'An ancient tale new told' Shakespeare's use of folk - and fairy tales as sources for his plays

Ciara Rawnsley

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Shakespeare drew inspiration for his plays from a wealth of different sources, but the ones usually discussed are in written, literary forms which are still accessible: the chronicles of Holinshed and Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and popular romance, Italian novelle pre-eminently. What has long been neglected, however, is the abundance of traditional oral stories in circulation during Shakespeare’s youth: folk- and fairy tales in particular. This thesis aims to identify and explore Shakespeare’s reliance on this major, though largely unrecorded, well of inspiration, and argues that the playwright made frequent use of folktale plotlines, motifs, and figures in his plays, often superimposing several folk stories in one drama. This may partly explain why Shakespeare has so often been adapted for children, by writers from Charles and Mary Lamb to the present day. The thesis proposes, moreover, that Shakespeare not only drew on the narrative patterns and plots of folktales, but that he also utilised the powerful but latent emotional subtexts such tales encode. This is particularly evident in All’s Well That Ends Well and Cymbeline, the two plays discussed in detail, which have proved theatrically effective but have always puzzled critics, arguably because their links with folktales have not been investigated. In these works, which have been chosen to show that he drew on this material at different parts of his writing career, Shakespeare brings to the surface the dormant emotional subtexts of folktales – which are in turn based on some of the most frightening subconscious fears possible – and uses these skillfully to complicate and darken his apparently ‘innocent’ dramatic actions, creating new and disturbing affective responses in characters and audience alike. In utilising as sources common fairy tales, then, Shakespeare was also evoking their rich emotional and personal resonances, which allowed him to add layers of subtle meaning to his plays, and connect with his audience on an emotional, albeit largely subconscious level.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


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