragic and almost unbearable in a way that the folktale does not even approach.

BOGAEV: Okay, and King Lear is what folktale? Cinderella?

ARTESE: Yes, it is part of a… this folktale is called “Love Like Salt,” and it’s part of what scholars call the Cinderella Cycle. Just meaning that it’s a group of tales that then have obvious subgroupings. And so, “Love Like Salt,” like other Cinderella tales, involves a young woman who’s kicked out of her rightful place, has to work as a servant, appears in wonderful clothes at a party or a ball given by a prince. And then she eventually marries the prince after he seeks her out. None of this business with the balls and the prince and the dresses is in King Lear, but the opening episode of “Love Like Salt,” a Cinderella tale-type, is that a man calls his three daughters to him, and he says:

[CLIP from King Lear.]

Which of you shall we say doth love us most…

ARTESE: And the eldest daughter says something like, “I love you as much as I love sugar.” And the second daughter says something like, “I love you as much as I love honey.” And the third youngest daughter says, “I love you like I love salt.” And he’s horribly offended, the father, and he banishes the daughter from his house and disinherits her.

BOGAEV: There are a lot of them, right? I’m just looking at a list. There’s “As Dear as Salt,” from Germany. “The Necessity of Salt,” from Austria. “The Value of Salt,” from Italy—a bunch from Italy.


BOGAEV: There’s even some from Pakistan. “The Princess Who Loved Her Father Like Salt” is from India.

ARTESE: Right. These are—it’s a widespread tale.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and why is this variation of the same story showing up all over the world?

ARTESE: That’s interesting. There was a… when folktales studies just got started, that was a main question that they had. Are these stories being diffused and transmitted, or are they sort of originating independently? Is it like polygenesis? And I’m not sure that we can ever know. My own sense is that for something as particular as that opening episode of “Love Like Salt,” my money would be on gradual transmission.

For something like more generally a Cinderella story in which a young woman falls from her rightful position, but then regains it with marriage, if we want to talk at it at that level of abstraction. We do see that in China, for example, and in Egypt. I would be willing to believe that that is a case of independent genesis. But these are very difficult, maybe impossible things to prove.

BOGAEV: This gets into a lot of onion skin stuff. I mean, you write about the…

ARTESE: The layers, right?

BOGAEV: Right, yeah. You write about the Comedy of Errors, and that’s known to come from a second-century Roman play. But you point out that that second-century Roman play itself comes from a folktale. Trace that back for us.

ARTESE: Yes. And Shakespeare’s audience immediately picked up on the fact that the Comedy of Errors was based on Plautus’s play, the Menaechmi, which is a second-century BCE Roman play. And in that story, there are twins who had been separated from birth. One of them finds his way to the other one’s hometown, and then there are of course comic misunderstandings in which one is mistaken for the other. But that play… classicist and folklore scholars know, such as Bill Hansen and Sophie Trenkner, that the play itself seems to derive from this folktale, “The Twins,” or “Blood Brothers,” in which, again, two identical young men are separated, one falls into trouble. His twin has to come and find him, and is mistaken for his twin even by his brother’s wife.

[CLIP from The Comedy of Errors.]

That he did buffet thee and, in his blows,
Denies my house for his, me for his wife.

Did you converse, sir, with this gentlewoman?
What is the course and drift of your compact?

I, sir? I never saw her till this time.

Villan, thou liest, for even her very words
Didst thou deliver to me on the mart.

I never spake with her in all my life.

How can she thus then call us by our names—
Unless it be by inspiration?

ARTESE: And what Shakespeare does is he adds elements from the folktale back into his adaptation. And so, he’s recognizing the Menaechmi as a version of the twins or blood brothers just as scholars today have done. And then he’s adding in material. So there is a sorceress in the folktale. There are no actual witches in The Comedy of Errors, but every female character is accused of being a sorceress at some point.

[Clip continues]

Avoid then, fiend! What tell’st thou me of supping?
Thou art, as you are all, a sorceress.
I conjure thee to leave me and be gone.

ARTESE: And so, it’s a way, I think, of Shakespeare to nod back to that folktale to see the kinship between Plautus’s play, Menaechmi, and the folktale itself and to build on that.

BOGAEV: And this cycle of folktales is the twins or blood brothers?


BOGAEV: They’re all variations on that? And one of them is “Black Jack and White Jack?”


BOGAEV: Which comes from the Caribbean?

ARTESE:  The Caribbean, yes. Antigua. And that one’s fascinating because we see in a Renaissance Italian example where the queen has a miraculous birth and she has a son. Then a servant at just the same time, she has a son, and these two boys look identical even though they have two different mothers.

And so, the same thing happens in “Black Jack and White Jack.” You have a white lady and then you have a black woman who is—the phrase is—supposed to be “her maid.” But they both drink of this magic fountain, they both get pregnant, and they have boys who are identical to each other except one has dark skin and one has light. That’s fascinating but then, you know, their skin color does not prevent them from being mistaken for one another. Even the wife of Black Jack takes White Jack to be her husband when he comes in search of his missing brother. It’s funny. It sets up this class and race divide, and then it seems to erase it completely.

BOGAEV: You know, it really makes… drives home this point that when you’re reading Shakespeare or watching the play of course you miss a lot. No one can get everything, but now I think we’re missing even more than I thought before.

ARTESE: But it’s so fun and pleasurable to regain that knowledge. You know, to read these old stories. They’re just fun, these folktales that have come down to us. I think that it does enable us to approach the position of one of a member of Shakespeare’s original audience if we recovered these stories. They’re fun to recover.

And I love to teach Shakespeare and the folktale as a subject because it’s a great way to deal with Shakespeare anxiety. If we read a handful of folktales first, before we read the play, then students have a kind of preview of at least one strand of the plot and they’re looking for something. They’re looking for the parallels, and I think it works really well in the teaching context.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and also this idea that Shakespeare is a storyteller just as all of us were storytellers around the fireplace. It makes me think of… we had Peter Brook on the podcast a while back. He talked about going to India and seeing a storyteller in a courtyard with a crowd of hundreds of people around him, and all the storyteller had for a prop was a stick.

ARTESE: Right.

BOGAEV: And he just held these people enthralled, just captive with this story and his stick. And you know Brook read into that. That it’s clear you can really invoke anything at all if you find a way of recognizing that whatever play we’re looking at or we’re doing, we’re just storytellers.

ARTESE: Right.

BOGAEV: And you seem to be emphasizing that with digging up these folktale origins.

ARTESE: Yes, and if we imagine Shakespeare’s stage… I mean, there’s a lot to be said for the parallel between a storyteller standing in the midst of a group of people and with his verbal art and his physical art conveying this story. And I don’t want to overstate—there’s definitely a difference between a scripted play put on by a number of people and the traditional storyteller—but Shakespeare’s art was an art of memory and speech, just like the storyteller’s art.

BOGAEV: Although, many times in history, people haven’t thought about Shakespeare that way. The Folger’s director, Mike Whitmore, talks about people thinking this idea of Shakespeare is existing in the isolation chamber of the genius.

ARTESE: Right.

BOGAEV: That’s the way he puts it. What do you think it is about modern scholars like you and modern times that we’re able to see that Shakespeare just wasn’t in any kind of isolation chamber of genius?

ARTESE: I think that for a while now, we’ve been getting away from the great man theory of history and looking more at movements that we find people that were working. There were a number of people working independently on inventions, say at the same time. I think we’re more aware, and we’re more able to do the kind of research that allows us to see a bigger picture. To see more of the context. To think more in terms of a culture enabling an individual to achieve a certain level of art, or a certain scientific insight.

BOGAEV: So, what have you found that most surprised you? Or the most surprising direction that Shakespeare took one of these folktales?

ARTESE: Oh, let’s see. The last play that I consider in the book, The Tempest, he starts off with what I think would’ve been recognizable to his audience from the oral tale: “The Magic Flight.” In “The Magic Flight” stories, what we have is a young man who falls into the power of a wizard, but the daughter of this wizard feels sympathy for him and helps him out. And he and the wizard’s daughter get married. So, we can see a premise that’s very similar to The Tempest. But Shakespeare, once he gets that story going, essentially cuts it right off. So, in the folktale, the daughter also has magical abilities and these impossible tasks…

[CLIP from The Tempest.]

This my mean task.

ARTESE: That the sorcerer has given the young man to have an excuse to kill him. She’s able to do with her magic, whereas in The Tempest

[Clip continues]

I must remove
Some thousands of these logs and pile them up.

ARTESE: We have Prospero telling Ferdinand that he must move these thousands of logs. And this is a version of the impossible task, often in the folktales, actually, the young man has to clear a forest, but Miranda is no help at all.

[Clip continues]

Pray, set it down and rest you. When this burns
‘Twill weep for having wearied you.

ARTESE: And we kind of end up with the most unmagical flight, maybe, in western literature; where Prospero, instead of having a magic showdown with his daughter, he gives up his magic completely.

BOGAEV: And why did you choose that example?

ARTESE: Well, it’s a little bit like Hitchcock’s Psycho, where you think that Janet Leigh’s character is going to be the main figure in the movie, and then after 20 minutes or so, she’s dead. And we start off with this other story completely. We think it’s going to be about her stealing the money, but that’s all over very quickly.

And I think there was a similar, I don’t know, whiplash effect on the audience of Psycho at the time that Shakespeare’s audience might have felt with, “Oh yeah, I see where this is going. Nope. That just cut off that possibility.”

BOGAEV: Also, the way that he pulls the rug out from under this…


BOGAEV: …expectation.

ARTESE: Yes. And I think that’s an act of genius. And you know, Hitchcock’s a genius of his form as well, so it’s a similar move.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s such a great example. I, often, when I think of Psycho I forget about that whole beginning to the movie.

ARTESE: Right.

BOGAEV: How did you start this whole search for the origins of folktales and Shakespeare? Did you trip over something to make you think, “Oh wait, I got to… what? That sounds familiar.”

ARTESE: I did. It all began with Led Zeppelin as a matter of fact. About 15 years ago, I was driving in my car—I know, it sounds improbable. I was listening to the Led Zeppelin song, “Gallows Pole.”

[CLIP: “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin.]

Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while.

ARTESE: In the song, what happens is, there’s a man about to be executed and his family… he asked his family to come and bribe the hangman. But they don’t have any money and they can’t do it.

[Clip continues]

Friends did you get some silver?
Did you get a little gold?

ARTESE: So, then he asks his sister to sleep with the hangman in exchange for his release.

[Clip continues]

I think I see my sister coming,
Riding a many mile.

ARTESE: And the sister does, she has sex with the executioner, but then the executioner hangs her brother anyway.

[Clip continues]

Oh, yes, you got a fine sister.
She warmed my blood from cold.
She brought my blood to boiling hot.
To keep you from the gallows pole.

ARTESE: And I thought, “Wow, that sounds a lot like the plot for Measure for Measure.” But it ends tragically, like the play would have without the Duke’s interference and sort of a creation of a happy ending. And I thought, “Well furthermore, this “Gallows Pole” song sounds like a folksong to me.” So, I looked it up in the liner notes and sure enough, it was listed as “Traditional,” for the lyrics. And I kind of looked around to see if I could make a connection. But really all that happened was, I would then play “Gallows Pole” for my students when we were reading Measure for Measure. You know, as I was taking attendance or whatever.

But I think that primed me to then have my eyes open when I came across something I was reading that said, “Jan Harold Brunvand, the folklorist… He is best known for urban legends,” for sort of coining that concept. That “he did his doctoral work on the folktale, The Taming of the Shrew, which Shakespeare adapts.” And I thought, “Well that’s the first I’ve heard of it.” I had no idea there was a Taming of the Shrew folktale.

So, then I looked up Jan Brunvand’s work, and he had a footnote that said, “Oh, a number of Shakespeare’s plays are based on folktale”. There’s Cymbeline and “The Wager on the Wife’s Chastity.” He mentioned King Lear in “Love Like Salt.” That was when I became astonished that there… it was definitely the tip of an iceberg. I went and started to pursue this seriously and just found more and more plays that had a link, a strong link to a folktale.

BOGAEV: First, you must be a very popular teacher. Second, I don’t know anybody else whose line of scholarship on Shakespeare started with Led Zeppelin, have you run into anyone else?

ARTESE: No, I haven’t, but if anyone out there hears this and that happened to them as well, please send me an email. We have much to discuss.

BOGAEV: Well, just one more thought. Because we talk a lot on this podcast about what makes Shakespeare enduring or universal. And I can’t help but think, “Oh fairytales or folktales are similar in that way.”


BOGAEV: They connect with people across all cultures. They tap into these deep unconscious fears and emotions. How do you understand the connection? What do you think the folklore contributes to Shakespeare’s appeal?

ARTESE: I’m not sure if I know how it works, but it certainly seems that there are some stories that catch in our imaginations. They are sort of retold and retold, and they cross linguistic and cultural boundaries. Shakespeare’s plays have done that as well. Catherine Belsey’s book, Why Shakespeare, really kind of tackles this question also. But when we think about what is it about these stories—you mentioned Freud earlier. I mean, Bruno Bettelheim’s idea of the fairytale is that is rehearses the whole Oedipal family dynamic, and that he finds that again and again in the stories and says, “These stories endure because they help children who are going through this physiological process,” which in Bettelheim’s mind is universal.

And there are plenty of Shakespeare’s plays that have nothing to do with folktales. I mean, Othello has been adapted and adapted, and as far as I can see, there’s really no folktale element to it. So, not all of Shakespeare’s success is due to folktale sources.

I don’t know how it works, but I think Shakespeare saw it working and adapted it. And I think also, and I talk about this in relation to Cymbeline, he also sort of returned to a handful of motifs over and over again. You know, the woman who dresses as a man. The siblings who have been long separated but find each other. He reassembles these sorts of narrative elements to make a new play in the same way that we see motifs recur in folktales, like the youngest of three: the youngest of three sons or the youngest of three daughters. So, I think Shakespeare… his methods in some ways were similar to the ways in which folktales come into being and recombine and develop.

BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much for this. It really makes me think about the plots and the plays differently. It also made me think about Led Zeppelin differently. Thanks so much for the conversation.

ARTESE: Well, thank you so much. Oh, thank you.


WITMORE: Charlotte Artese is Chair of the English Department at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. Her new anthology, Shakespeare and the Folktale, was published by Princeton University Press in 2019. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “The Strangest Tale That Ever I Heard,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical helped from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Kevin Rinker at public radio station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia.

We hope you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. And if you are, we hope you’ll consider rating and reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get this podcast from. That helps get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. We’d really appreciate your help letting people know about what we’re doing. Thank you.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.