Research Stream


Ciara Rawnsley
The University of Western Australia

Robert White
The University of Western Australia

Happily Ever After? Shakespeare's Use of Folk and Fairy Tales as Sources for his Plays

This project investigates Shakespeare's use of old oral folk and fairy tales as sources for his plays, arguing that the dramatist drew on these popular narratives not only for their tried and tested plotlines, but for their ability to connect with audiences on a personal and emotional level.

Happily Ever After? Shakespeare’s use of folk and fairy tales as sources for his plays

Image: Etching by George Cruikshank, from J. Grimm, German Popular Stories: translated from the Kinder und Haus Marchen (London: Published by C. Baldwyn, 1823-6), vol. 2

This project investigates Shakespeare's use of folk- and fairy tales as sources for his plays. That Shakespeare seems to have preferred reworking established tales to inventing his own is well-known. But the sources usually discussed are in written, literary forms which are still accessible. 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 project 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. The project 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, Cymbeline, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the three plays discussed in detail. 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 artfully to complicate and darken his apparently ‘innocent’ dramatic actions, creating new and disturbing affective resonances in characters and audience alike.


Peer-Reviewed Articles

Rawnsley, Ciara. 'Behind the Happily-Ever-After: Shakespeare’s Use of Fairy Tales and All’s Well That Ends Well'. Journal of Early Modern Studies 2 (2013): 141‒58.

Peer-Reviewed Book Chapters

Rawnsley, Ciara and R. S. White. 'Discrepant Emotional Awareness in Shakespeare'. In The Renaissance of Emotion: Understanding Affect in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, edited by Richard Meek and Erin Sullivan, chapter 11. London: Manchester University Press, 2015

Rawnsley, Ciara. 'Once upon a Time: Cymbeline, fairy tales, and "the terrifying truths of the inner life”'. In Shakespeare and Emotions – Inheritances, Enactments, Legacies, edited by R. S. White, Mark Houlahan and Katrina O’Loughlin. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Peer-Reviewed Books

Barclay, K., Ciara Rawnsley and Kimberly Reynolds, eds. Death, Emotion and Childhood in Premodern Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Rawnsley, Ciara. 'An ancient tale new told': Shakespeare’s Use of Folk- and Fairy Tales as Sources for his Plays. Under consideration with Cambridge University Press