Cymbeline and Snow White

Content note: murder; attempted murder (including familial and spousal); violent jealousy; rape.


NB: This post has been edited since it was originally posted, reflecting my further researches on the subject.


I'm going to do that thing where I frame the events of a story as if I'm describing a different story. (Is there a name for this? I feel I should know.)


A princess, menaced by the murderous jealousy of her stepmother, flees the court. An assassin sent after her takes pity on her and lets her go. She takes refuge with a group of men who live remote from civilisation, but her stepmother's malice eventually causes her to suffer an enchanted sleep, in which she is taken for dead. Eventually she awakens and is united with her beloved.


Yes, it is of course Shakespeare's Cymbeline - which, in this strand of its complex plot, bears a remarkable resemblance to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I cheated slightly, phrasing my summary so as to conceal the fact that the assassin who spares Imogen in the play is not sent by her stepmother, but by her jealous and misinformed husband: but the likeness is undeniable.


So where did Shakespeare get his story from? The setting and character names in Cymbeline are plucked from Holinshed's Chronicles, but virtually none of the plot is to be found there. The main acknowledged source is story II.9 of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron: but this is not a Snow White story, and if Cymbeline did not exist nobody would think to make the connection between Boccaccio and the fairy tale. The usual assumption is that Shakespeare combined Boccaccio's story with a pre-existing folk tale, a version of which was later collected by the Grimms: but I wonder if there may not be more to it than that. Is it possible either that there was already an overlap between the two stories (which may have been what inspired Shakespeare to combine them in the first place), that Cymbeline itself directly influenced the later Snow White tradition, or both?


The obvious way to begin is by trying to trace the story back from the Grimms, to see if the path leads to Shakespeare. While many of the classic fairy tales can be found in medieval and even ancient sources (and recent scholarship suggests much more remote origins than that), Snow White is usually considered an exception. (There are significant parallels with the myth of the rape of Chione as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and influence looks likely, but direct identification of the stories as variants of one another remains controversial.) Although versions were collected all over Europe and beyond in the decades following publication of the Grimms' Children's and Household Tales, showing that it did have widespread oral currency, written evidence for it before then is very thin on the ground. The only undoubted earlier versions are Richilde, collected in Popular Tales of the Germans by Johann Karl August Musaeus in 1782; and the play Schneewittchen (1809), by the brothers' (unrelated) namesake and rival Albert Ludwig Grimm. Both works were known to the Grimms, and influenced them in working up their version of the story from their oral sources.


One version certainly not known to them was the Malay poem Bidasari, thought to date from around 1750. Bidasari is the most solid evidence that the tale was known worldwide before the Grimms, strongly suggesting a very ancient origin.


Despite the title of his collection, Musaeus made his stories very much his own. Richilde (which interestingly anticipates modern reimaginings, being told with the stepmother as protagonist) is historicised in a fictional version of medieval Brabant, the anti-heroine's birth being connected with Albertus Magnus' progress around Europe to preach the Eighth Crusade in the 1260s. Where folk tales tend to the vague and the once-upon-a-time, he offers names, titles, and places - though his characters bear small resemblance to the actual holders of their titles and offices in the era described. Oddly enough, the one genuine historical character in Richilde, Albertus Magnus, may be the only one named in his oral source (if any). Like many philosophers of his era, Magnus had acquired a popular reputation as a wizard over the years, and might well have worked his way into such stories. Musaeus makes him Richilde's godfather and the creator of her magic mirror - one of many elements which crystallise in his version of the story, others including the "fairest of them all" motivation, the three separate attempts on the princess' life, her protectors being dwarfs, and the name Blanca, which may have inspired "Schneewittchen": although the fact that the latter name was used both by Albert Grimm and the brothers suggests an earlier currency. (It is worth pointing out that "Chione" derives from the Greek for "snow".)


Since the villainess in the Grimms' first edition was Schneewittchen's natural mother, it is possible that Musaeus also inspired the change to a stepmother: though the Grimms, desiring to promote an ideal of the nuclear family and fiercely attached to their own mother, made similar changes to several other stories. Moreover, this is the kind of detail that varies between versions of this and other stories in the oral tradition, with both "mother" and "stepmother" versions existing independent of any literary meddling. Albert Grimm's villain is a stepmother.


(It's been suggested that Musaeus' magic mirror may have been inspired by the ornate "Speaking Mirror" - so called because it was decorated with aphorisms - belonging to Claudia von Reichenstein, who after becoming Baroness von und zu Erthal in 1743 was alleged to have mistreated her stepchildren. Before the invention of the modern silvered-glass mirror in 1835, high quality mirrors were rare and massively costly, and a clear reflection must have seemed something close to magical in itself. Mirrors as a means of divination are not uncommon in folklore, and the fact that one is reportedly used in Bidasari probably scotches this theory.)


The mapping of story elements below is going to get complicated. Don't worry, there'll be a diagram.


So: what is there in the story that can be found in pre-Musaeus European stories other than Cymbeline - and is there any reason to believe that either Musaeus or the Grimms were directly influenced by Shakespeare? Two earlier analogues are often cited: Marie de France's Lai of Eliduc (late twelfth century), and The Young Slave, a story in Giambattista Basile's Tale of Tales (published posthumously in 1634). The first can be discounted: it shares only one plot element with Richilde / Snow White, that of the enchanted sleep - it might with as much or more justification be called a version of Sleeping Beauty. The Young Slave is a more complex case. Although only two of the key plot elements are present - the enchanted sleep and the jealous mother-figure (here an aunt by marriage), in that apparently unique order - it seems significant that its heroine sleeps in seven crystal caskets, one within another. The crystal casket and the significance of the number seven both made it into the Grimms' version - but not Musaeus'. Whether this was incidental influence from their reading of Basile, or a sign of some pre-existing relationship between the stories, is impossible to tell: both elements are found in some later orally collected versions, but the massive popularity of Children's and Household Tales could have been at least partly responsible for this.


One key plot element which the Grimms did not use is, however, shared by Shakespeare and Musaeus. In both versions, the reason for the princess' survival is that the queen's physician, charged to prepare a poison, has deliberately substituted the draught which causes the death-like sleep. (Musaeus, a man of the Enlightenment, makes the physician a Jew who at first appears to conform with anti-Semitic stereotypes, only to emerge as an heroic figure.) This, to me, is a remarkable correspondence, unlikely to arise coincidentally: and I'm not aware of any equivalent element in orally collected versions of the story. I don’t know of any other evidence that Musaeus knew Cymbeline, though it had been translated into German by this period: but if this element is extraneous to the folk tradition (always allowing for the fact that I have not read every version of Snow White ever collected!) then direct transmission from Shakespeare to Musaeus seems the most plausible explanation. The correspondences connecting Shakespeare to the Grimms but not Musaeus are perhaps less striking: it is true that Imogen's shelterers, like the Grimms' dwarfs, live removed from society and are met with by chance while fleeing from her enemies, while Musaeus' dwarfs are members of the court living at a royal lodge and entrusted with Blanca's care by her father, but this seems less significant than the character of the physician. There is, however, a second connection which skips Musaeus, which we will examine below.


While Boccaccio's version contains no stepmother or enchanted sleep, it does furnish Shakespeare with the story of the merciful assassin, equivalent to the Grimms' huntsman - but to no character in Richilde. Boccaccio's likely source is The History of Gerard de Nevers, a thirteenth century romance by Gerbert de Montreuil: but, as he frequently did, he has stripped away its foreign, archaic, aristocratic, and supernatural elements to turn the characters into bourgeois Italians of his own era. (The nobleman Gerard is replaced with a Genoese merchant with the surname Lomellin, which belonged to a real merchant family, prominent in Genoa since about 1150.) In the process, he has actually had to create the character of the merciful assassin (drawing on a common folkloric motif): Gerbert's heroine Euriante was threatened by her husband in person, and escaped after the timely intervention of a gigantic serpent, a creature which would have been out of place in Boccaccio's more realistic story. (Interestingly, Boccaccio has called his wronged heroine Zinevra - a variant of Guenevere, an actually unfaithful wife in chivalric romances much like Gerbert's.)


It seems unlikely that Shakespeare could have known Gerbert's romance. The original text would probably have been inaccessible to him, both linguistically (it is in Old French verse) and physically (it doesn't seem to have been in print); and with Boccaccio giving no indication of his source, he would have had no reason to seek it out. However, a printed version in sixteenth century French prose, probably by Jean de Wavrin, did exist. (This was the version later used by Carl Maria von Weber as the source of his 1823 opera Euryanthe.) It is not inconceivable that Shakespeare could have happened across this accidentally. Cymbeline certainly seems to contain echoes of Gerard which Boccaccio lacks: most strikingly, the scene of the heroine awaking by the side of a corpse, unaware of how it got there, as an indirect result of rejecting the sexual advances of a malicious nobleman. (In Gerard, the jealous knight Meliatir murders another woman to frame Euriante; in Cymbeline, Imogen's stepbrother Cloten - though spurned and seeking revenge like Meliatir - is not the killer but the cadaver.) We are left here with a choice between two improbable coincidences - that Shakespeare knew de Wavrin's Gerard independently of Boccaccio, or that Gerbert and Shakespeare both invented this scene independently. The only alternative is to posit a folk tradition known to both: but this scene seems to have no parallel in later folk tales. Of the three options, Shakespeare reading de Wavrin is perhaps the least implausible.


There is one final possible element in the make-up of the Grimms' Snow White. In 1856, the Swiss folklorist Ernst Ludwig Rochholz published Swiss Legends of Aargau, including a story from the Black Forest on the Swiss-German border called The Death of the Seven Dwarfs. It is, of course, post-Grimm; but it does not read like a fairy tale - rather like a disjointed, half-remembered account of real events. In Rochholz' story, the young woman who takes shelter with the dwarfs (in this unmagical context, perhaps actual people of restricted growth?) has no backstory, and no previous connection with the old woman who comes to their house - a genuine peddler, not a disguised queen. The peddler's malice is not personal, and does not take the form of poisoned apples and combs - rather, she is outraged at a young unmarried woman living with seven unrelated men, and incites a local mob against them, resulting in the murder of the dwarfs and the flight of the young woman, never to be heard from again. Could this story reflect a dim memory of some local scandal known to Musaeus (and perhaps also to the Grimms), and which influenced the development of the Snow White story? We can't really say, especially as the Grimms' story itself had probably coloured this tradition by the time it reached Rochholz. But the possibility is intriguing.


Below is a table of the correspondences between the various versions. I don't think it bears out the theory that the Gerard and Snow White stories are completely separate outside Cymbeline: but whether the overlap predates Shakespeare or resulted from his decision to combine the stories is, at this point, probably beyond our ken. I can find no direct evidence that Musaeus or the Grimms (Albert or the brothers) were acquainted with the play, but it would be almost impossible to show that they were not. (It is worth noting here that the Scottish folk tale "The Chest", which is not a Snow White story, uses the "false accusation" element in a way that strongly suggests it was influenced by either Boccaccio or Shakespeare. If a non-English-speaking farmer's wife in Victorian Argyll knew this story - however indirectly - from these literary roots, surely some of the most learned men in Enlightenment Germany could have done.) Personally, I'm inclined to suspect that Cymbeline did directly influence Musaeus, and very possibly influenced all three Grimms as well.


Correspondence of plot elements between the different stories


The heroine is a princess: in Cymbeline, Bidasari, Richilde, both versions of Snow White, and versions collected later

Her name refers to whiteness: in Metamorphoses, The Decameron (probably coincidentally, the author being unaware of the meaning), Richilde, both versions of Snow White, and versions collected later

She is menaced by a jealous mother figure: in Metamorphoses (stretching the definition of mother figure), Cymbeline, The Young Slave, Bidasari, Richilde, both versions of Snow White, and versions collected later

This happens purely because of her beauty: in Metamorphoses, Bidasari, Richilde, both versions of Snow White, and versions collected later


The mother-figure has a magic mirror or other means of divination: in Bidasari, Richilde, the Brothers Grimm's Snow White, and versions collected later (Diana in Metamorphoses obviously has no need of this)


She is endangered by a suspicion of sexual impropriety: in Gerard, The Decameron, Cymbeline, The Young Slave, The Death of the Seven Dwarfs, and versions collected later; Chione's downfall in Metamorphoses could be seen as parallel (she boasts about being the target of two gods' lust)


She rejects at least one wouldbe lover: in Gerard, The Decameron, and Cymbeline (two in Gerard and Cymbeline)


A man sent to kill her takes pity on her and aids her escape: in The Decameron, Cymbeline, both versions of Snow White, and versions collected later


She flees to a remote place: in Gerard, The Decameron, Cymbeline, both versions of Snow White, The Death of the Seven Dwarfs, and versions collected later (NB in Richilde she was sent to the lodge by her father)


There she is given shelter by: nobody in Gerard; a Catalan merchant, then an Egyptian sultan, in The Decameron; her own long-lost brothers, then a Roman general, in Cymbeline; former courtiers, mostly dwarfs, in Richilde; dwarfs and genies in Albert Grimm's Snow White; dwarfs in the Brothers Grimm's Snow White and in The Death of the Seven Dwarfs; various people including both dwarfs and long-lost brothers in later versions (Bidasari is raised by a merchant family, but was lost as an infant, with no parallel to the flight-and-shelter plot)


The number seven is significant: in The Young Slave, Snow White, The Death of the Seven Dwarfs, and versions collected later


The jealous mother-figure prepares a poison: in Cymbeline, Richilde, Snow White, and versions collected later


The physician enlisted to help prepare the poison sabotages it: in Cymbeline and Richilde


A female peddler or similar character is a threat to the heroine: in Metamorphoses, the Brothers Grimm's Snow White, The Death of the Seven Dwarfs, and versions collected later


The heroine falls into an enchanted sleep and appears dead: in Cymbeline, The Young Slave, Bidasari, Richilde, both versions of Snow White, and versions collected later (Chione in Metamorphoses is never thought dead, though the enchanted sleep does occur)


A comb is associated with either the heroine's enchanted sleep or an earlier attempt on her life: in The Young Slave, Richilde, the Brothers Grimm's Snow White, and versions collected later


She is placed in one or more crystal caskets: in The Young Slave, both versions of Snow White, and versions collected later


She wakes next to a freshly slain corpse: in Gerard and Cymbeline


She is awoken from the enchanted sleep: naturally in Cymbeline, accidentally in The Young Slave and Snow White, deliberately in Bidasari and Richilde, with parallels to all in versions collected later


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