by Marcu Beza


Now, going back to a celebrated book, the fountain-head of Shakespeare and others, I mean Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, one would realize in what manner some of the old stories found their way and were incorporated in the pages of that fanciful chronicler. Speaking of King Vortigern, Geoffrey of Monmouth says:

"He took counsel of his wizards and bade them tell him what he should do. They told him that he ought to build him a tower exceeding strong, as all his other castles he had lost. He sought accordingly in all manner of places to find one fit for such a purpose and came at last unto Mount Eryri, where, assembling a great gang of masons from divers countries, he bade them build the tower. The stonemasons, accordingly, came together and began to lay the foundations thereof but whatsoever they wrought one day was all swallowed up by the soil the next, in such sort as that they knew not whither their work had vanished unto. And when word was brought hereof unto Vortigern, he again held counsel with his wizards to tell him the reason thereof. So they told him that he must go search for a lad that had never a father, and when he had found him should slay him and sprinkle his blood over the mortar and the stones. . . ."1

We have here the version of a widespread Balkan legend, derived from the primeval custom of sacrificing a human being at the foundation of a great edifice, be it a tower, a bridge, or a temple. It applies in Roumania to the Argesh Monastery. A prince of Wallachia, Radu Negru, directed the famous architect Manole to build it for him. And Manole with his nine master-masons started work at once. But whatever they did crumbled down by night. On the verge of despair Manole dreamt of all his efforts being in vain, unless he walled up one of the women alive—which had to be done.

There is a sequel to this legend. Once the monastery was finished, Prince Radu Negru removed the scaffold­ings, leaving Manole to perish there, that he might not erect another similar monastery. Then Manole attempted to fly from the top of the building on a pair of wooden wings; he failed and fell down dead.

Taking into consideration that this same episode is also found under a much older form in the Isle of Chios, where it is told of a King Scelerion that he built a tower for his daughter, Omorphia, and that at the end the master-mason, having flown on wings of his own contrivance, was drowned in a river below the tower2—it is more than probable that it came from the East and it was but fathered on King Bladud, the builder of Bath, in the words of Geoffrey of Monmouth:

"He was a right cunning craftsman, and did teach nigromancy throughout the realm of Britain, nor did he stint of his subtle sleights until he had fashioned him wings and tried to go upon the top of the air, when he fell upon the temple of Apollo in the city of Trinovantum, and was dashed into many pieces."

Then the author of Historia Regum Britanniae goes on to speak about King Bladud's son Lear and his three daughters—a folk-tale still extant in Roumania. It inspired one of our distinguished dramatists, Victor Eftimiu, to write a play, of which the opening resembles that of Shakespeare's King Lear. We see the old king in a fully attended court awaiting the suitors of his daughters. One by one they arrive. The two elder daughters elect husbands from amongst them, signifying each her approval by the throw of a golden apple. When the turn of the youngest comes, the king is startled by her refusal. Nothing would induce her to wed but for love. Thereupon the king banishes her; and alone, with the golden apple in one hand, she wonders to herself:

Golden apple,  golden apple,  who is going to be my chosen one!

The golden apple device became frequent in Roumanian folk-lore through the translation of a well-known medieval book, Fiore di Virtù, which contained among other things the story of Kasia. When Theophilus ascended the throne of Byzantium in the year 829, he was unmarried. Consequently messengers went throughout the empire to fetch the most beautiful virgins. They were all invited to a feast in the palace, where Theophilus appeared amongst them with a golden apple. His eyes first fell upon Kasia whom he approached, remarking: "Woman is the cause of all evil."

"Yes," she promptly replied, "but woman is also the cause of all good."

Theophilus, seeing himself outwitted by this young person,  turned from her and presented the golden apple to Theodora. Then Kasia embraced the latter, saying: "O Theodora, you are now the Empress of the world, but I shall be even greater than you." Indeed, she retired to a convent and won for herself the empire of heaven.

How much historical truth there is in the story of Kasia, I cannot say; but of one thing I am certain, that the golden apple is an addition borrowed from folk­lore. As in this case, so with King Lear; a whole popular story came to be associated with his legendary figure. The Roumanian version of the tale does not mention names at all. It speaks solely of a king, seized once by a strange whim to inquire of his three daughters how much they loved him. "Just as I love honey," replied the eldest; "As I love sugar," the second one. And their father was delighted, thinking that there could not be anything sweeter than honey and sugar. Therefore, when the youngest daughter, in her shy, unflattering manner, dared open her mouth to say that she loved him as one loves the salt in one's meat, the king burst into wrath and banished her from the palace. Later, however, bitter experience and humiliation brought the king to realize that his youngest daughter's was indeed the real and enduring sort of love.

Of course, as in many folk-tales, there is a moral implied, though not expressed here, namely, that one must not judge people from their speech; if one does, sooner or later one has to pay for it. Shakespeare kept these essentials in view when he dramatized the theme and his artistic sense led him to see no advantage in justifying King Lear's demeanour towards his daughters at the beginning of the play.

From Geoffrey of Monmouth there have come down also a few notes on Cymbeline. But for his play, as one well knows, Shakespeare made use of Boccaccio's story3 which is but a fairy-tale found as such among the Vlachs in Macedonia:

A rich man called Furláni, in conversation with some friends, comes to praise the chastity of his wife, Alba. The assertion is denied by one of his friends, who even wagers with Furláni that he is capable of winning the favours of Alba. To this end he ensures the assistance of a wicked old woman who carries him in a chest to Alba's bedroom. The device permits him to steal a little watch belonging to Alba and also tell Furláni of a hidden mark upon her body. Furláni loses the wager and casts away his wife. The latter is rescued by a shepherd and now from a tree in the forest she chances to listen to the exploits of a group of devils:

C. NOTTARA as King Lear

"I blinded the emperor," says one.

"You haven't done much," retorts their chief. "Were one to rub two or three leaves of this tree over his eyes, he would recover his sight." And, turning to another devil: "What about you?"

"I . . . well, you know of one Furláni and of his virtuous Alba. . . ."

He then discloses all the facts about the wager, the old woman, the chest. In the morning Alba takes a few leaves of the tree and proceeds to cure the emperor, who rewards her with the title of Pasha in her own town. And thus in the attire of a young man, like Shakespeare's Imogen, she returns to prove her innocence.4

The action in Boccaccio, just like here, turns mainly on Ginevra's suspected virtue. It will be remembered how Ambrose slipped out from the chest, carefullv observed everything in the room and, approaching the bed, saw a mole on her left breast—an excellent sign, to which he added a few things he had taken away, and he returned with a full story to Ginevra's husband. The latter admitted both the description of his wife's room and the things brought as appertaining to her; but he observed that Ambrose might have obtained them from one of the servants. Replied Ambrose: "Truly this ought to satisfy you; since, however, you would have me say more, know then that your wife has a mole upon her left breast."

Shakespeare made a great deal of this incident, laid stress upon it and raised it to a higher plane, where I seem to catch something more than Boccaccio's implications—a far-away echo of a ballad. I am acquainted with three versions in the Vlach dialect, all concerned with a home-returning wayfarer, who, after a long absence, is questioned by his own wife:

"If thou art in truth my husband, tell me the fashion of my house."

"An apple-tree grows in the garden and a vine at the gate."

"That's known of all the neighbours and every one may know it; tell me what signs my body bears, that I may be assured."

"Thou hast a mole on the chest. . .

To the above line about the apple-tree a Greek parallel adds:

"Thou hast a golden candlestick that stands within thy chamber."5

I. BREZEANU as the Fool in King Lear

Now compare this ballad with Shakespeare's own scene, divested partly of its ornamentation. When Iachimo starts to describe the bedroom, says Posthumus:

    This is true;
    And this you might have heard of here, by me,
    Or by some other. . . .
Iach. The chimney
    Is south the chamber; and the chimney-piece . . .
Post. This is a thing
    Which you might from relation likewise reap,
    Being, as it is, much spoke of.

After Iachimo had shown him the bracelet and the ring:

Post. Render to me some corporal sign about her
    More evident than this. . . .
Iach. If you seek
    For further satisfying, under her breast—
    Worthy the pressing—lies a mole. . . .

1 Sebastian Evans's translation in Everyman's Library, pp. 112-13.
2 Modern Creek Folk-lore and Ancient Greek Religion, by John Cuthbert Lawson,
   p. 168, Cambridge, 1910. -B 9
3 The Decameron, Second Day. novel ix. 12
4 Basme Aromâne, by P. Papahagi, pp. 346-51, Bucharest, 1905.
5 See my Paganism in Roumanian Folklore, pp. 152-4, London, 1928.