What could Into the Woods possibly have in common with King Lear?
For one thing, both have fairy tales as sources. In Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine mainly use "Little Red Riding Hood," "Rapunzel," "Jack and the Beanstalk," and "Cinderella." In Lear, Shakespeare at one point quotes "Beanstalk"—or another giant-killing tale—and for his main plot uses a legend that parallels "Love Like Salt," a Cinderella-ish story that appears in Grimms' Fairy Tales as "The Goose-Girl at the Well," in Joseph Jacobs's English Fairy Tales as "Cap o' Rushes," and in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book as "The Dirty Shepherdess." (That last one sounds like pornography, but it's a good version for kids because of Lang's engaging narrative and H. J. Ford's iconic illustrations.)
The Dirty Shepherdess gives in to
a sudden urge "to dress herself in
her robes of splendour."
H. J. Ford's illustration from
Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book.
A version of this story attached itself to the legend of an ancient British king, Leir. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth published the legend in his History of the Kings of Britain, and in the sixteenth it appeared in Shakespeare's sources. John Higgins's version was published in A Mirror for Magistrates, Raphael Holinshed's in his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and Edmund Spenser's in The Faerie Queene. Another source, an unidentified playwright's True Chronicle History of King Leir, was performed ten years before Shakespeare wrote his tragedy. (Weirdly, Leo Tolstoy preferred Leir to Lear, saying that Shakespeare's subplot destroys his play's unity, strange criticism from an author whose greatest work, in my opinion, sets Anna Karenina's tragic love story next to Levin and Kitty's happy one.) As told in these versions, the Leir/Lear story lacks some of the fairy tale's more fanciful twists: the fairy-tale princess's cryptic-to-the-king answer, "I love you as meat loves salt," becomes Cordella's/Cordelia's plain declaration that she loves her father as a daughter should, and, after her disinheritance, she doesn't disguise herself. Instead, her beauty and goodness are quickly recognized by the French king, who falls in love and marries her despite her lack of a dowry.
Though both the unidentified playwright and Shakespeare stick to this outline, they seem aware of the fairy-tale version. In Leir, for example, after Cordella's banishment, she says, "These costly robes ill fitting my estate, / I will exchange for other meaner habit." Hearing her, a girl-crazy member of the French king's entourage says, "Now if I had a Kingdom in my hands, / I would exchange it for a milkmaid's smock and petticoats, / That she and I might shift our clothes together." We seem about to begin a version of the fairy tale—"The Dirty Milkmaid" perhaps—but before Cordella can change her clothes, the French king falls in love and woos her. That he does this disguised as a palmer (a pilgrim who has been to Jerusalem) suggests that the playwright transferred the fairy tale's disguise motif from the princess to the French king. It's a good twist. The king's disguise lets Cordella prove that she loves him for himself, just as the king proves he loves her by marrying her despite her being penniless.
John D. Batten's illustration of
"Cap o' Rushes" from Joseph
Jacobs's English Fairy Tales.
John Hamilton Mortimer's
From Shakespeare Illustrated.
Child Rowland to the dark tower came
His word was still—Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.
Batten's illustration of Childe Rowland
preparing to fight the King of Elfland.
Most readers will recognize "Fie, foh, and fum, / I smell the blood of a British man" as a version of the "Jack and the Beanstalk" giant's "Fee, fie, foh, fum, / I smell the blood of an Englishman." The giant in "Jack the Giant Killer" says this as well. Though we can't know which story Shakespeare had in mind—perhaps he was thinking of both or of another tale—we can be sure he's quoting a giant-killing fairy tale. He changes "Englishman" into "British man" because Lear is set in the eighth century BCE, hundreds of years before Angles—along with Saxon and Jutes—invaded Britain and provided England with its name. In the fairy tales, the phrase heightens the listener's anxiety as a prelude to cannibalism that never happens. Shakespeare uses it as a prelude to the horror of Gloucester's blinding, setting it immediately before Edmund's betrayal of his father to Cornwall.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine never use "fee, fie, foh, fum" in Into the Woods, but, as an article on the original stage production tells us, the phrase was their original title. If they had used it, the name of their musical would have echoed both "Jack and the Beanstalk" and King Lear.
If you think of other connections between Into the Woods and Shakespeare, please leave a comment.