Put to the Test: The Folk-Tale Motif of the "Test to Prove Worthiness" in Three of Shakespeare's Comedies
Critics have recognised folk‐tales as being among the varied sources Shakespeare has mined for the plots of his plays. However, this recognition has often formed the basis of an argument which seeks to excuse what are perceived as flaws in Shakespeare’s plays, for example claiming that humanised characters jostle against their folk‐tale or popular culture archetypes, or that friction is generated when a folk‐tale plot is placed into a realistic setting. There has been little examination of Shakespeare’s relationship to his sources from folk‐tale, and so in this thesis I use the motif of the “test imposed to prove worthiness” (Stith Thompson’s Motif H900) as an example of the way Shakespeare develops, doubles and ultimately subverts these sources. I examine three comedies which employ this motif: The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice and All’s Well That Ends Well. In the first play I argue that the testing of Katherina’s obedience rebounds to test Petruccio’s masculinity. In The Merchant, I argue that the casket test and doubled ring test play a crucial role in the development of Bassanio’s worthiness and loyalty, simultaneously casting doubt on Portia’s faithfulness. Finally, in relation to All’s Well, I argue that the test motif and by extension its folk‐tale sources are subverted so that the impossible tasks rebound not only on Bertram, but on the play as a whole, testing the genres of romance and realism. I find that testing cycles have a structural function as they fall between the couples’ weddings and consummations. Because of this placement, they are linked to private and public anxieties about sexuality and fidelity, in turn demonstrating their thematic function. The development, doubling and subversion of folk‐tales allow Shakespeare to explore ideas fully, often contrapuntally. Thus, my thesis seeks to address the gap in the critical studies by contending that Shakespeare makes innovative use of his folk‐tale sources. While ambiguity is certainly generated in each of the three plays, this is a deliberate effect rather than a flaw; no apology is required.