The Royal Shakespeare Company’s project to celebrate the myth and magic of the influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Report, 22 April) will draw upon the roots of classical culture that undoubtedly run deep in Shakespeare’s plays. But deeper still run the wellsprings of fireside tales imbibed since childhood in the myths and magic of folklore and fairytale.
The Taming of the Shrew echoes common themes found in ballads such as The Farmer’s Curst Wife or The Devil and the Ploughman, and tales such as that of the Welsh water spirit Nicky Nicky Nye, and even in the Hindu fables collected in The Panchatantra. Hamlet draws on the Viking saga of Amleth; Romeo and Juliet contains elements of the Scots tale The Stone of Roses; King Lear is based on the founder of Leicester (Lir’s castle) with fairytale themes including Cap-o-Rushes or Cinderella. Other mythical characters featured in the plays include Robin Hood in As You Like It, Puck and Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Herne the Hunter in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Common culture and classical allusion were all grist to the mill of a man whose great talent lay in telling good tales and telling them well.
• George Talbot (Letters, 22 April) makes some good points about bereavement and mental health but his thoughts about gods need challenging. As our species acquired verbal language, rivers and springs, fire and water, seedtime and harvest, growth and decay became subjects for language, and personification was almost universal.
The names of both the Thames and the Severn for example, derive from Celtic names given to these great forces for good and ill, beyond human control. As human life and language became more complex, personification, a form of metaphor, was used to talk of love, rage and holiness.
In The Dry Salvages (the third poem of his Four Quartets), TS Eliot develops the personification of the river as a “strong brown god”. He makes the point that although the “dwellers in cities” have almost forgotten the brown god, the river, with its seasons and “rages”, continues implacable, a reminder “of what men choose to forget”.
As a species, as individuals, families and communities, we forget and remember many things. Our ancestors held things holy that we take for granted: that doesn’t mean they were wrong, or that we should project our problems on to them.
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