by Marcu Beza


Shakespeare was a man of the Renaissance and he shared with his great contemporaries a delight and interest in folk-lore, which he used either as flowerlike adornment or as material for his plays. Referring to a song of yore:

The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones,
use to chant it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.

So the Duke says in Twelfth Night which, like other Shakespearean plays, abounds in popular snatches. This side of Shakespeare has to be particularly emphasized when one deals with him in relation to foreign countries; because at their best folk-productions make for understanding: partly they are more or less alike everywhere and partly, rising above transitory fashions and conventions, they appeal through their sheer humanity to any one, irrespective of place or age.

I. BREZEANU as Shylock

No doubt, one cannot easily distinguish between what is popular and what is literary; they often merge into each other. It may even happen that stories or mere incidents detach themselves from written books and enter the folk domain, sometimes undergoing such transformations that one is really puzzled as to their original source. I will take an example which leads me on to my subject.

A Roumanian who writes in French, Princess Bibescu, in her book entitled Isvor gives us a tale heard from a peasant woman in Roumania.   It runs as follows:

The only son of an emperor was seized on his wedding day by a sudden impulse to flee away from his surroundings. Returning the ring to his bride and exchanging garments with a beggar, he sought unrecognized a monastery. Later he became a hermit and, after many years of solitary life, he started back home. And lo, he met on the road his own father, before whom he knelt and said: "O Lord Emperor, take me into thy house for I have heard that thou hast also a son wandering through the world." The emperor spoke: "Let him be taken into my house." The attendants lodged him in a swineherd's hovel. And then one morning the bells began to ring all of their own accord and a voice called from above: "Bear the Man of God to the church, for his soul has left his body." The emperor found the poor stranger dead, holding in his hand a paper with the story of his life written therein. At the end of it were these words as signature: "I am your long-lost son, Alexis."

After relating the story at length, Princess Bibescu asks herself: "Who is this Alexis? A solar myth? The spring ? A new personification, or one more ancient, of Pandora ? Or is he a lover faithful to love, fearing to substitute for the image of the ideal bride which every man carries in his heart, the tangible one given him by his parents ?"1

Well, nothing of the kind. Alexis or Alexius ranks among the saints and his life is comprised in the Gesta Romanorum2 as well as in. Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea, translated into English by William Caxton in 1483. For a long time The Lives of the Saints enjoyed such favour amongst the people of Roumania that to this day some of them, like the story of Alexis, are told as regular folk-tales with no relation whatever to the printed work which first put them into circulation. But, besides The Lives of the Saints, there were once other books of wide popularity both in England and Roumania; as, for instance, Alexander the Great and the Story of Troy. The latter came into Roumanian literature through a Byzantine medium and also through the versified romance of Benoit de Sainte-Maure, which accounted not a little for Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and for those exquisite lines in The Merchant of Venice:

in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Trojan walls,
And sigh'd his soul towards the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.

Apart from books, however, one has to bear in mind that from the time of the Crusaders England was open to a continuous influx of stories, legends, adventurous exploits from the East. And how eager Elizabethan dramatists were to seize upon any small incident or suggestion which savoured to them of remote glamour, can be seen from the following examples connected with Roumania. In an old account of travels, William Lithgow speaks about a Moldavian prince whom he chanced to meet at Constantinople:

"I cannot but regret the great loss Sir Thomas Glover, then Lord Ambassador for our late gracious Sovereign King James, received by the Duke of Moldavia, who chargeably entertained him two years in his house, and furnished him with money, and other necessities fit for his Eminency."3

This Duke of Moldavia was identified with one Stephen Bogdan, whose father, Iancu Sasul, after a troubled rule of three years in Moldavia, fled with his family to Poland. For many years Stephen Bogdan went about from Constantinople to Venice and London, where his Oriental appearance in 1607, with the deceitful air of grief for a lost throne, must have created somewhat of a sensation; so much so that shortly we see Ben Jonson alluding to him in The Silent Woman:

Clerimont. How maps of persons!
Yes, sir, of Nomentack when he was here, and of the prince of
     Moldavia, and of his mistress, mistress Epicoene.

Also Beaumont and Fletcher in The Knight of the Burning Pestle mention the hall in the palace of the same Moldavian prince, whose daughter, Pompiona, thus greets the knightly guest:

Welcome, Sir Knight, unto my father's court,
King of Moldavia; unto me, Pompiona,
daughter dear!

Then Shakespeare himself, I do not know whence he obtained the name of Transylvania, which may have sounded rather picturesque, for he introduced it into the scene of the house of ill-fame in Pericles.

The poor Transylvanian is dead, that lay with the little baggage,

though the action of the play takes place many centuries before Transylvania was known as such.

Much Ado about Nothing, Act V, Scene iii

1 pp. 225-31, English translation by Hamish Miles, London, 1924.
Tale xv, Broadway Translations, by Charles Swan, London.
The Totall Discourse of the Rare Adventures, p. 140, London, ed. 1632.