Shakespeare’s Narrative Sources: Italian Novellas and Their European Dissemination


Pierre Boaistuau (Nantes, 1517 – Paris, 1566), also known as Launay, studied civil and canon law in the universities of Poitiers, Valence and Avignon, and later worked as a secretary of the French ambassador to the East Jean-Jacques of Cambrai. He was mainly active in the French literary scene in the late 1550s and early 1560s. As an author, he dealt with the topics of dignitas and miseria hominis, in works such as Le Théâtre du Monde and the Bref Discours de l’Excellence et dignité de l’homme. He is also responsible for the publication of the first (and very controversial) edition of Marguerite of Navarre’s short stories (Histoires des amans fortunez, 1558), which was supplanted, the following year, by a much more accurate and complete edition by Claude Gruget, under the title of Heptameron. Nowadays, Boaistuau is mainly known for his activity as a translator (albeit a very unfaithful one) of Matteo Bandello’s Novelle, and for giving birth, thanks to his adaptation of his Italian source material, to a new literary genre, the “histoire tragique”.

England played quite an important role at the end of Boaistuau’s life. As a Protestant, and like many other French Protestants, he viewed Queen Elizabeth I as a “bouclier” (shield) of the Reformed faith. He therefore planned to offer her a special edition of the Histoires tragiques (which he eventually failed to do), and finally offered her, as a New Year gift, a manuscript of his Histoires prodigieuses, which is now kept at the Wellcome Library in London. The Histoires prodigieuses were very successful and spawned several additions and continuations throughout the second half of the 16th century.

More information about Pierre Boaistuau’s life, and in particular his relations with England, can be found in the introduction to the modern edition of the Histoires prodigieuses by Stephen Bamforth (Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses (édition de 1561), éd. critique, introduction par S. Bamforth, texte établi par S. Bamforth et annoté par J. Céard, Geneva, Droz, « Textes Littéraires Français », 605, 2010).