Into the Woods and King Lear

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.
Though "Love Like Salt" has many variations—D. L. Ashliman prints several on a single web page—it basically goes like this. A king (sometimes simply a rich man) asks his three daughters how much they love him. The older ones pile on the flattery, but the youngest says that she loves him as meat loves salt. Her answer infuriates her father, who throws her out of the castle. She disguises herself—as a servant, goose-girl, shepherdess, etc.—and grinds away at menial tasks until one day she dresses in her old princess clothes to go to a ball or just for the heck of it. A prince sees her and falls in love, but she returns to her disguised life of drudgery, and the prince struggles to find her. He does this without help from a slipper, though in some versions he gets help from a ring. In "Cap o' Rushes," it's his ring; in "The Dirty Shepherdess," it's hers. When the ring ends up in prince's gruel or bread, he finds and marries the princess. They invite the princess's father to the wedding feast, and the princess tells the cook to keep salt out of the king's food. Appalled by the bland cuisine, the king finally understands his daughter's answer. He laments disinheriting her, she reveals herself, and the two are reconciled.

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.
In Lear, the French king is undisguised, so Cordelia has no chance to prove she loves him, and indeed we have no sense that she does. Instead, Shakespeare uses disguise to allow a different character to prove his love: the Earl of Kent shaves, changes his clothes, and adopts an accent to serve the master he loves (1.4.1-6), a transformation that recalls versions of the fairy tale in which the princess becomes a servant—a cook—in her father's castle. One of those versions may lie behind Edgar's disguise, which doesn't exist in Shakespeare's known source for the Gloucester-Edgar subplot, Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia. There the Edgar character simply makes his way in the world, becoming a soldier before meeting his father and helping him. The Lear Edgar's steeper slide down the social scale, from nobleman's son to mad beggar, recalls the fairy tale's English version, in which a rich gentleman's daughter disguises herself with a cape of rushes and begs to be taken in at a great house.

John Hamilton Mortimer's
"Edgar" (1775-76).
Though we can only speculate that some version of "Cap-o'-Rushes" inspired Poor Tom's costume, we can be sure that another English fairy tale inspired a line and a half at the end of act 3, scene 4. The scene, which takes place during the storm on the heath, opens with the disguised Kent and the Fool trying to get Lear to take shelter in a hovel. Lear says he wants to pray first. In his "prayer," he movingly expresses sympathy for the suffering of the poor. When he finishes, babbling comes from the hovel, and Edgar emerges disguised as one of the "poor naked wretches" of whom Lear has been speaking. Their encounter has the logic of a dream—or fairy tale—in which speaking of something makes it appear. Because Lear sees Tom as a reflection of his own suffering and as "the thing itself; unaccomadated man" (98-99), man outside of and untainted by society, he decides to make Tom his guru, calling him a "learned Theban" (145), an "Athenian" (167), and a "[n]oble philosopher" (160). He hears philosophy in the wild babbling that Shakespeare created using Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (a book attacking fraudulent exorcisms) as well as, in the last lines, a lost ballad and a fairy tale:
        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. 
A "Child" in this context is an apprentice knight. "Rowland" is Roland, the bravest of Charlemagne's knights, the hero of the medieval French epic The Song of Roland. And yes, Stephen King fans, the "dark tower" is ultimately a source for title of the series (a film version has been stuck in development, but King is confident it will eventually reach the screen). King got his title from Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," which is recommended reading even for those who prefer fiction to poetry—Jorge Luis Borges was right that "[i]f Browning had chosen prose rather than poetry, he would have been one of the greatest short-story writers in the English language" (166). Browning got the line from Shakespeare, who got it from a lost ballad that may—this is disputed—be related to "Childe Rowland," a story, retold in Jacobs's English Fairy Tales, about a boy rescuing his sister from 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.


Anonymous said…
I hope this is not a stupid question, but I was wondering where I could see all these movies. I can't find all of them online. What is the main resource for getting these movies? I would love to watch more of them.. as I really enjoyed them, it's just such a long search all the time :-(.
Amazon, Netflix, or a good library.
H00VES said…
There’s a Romanian version of this ‘Sarea in Bucate’ and the film adaptation is on YouTube if anyone’s interested. It was filmed during communist times.