Did Shakespeare inspire Disney?

Henry Meynell Rheam
Henry Meynell Rheam

The origin story of the fairy-tale we know as “Sleeping Beauty” is the stuff of nightmares. The earliest known written horror-story account follows decades of oral tradition. God only knows what people must of thought of the French troubadours who recounted this gruesome tale.

If you’ve never encountered Giambattista Basile’s 1634 story, “Sun, Moon, and Talia”, consider yourself lucky. His is is so far removed from what we know as now it’s hardly surprising Basile’s name is lost to the ages. And if he made it up, good riddance sir!

In Basile’s story, the young sleeping princess is found not by a young prince, but by a married king who rapes the comatose girl and then returns home as if nothing out of ordinary had just happened. Unfortunately for the king, he is married to a heartless shrew and begins to think about the girl who just lay there. And the story only gets worse from there! In short:

The young princess gives birth to twins one of whom suckles her finger causing the enchanted splinter to fall out, which in turns causes the princess to wake up and see that she inexplicably has two babies at her breast. The king comes back, tells her what he has done, and promises to find a way to bring her to his castle, because for reasons that defy explanation, the two fall in love. The story only gets worse from there! The queen finds out about the princess and her children. She is furious and demands to have the babies brought to her so that she can have them cooked and feed them to the king. The cook (the only decent person in the story) decides against cooking the children and instead tells the king of his wife’s plan. In the end the king, the princess, and children all live happily ever after.

Thankfully, by the time the Grimm brothers recounted the tale as “Brier-Rose” all mention of rape and cannibalism is gone. Their story is one in which the young princess sleeps for “many long years” until a passing prince, upon hearing about the beautiful girl, decides to find her and behold her beauty for himself. He awakens her with a kiss and they live happily ever after.

What does this have to do with Shakespeare? He my have had some influence on Disney’s 1959 version of the story. This thought occurred to me as I listened to an audio version of “The Winter’s Tale”.

Disney could have easily used the Grimm version of the tale, yet they chose to have their prince be someone who would have married the princess anyway. As you may recall, the two were betrothed right after she was born. This version did not have the grieving parents die childless; rather, everyone lived happily ever after. But only after some “Winter Tale” like mishaps.

If memory serves, Aurora is singing "Once upon a dream" when the princes encounters her
If memory serves, Aurora is singing “Once upon a dream” when the princes encounters her

In both tales, a young princess is brought up thinking she is a shepherdess.  In both tales a young prince falls in love with the shepherdess due of her beauty and singing voice. In both tales the two would have been wed since their fathers were good friends. In both tales the prince is forbidden to see her again, but because both end on happy notes, it is assumed both pairs marry. And to add more fuel to the speculation fire, Florizell (the prince in Shakespeare’s play) calls Perdita (the princess) “Flora”. “No shepherdess, but Flora peering in April’s front”. Flora is the name of one of the three fairies tasked with keeping Aurora (the Disney princess) safe. In case you forgot, they are: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.

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This is all wild speculation on my part. I have no idea if the writers of “Sleeping Beauty” had Shakespeare in mind when they came up with their plot, but if so, we have yet another example of Shakespeare’s influence on modern pop culture. Thankfully they left out the bear.

Works referenced

D. L. Ashliman’s Folktexts, University of Pittsburgh.

Lit2Go, Grimm Brothers Sleeping Beauty

William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale. Folger Press

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

1 thought on “Did Shakespeare inspire Disney?”

  1. Interesting coincidences — if coincidences they are! There are other fairytale echoes in the treatment of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale of course: she is like both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in that she is discovered in the semblance of ‘death’ –as a statue this time — after a period of absence, but not before she had given birth to Perdita.

    Liked by 1 person

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