In terms of its plot, The Old Wives Tale fully confirms the promise of its title, which, besides acting as a marker of the play’s implausible and inconsequential quality, is also an accurate definition of what it actually is: a tale of romance, fantasy, magic and adventure told by a old woman to while away a dark winter’s night. Three pages, Antic, Frolic and Fantastic, abandoned by their (possibly) newly-wed master and left to wander miserably through a forest, happily stumble into the house of a Smith. Inviting them to taste of the comforts of a barking dog, ‘a good fire to sit by’ (1.41), pudding and cheese, and hot spiced ale, the Smith introduces them to the Old Woman, the wife of the title; the pages clamour for ‘a merry winter’s tale’ which ‘would drive away the time trimly’ (1.70). As the Smith coaxes one of the pages offstage to take an ‘unnatural rest’ in a shared bed, the Old Woman embarks upon a rambling account of ‘a king, or a lord, or a duke that had a fair daughter’, of ‘a conjurer’ who ‘turned himself into a great dragon and carried the king’s daughter away in his mouth’ (1.102–3) to a stone castle, and of her two brothers sent in pursuit. Before she can go any further, the brothers themselves materialise onstage; the Old Woman’s narrative within drama dissolves into a play within a play.
KeywordsScallop Shell Good Fire Golden Tree Good Wine Good Fellow
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